The Interactive Group Experience

Interactive Groups provide an exciting and powerful journey into psychological healing and personal growth through your relationships with the other group members. This is an intense and effective learning environment, because instead of just talking about how you relate to others, you learn from your interactions with the other group members, right in the moment. An Interactive Group is a vehicle for expressing and receiving love–acceptance, compassion, appreciation, caring, and intimacy—and bonding deeply with a group.

This article describes what it is like to be in an Interactive Group, from your first few weeks in the group to the stage when you are an old-timer with close relationships. It is intended to help you decide if you want to join one.

The Entrance Stage

I have divided this article according to the stages of development of a group, which are also the stages each person goes through when they join an existing group. There are four stages: Entrance, Inclusion, Mutuality, and Intimacy.

Checking Out the Group

The brief Entrance Stage begins when you join the group. During this stage you will check the group out to see if it is right for you. You may check me out to see if you feel that I am competent and caring. You may check out the Interactive mode to see if this style of group works for you. You will also be checking out the group members to see if you want to get close to them. During this stage you may be mostly observing and only occasionally making small forays out into the group. Or you may jump right in and get involved; this is best way to learn if the group is right for you.

Beginning to Participate

Your first participation might be to talk about what it feels like to be in the group. Most people feel a fair amount of anxiety at their first meeting. Some are also excited. It can be a relief to talk about whatever you are feeling.

For example, one person introduced himself as follows: “Hi, my name is Willie. I joined this group because I want to learn to be assertive without getting into so many fights with people. I also want to figure out what I’m doing wrong so that my love relationships don’t work out…. Boy am I nervous right now. This is hard talking to a group of strangers, especially about stuff like this.”

Almost everyone feels nervous and uneasy at the beginning of a group. At times you may also feel excited, connected, curious, cautious, or other things. It is helpful to simply express these feelings to the group when they come up. This is a valuable way to begin to learn how to be aware of your experience in the moment, which is an important skill in an Interactive Group. Invariably there will be other people who are feeling similarly.

At the beginning it is important to let the other group members know who you are. When you feel safe enough, tell them about the important issues in your life and why you have come to the group.

You also can begin by giving feedback to other people who have worked. For example, after Jill finished interacting with someone, you might say, “Jill, I really identified with your struggle to speak your mind instead of smoothing things over. That’s a big problem of mine. I appreciate the way you hung in there with your ideas instead of giving in.”

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

In addition to the Interactive modality, we also use IFS. IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each part has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. For example one part of you might want to speak up and be heard in the group and another part might be scared of doing that. We all have parts like the inner critic, the abandoned child, the pleaser, the angry part, and the loving caretaker.

It is helpful to speak in parts language in the group. For example, if you are feeling anxious about being in the group, you would say, “A part of me feels anxious about being in the group.” In this way, you recognize that this anxious feeling comes from just one part of you and other parts may feel differently. It also makes it easy to e4xplore the parts of you that are causing feelings or behavior that you want to change.

IFS recognizes two types of problematic parts—protectors try to keep us from feeling underlying pain, and exiles are child parts that carry underlying pain. IFS also recognizes that we each have a spiritual center, the Self, which is compassionate, understanding, and grounded. Through IFS you can learn to stay in Self, develop a relationship with each of your parts, and heal them.

The Interactive Format

We make a clear distinction between “interactive work” and “outside issues.” Interactive work doesn’t just mean that you talk to another group member. It means that you talk to them about your feelings toward them or about your relationship with them. It can also mean that you talk to the group about how you feel in the group. “Outside issues” involve sharing your psychological problems, what is happening in your life, or any other discussion. The focus of the group is on interactive work. Outside issues need to be brought up occasionally, but they are secondary to the interactive work. However, at the beginning of a group or when you first join, outside issues are more important because people are just getting to know you.

You learn about how you interact with people in your life by participating in the group. The group is a microcosm of your life, and almost all the interpersonal issues that you have in your life will arise sooner or later with someone in the group. You can learn about your issues in an immediate way through your awareness in the group and through feedback from others. You can also experiment with new behavior right in the moment during group. This is much more effective than just talking about your problems.

This focus on interactive work means that there isn’t much free floating discussion. Sometimes there are even silences in the group. During these, you may think about what work you want to initiate, or perhaps get up your courage to begin some difficult work. The group usually doesn’t focus on one person for a long period of time, and I don’t structure the group much. The group members initiate the work they need to do under my guidance. Once a piece of work begins, I am active in facilitating the work.

Your First Interaction

At some point I may encourage you to initiate some interactive work—to pick someone in the group and express your initial impressions of them or your reactions to them. After a short time in the group, you will have initial reactions to every person in the group, so it’s just a matter of picking someone to start with, probably someone that you feel safe talking to. The reactions you express can be positive or negative, big or little. Many people start out with positive reactions because they find these less threatening. This also helps to build initial trust and safety.

For example, you say, “Mary, I really like the way you come across. You seem really honest, and not afraid to say exactly what you are feeling. And you say it in a way that doesn’t offend people.” Then I ask you to tell her how that makes you feel toward her. You say, “I feel warmly toward you, and I feel like I can trust you.” Mary then responds with her reaction to what you said. For example, “Thank you. That makes me feel really good. I’ve been working on that for a long time. It’s nice to be recognized. I like you, too.”

Your first interaction might begin with someone in the group giving you their initial impressions of you. For example, John says, “It seems like you’re a nice person, but a part of me wonders if you would ever say anything negative even if you were feeling it. So far it seems like you’re mainly trying to please people.” It is then be your turn to respond. You might feel embarrassed (or hurt or angry) in response to what he said. If so, you say, “A part of me feels embarrassed by what you said.”

