What is group counseling?

A counseling group is usually comprised of six to eight students who meet face to face with one or two trained group therapists and talk about what most concerns them. Members listen to each other and openly express thoughts and feelings about what other members do or say. These interactions give members an opportunity to increase understanding of self and others, try out new ways of being with others, and learn more effective ways to interact. The content of the group sessions is absolutely confidential; members must commit to confidentiality: that is they may talk about their own experience with whom they choose, but may not identify other members or what they say outside of group.

Why does group counseling work?

When people interact freely with other group members, they tend to recreate the same patterns of interactions that happen to them outside of the group. This creates the opportunity for meaningful change or increased self acceptance. With the help of the group leaders, members learn how their behavior affects other people. The group becomes a safe place to experiment with alternative ways of treating oneself and others, ways that can be more satisfying and successful. Many of us feel we are somehow weird or strange or that some aspect of ourselves seems unacceptable because of our problems, or thoughts, or the ways we feel.  It is very encouraging and humanizing to learn that others have some similar difficulties, thoughts, and emotions. The focus shifts from considering ourselves defective to learning to live our lives as fully and richly as we can.

What do I talk about?

Talk about what initially brought you to Counseling and Consultation Services. Tell the group members what most bothers, worries, or concerns you -- the things that affect your self identity. If you need understanding, let the group know. If you think you need pointed feedback about something you say or do that seems to have a negative impact, you can let them know that. It is important to learn ways to tell people what you expect of them. Unexpressed feelings are a major reason people experience difficulties. Revealing feelings -- self disclosure -- is an important part of group and affects how much you will gain from the group experience. The most useful disclosures are those that relate directly to your present concerns and how you feel about yourself. How much you talk about yourself is your decision; it will depend in part on your own comfort level and how much you are committed to change in a given area. If you have questions about what might or might not be helpful, you can always ask the group leaders and/or fellow members for guidance.

Nature of group counseling

  1. Participation in the group
    You control, and are ultimately responsible for, what, how much, and when you tell the group about yourself. The more you become involved, the more you are likely to benefit.
    • Most people find that when they feel safe enough to share personal issues, counseling groups are very affirming.
    • Many people are helped by listening to others and thinking about how what others say applies to themselves.
  2. Advantages of group counseling
    Ways that group counseling may be more enriching for some than individual counseling include:
    • You can benefit from the group even during sessions when you say little but listen carefully to others. You will find that you have some important things in common with other group members, and as others work on their concerns, you will learn much about yourself. In the group environment, others serve as “mirrors” who reflect aspects of yourself which you can recognize, and then choose to change or accept as they are.
    • Group members will bring up issues that strike a chord in you, issues of which you may not have been aware.
    • A natural process of enhanced acceptance of self and others occurs as one learns to relate on deeper, more personal levels with others in the group.
    • The group provides an opportunity for personal experimentation.  It is a safe place to risk learning more about yourself and new ways of interacting.
  3. Group atmosphere
    • The first group task is to establish an atmosphere of safety and respect. Group leaders are trained to help the group develop into such an environment.
    • An important benefit of group counseling is the opportunity to receive feedback from others in a supportive environment. It is rare to find friends who will gently point out how you may be behaving in ways that can be hurtful to yourself and others.  This is a unique benefit of a therapy group. The leaders will help members give feedback in a direct, yet respectful way so that you can understand and utilize new awareness and experiences.
  4. Group counseling vs. individual counseling
    • Groups are often the most effective method to treat the types of concerns that university students face.
    • A common myth is that groups are somehow second rate treatment. Group counseling is recommended when your counselor believes that it is the best way to address your concerns.
    • People tend to find input from peers more meaningful for some things, and value “experts” more for other things. In a group, you get both.
    • Your counselor can discuss the advantages or disadvantages of a group for your particular concerns and needs.
  5. Fears about beginning
    • It is common for students to experience initial discomfort over the prospect of talking in group. This initial anxiety is normal. Most people have never been exposed to a group counseling environment and do not know what to expect. Almost without exception, members become comfortable as their group participation progresses.

What is expected of me?

If the group is to be effective, your commitment is key.  Here is what is expected of you:

  • Do not miss sessions. The group needs the continuity of the reliable presence of everyone involved. If you do have to miss, let the leader know in advance. And incidentally, many students have told us that the sessions they attended when they least felt like coming were among their most valuable.
  • Come on time and stay for the whole session (same reason as above).
  • Feelings, including those that seem negative or unacceptable, are an integral part of the group experience—an opportunity for unique learning. We encourage group participants to talk about them as openly as possible. Your group leaders will help you and other group members express difficult feelings in ways that are constructive and growth-producing.
  • Respect confidentiality. Who comes to the group and what they have to say must not be shared outside the group. This is crucial to promote a trusting, safe environment—the primary condition for any therapy to be valuable.
  • When you are ready to leave the group, let the group know of your decision before your last session so that unfinished business can be completed, goodbyes can be said, and a sense of closure reached. This is another significant learning aspect of therapy groups.