Power of Groups

groupsBy Marci Mayer Eisen, MSW

I want people to recognize the power of a group/team/ committee/board – or leadership program, to change lives, influence organizations and inspire communities. I wrote about “The Power of Belonging” in the past and I am motivated to further reflect on the topic of group dynamics, especially since it is more often framed as an academic subject, rather than one that is personal. In order to integrate the skills for successful community engagement we need to experience the complexities of group dynamics.

Only with successful decision making groups can we create the kind of experiences for community engagement and leadership development we desire as professionals, lay leaders and participants.

Groups can be scary and difficult to navigate. We’re afraid to speak up or we talk too much. We do not listen well to others when we’re thinking about what we want to say. We judge and we’re feeling judged. We worry and we deeply care. Perhaps we’re either not getting what we need from the group experience, or we’re not contributing in the way we had hoped to help the group reach its goals. We yearn for that special staff team or board that balances engagement with powerful decision making.

At Wurzweiler School of Social Work many years ago, I took a class called group process. I was a first year grad student who wanted a career in a JCC so I was really excited about this class. I naively thought it would be like camp or BBYO where we did group activities and games, values clarification exercises, and analyzed different roles, like who was the leader or how to make better decisions.

It wasn’t any of that. 15 of us walked in that first day of class to nothing but a circle of chairs. I thought the professor would ask for introductions, hand out a syllabus and talk about learning goals and grading. How wrong I was. The professor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Tokayer, said nothing. Nothing. After about 10 or 15 minutes of complete silence (the kind of silence that you want to go through the floor or run out of the room), one brave classmate asked, “What are we doing here?” Professor Tokayer calmly responded, “What do you want to do?” More silence. Was it a trick?

I was scared and self-conscious. Every question posed by a classmate was met with a question from Rabbi Dr. Tokayer, putting all of the responsibility back on the group. “What are we supposed to be learning,” someone asked. “What do you want to learn,” the professor responded.

I thought more than once, maybe I really don’t want to be a social group worker.

Most of what went on that semester, I didn’t understand until months or even many years later. Without one lecture, article or assignment that I can remember, the class to learn about group process, taught us what it felt like to be exposed within a group. We couldn’t hide or leave. Some of my classmates stepped forward to actively lead discussions and encourage dialogue. Some talked occasionally. And others, like me, said nothing.

But while I was just an observer, I absorbed a lot. Most importantly, I experienced first-hand the anxiety of feeling left out and the benefits of belonging. Over the following years, I learned how to help others connect to one another, feel safe to express different views, promote respectful conversations and ensure that self-confidence is nurtured. I also recognized that only through the right environment can members both contribute and feel satisfaction, while simultaneously fulfilling the organization’s goals.

This class where I was forced to confront my own vulnerabilities became one of the inspirations for my career as a community builder. I’ve worked with teams that fell short and teams that changed lives. I’ve experienced committees that surpassed expectations and others where people didn’t return. And programs where we struggled to create group cohesiveness, and in the end, achieved a higher purpose that we never could have initially imagined was possible. When conferring with colleagues across the country, we often share that when alumni of our most prestigious and dynamic leadership programs are asked to reflect on their experiences, we are not surprised to hear that they first refer to the relationships.

To this day I continue to analyze my role in every meeting. Was I helpful to the individuals and the group as a whole? And while I will always question if I am contributing my best professional self (and appreciate when I’m told that I fell short), after that group process class so many years ago, I never again felt afraid in a group.

I recognize that engagement methods in 2015 look different than in the past. At the same time, human needs for feeling appreciated and contributing to society will never change. People-to-people connections, whether on-line, in a board room, a coffee shop, or in a dining room, provide the structure for community. Successful decision making requires professionals and volunteer leaders who have been trained to utilize group interaction as the foundation for community. We must teach, model, analyze and experience the skills required to share commitments to the mission and appreciation for each other. If those we are hoping to engage don’t find it with us, they will search for the connections they desire elsewhere. Ultimately, only through dynamic group experiences can we provide opportunities to belong, in order to find the friendships, networks, leadership roles, and community we desperately need to discover our unique self in the world.

Marci Mayer Eisen, MSW, is Director of Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Millstone Institute.