Personal and Professional Development Groups in Counselling and Psychotherapy Training: A Pluralistic Perspective
Julia McLeod, Marie-Clare Murphie, Kate Smith, Christine Kupfer and Mhairi Thurston (University of Abertay), Hanne Oddli (University of Oslo), Lynne Gabriel (York St John University), Mick Cooper (University of Roehampton)
What do personal and professional development (PPD) groups, on counselling and psychotherapy training courses, look like from a pluralistic perspective? How do they differ, for instance, from more person-centred process groups or ones that are based on psychodynamic principles?
A basic starting point for pluralism is that different people learn and develop in different ways. In addition, it assumes that people are agentic, intentional, and directional. Pluralism encourages shared decision-making and mutual understanding through facilitating dialogue and conversation around goals, tasks, and methods; and uses metacommunication and feedback to ensure that collaborative work stays on track.
There are many ways in which these principles can inform the design and delivery of personal and professional development (PPD) groups within counselling and psychotherapy training courses. Participation in such groups can provide students and trainees with first-hand experience of pluralistic processes and enable them to develop groupwork skills and awareness that can be applied in therapy and training contexts at later stages in their careers. Reflection on participation in pluralistic PPD groups can also offers opportunities for learning from the rich group process literature within humanistic, psychodynamic, and other traditions.
A Sense of Direction
A pluralistic PPD group is oriented toward the accomplishment of participants’ goals and directions. Early on, and throughout the group process, there is discussion of – and reference back to – the group aims. So rather than ‘going with the flow’, as a more classical person-centred PPD group might do, there would be some explicit dialogue about ‘what we are trying to do here’ and why. These aims might be shaped from the outside: for instance, on a course, the programme would likely have certain objectives for PD groups (for instance, stated in a Course Handbook or Groups Manual) – but these would be explicitly talked about and referred back to, rather than sitting more in the background. It is also important to think about each student’s internal aims and external aims/expectations and discuss these – perhaps linking to the idea of deliberate practice self-development. The group aims might diverge from the individual aims and some discussion should occur to recognise and accommodate this.
A Focus on Relational Development
Because it comprises multiple relationships that unfold in real time, being in a PPD allows students to develop an understanding of the relational dimensions of a pluralistic approach: for instance, engendering collaborative and dialogical practice and eliciting personal and relational agency. This process has the potential not only to support group interaction but also to contribute to the development of practitioners’ abilities to facilitate collaborative therapy relationships.
Agreeing Tasks and Methods
The tasks/methods of the group would be up for negotiation and discussion at an early stage, in relation to the group aims. For instance, if it were agreed that the group was about developing self-awareness, members might bring in ideas about how that could be done (e.g., drawing timeline, sharing important events in one’s life), and discussion would happen about the kinds of methods that the group would like to try out. The pluralistically-oriented student textbook, Personal and Professional Development: A Practical Guide for Counsellors, Psychotherapists and Mental Health Practitioners (John McLeod and Julia McLeod, Open University Press, 2013) provides a rich source of tasks that can be negotiated and used in personal and professional development groups.
When working with a task, a group needs to not only decided and agree to engage with it, but also to share understandings of the purpose, scope, and expectations of the task (possibly including adapting the task in the light of preferences and needs of members); agree the methods to be used in pursuing the task; and to allow space to check in at the end to review the outcomes of the experience.
Valuing Multiple Perspectives
Multiple perspectives on what the group is trying to do, and how to get there, are valued and respected by a pluralistic facilitator. That is, the facilitator strives to not hold a ‘norm’ about what the group should be and how to get there: whether, for instance, that it was ‘best’ to allow things to flow naturally, or set goals, or work with unconscious processes. That is not to say that the group would not adopt certain ways of doing things, but it would be a question of what the group felt was the most helpful way towards achieving its particular aims, not the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of any particular method, per se. In essence, the facilitator works with group members to tailor each group session to the needs of the unique set of participants.
The Challenge of Negotiating across Multiple Perspectives
Negotiating across multiple perspectives is likely to be a challenge in any pluralistically-informed group. In one-to-one therapy, you’re working with one person’s needs. In a group context, there’s multiple needs, and what one person wants and prefers may directly contradict another’s wants and preferences. The role of the facilitator would be to help the group address this respectfully and, ideally, find potential synergies (or, if not, compromises) between differing wants in the group. The facilitator supports the group to understand and acknowledge the multiple and complex paradoxical perspectives that play out in groups, plus within diverse peoples and perspectives. The group context provides a powerful medium through which diverse and multiple perspectives can be explored. Through this exploration, dialogical opportunities for the respectful resolution and co-existence of diverse perspectives can be created.
Flexible and Sensitive Leadership
The role of the facilitator is key to the initiation of the group, to help establish group norms and model collaboration and holding of multiple perspectives. It is essential for a facilitator to be flexibly able to transition between contrasting ‘leadership’ positions, such as initiating activities, providing structure, holding, observing, collaborating, and sharing personal experiences, as needed. During this process the student therapists learn to manage their own boundaries and voice, learn how they impact on others, and become able to engage in difference and discourse as a generative stance. Ultimately the goal of interrelating is that each member of the group should be equal, and a sensitivity to voice and power is essential – in many groups this may remain a direction of travel rather than an arrival point. The facilitator models an ability to navigate the need to undertake tasks and activities but also to observe and make space for reflection on emergent dynamics and patterns which might impact on the group aims. They should also be sensitive to power and inclusivity issues which should be addressed not just for student learning, but to retain an appropriate ethical stance.
Conclusion: The Contribution and Development of Pluralistic PPD
For trainers and students on pluralistic programmes it is, of course, important to think about what PPD groups look like from this perspective. But on other courses, too, a pluralistic perspective may have something to offer. Pluralism embraces a range of methods and many different methods can embrace pluralism. Above all, it’s about respecting differences and finding ways to talk through different perspectives so that everyone can get to the places that they need to be.
There is an established tradition of pluralistic PPD within the counsellor training programme at Abertay University, dating back 15 years. In the Abertay programme, an adapted version of the McLeod and McLeod (2013) textbook is used as a manual for group leaders and members. This functions in some respects in similar fashion to a decision tool in shared decision-making in health care. The Abertay PPD groups are embedded in other activities that support and extend their scope, such as students keeping learning journals, engaging in critical reflection on group experiences within assignments, eliciting feedback from tutors and fellow participants, and guided reading on group dynamics and therapist development. The operation of the Abertay PPD groups has evolved over time in a number of significant ways. For example, the sharing of autobiographical statements has emerged as a core activity in the early stages of a group, and there has been an emphasis in PPD groups in the later stages of the programme to function as settings to support the use of deliberate practice. Different group facilitators each have their own distinctive style of leading a group, which has created learning opportunities for the tutor team as a whole.
At the present time there is a limited evidence base for pluralistic PPD groups, or areas of innovation. In the wider group therapy literature, there have recent studies that have looked at how routine process and outcome scales can be adapted and applied to function as feedback measures and conversational tools in group contexts. It could be useful to try out some of these instruments, or modified versions of them, in pluralistic PPD groups. It could also be valuable to look at how goals forms might be used in similar fashion.