Or you might respond to the content of John’s perception of you, by saying whether you think you have been trying to please people in group. The dialogue between you and John continues until it came to a conclusion that is satisfactory for both of you. In the Entrance Stage, these interactions are usually brief.

Receiving Positive Feedback

One of your first interactions might involve receiving positive feedback. For example, Betty says, “I really like what I’ve seen of you so far. You seem warm and caring and really perceptive, especially for someone so new to the group. A part of me feels happy that you’ve been so understanding and supportive with me, you know, especially last week.” You might take in her feedback, allowing it to make you feel good about yourself, and respond to Betty in a warm way. Or you might get embarrassed or deflect the compliment. In that case, I would encourage you to examine why it was hard for you to take in her positive feedback. For example, a part of you might not feel worthy, or a part of you might feel afraid of the contact with Betty. You would then experiment with taking in Betty’s feelings and respond with your feelings toward her. A short dialogue would ensue.

After a while, you may decide that the group seems right for you. You decide that you like the interactive format. The group feels relatively safe and you decide that you want to be there. You are ready to begin taking some greater interactive risks. When you do this, you have moved ahead to the Inclusion Stage.

The Inclusion Stage

This stage deals with acceptance, power, and commitment. You work with the question of whether you are included in the group. You also begin to understand the group norms and the group culture. You learn about how people function psychologically, and you develop awareness and communication skills and the ability to tune into your parts.

Initiating Interactive Work

There are two ways to initiate interactive work in group. One is to allow yourself to respond in the moment when you have a reaction to something that happens in group. When a group member does something that generates feelings in a part of you, I encourage you to speak to that person about your reaction, so that you can benefit from exploring the part of you that got triggered at the moment it happens. Then you will have an interaction with that person.

The second way to initiate interactive work is to plan it before group. You can think through your feelings toward each person in group and notice whom you haven’t shared your feelings with. These don’t have to be strong feelings. They can be positive or negative feelings. You can bring up these feelings without waiting for something to trigger them in group. At the beginning of group, or when there is a pause, simply say that you have some work to do, and begin by telling the person what a part of you feels. An interaction will follow.

I will help you figure out how to initiate interactive work in my group consultations with you, especially at the beginning.

Awareness

“Awareness” is the ability to notice and label what you are feeling and experiencing at the moment it is happening. In most instances, this is no easy accomplishment! Of course if you are experiencing a very strong emotion, you will be aware of it. However, many of the feelings that are important are more subtle and harder to grasp. It is especially difficult to be aware of your feelings when you are in the middle of an intense interaction with someone, yet this is the time when it is most needed. Awareness is a skill to be developed over time. There are many levels of awareness; the first feeling you notice in a situation is only the beginning. As you become more adept at awareness, you will begin to be aware of subtler and deeper experiences, and you will begin to be able to identify the parts of you that are having these experiences.

For example, suppose Sandy tells Mike that she thinks he talks from his head too much and is out of touch with his feelings. At first Mike thinks about whether this is true. He is focusing on the content of what Sandy said, not his feelings. I suggest that Mike talk about his feeling response to Sandy. Then Mike becomes aware that a part of him feels resentful about what she said. At my suggestion he looks further and becomes aware that a different part of him feels hurt by Sandy. As he explores deeper he discovers that he likes Sandy and wants her to like him, so his hurt part is especially vulnerable to hearing something negative from her. Even deeper, he might realize that he was criticized a lot during his childhood, so his hurt part is an IFS exile (a wounded inner child part) that is sensitive to criticism. Now hearing criticism makes this part feel inadequate. Notice how many levels of awareness are possible.

Full Interaction

If Mike tells Sandy that a part of him is angry at her, he might get an angry response back and then the two of them would work on resolving the conflict. If he tells Sandy that a part of him is hurt because he wants her to like him, she might explain that she does like him, and that she was just responding from one part of her that has trouble with his being intellectual. Mike would have to decide if he believes her–if he thinks she really meant it when she said she liked him, or if he thinks she was just smoothing things over. If he tells Sandy that a part of him feels inadequate because of childhood messages, she might be sympathetic and caring. No matter which feeling Mike expresses, he and Sandy will then engage in a dialogue to see if they can work things out between them.

In addition to working out his feelings with Sandy, Mike might also decide that he is interested in the question of his being too intellectual. He asks Sandy to give him examples so he can understand what she means. He asks the other group members if they also think he is too much in his head and if they can give examples. If Mike decides that he is being overly intellectual and that he would like to change that, he might ask Sandy and the group to let him know the next time he seems to be in his head. Then he could practice expressing himself in a more emotional way. He could also explore his intellectualizer part and learn what it is protecting him from.

IFS Protectors

Most of our parts that interact with others are either healthy parts or IFS protectors, which are parts that try to keep us from feeling the underlying pain of our exiles or try to protect those exiles from being hurt by people. Our protectors are afraid of pain or hurt and this often drives them to communicate in ways that don’t work for us. For example, Jean had a protector that judged other people. When she explored it in the group using IFS, she discovered that it judged them when it was feeling threatened by them. Judgment was its way of trying to protect Jean from the threat.

These protector fears usually come from childhood and are often not realistic in the present situation. For example, Jean often felt threatened when someone reached out to her. She was afraid of being taken over by the other person’s needs because that’s what her mother did. Once Jean realized this, she could talk to her judgmental protector and ask it to ease up because she really wasn’t in danger of being taken over now.

Self-Revealing and Acceptance

Notice that part of Mike’s interaction with Sandy dealt with learning about himself and part of it dealt with acceptance. Now that Sandy has told him something she doesn’t like, does it mean that she doesn’t accept him? Acceptance is the number one issue in the Inclusion Stage. You want to reveal yourself, but only if you are going to be accepted by the group. You also want to be able to be yourself. You want to show your anger and your insecurity, your tears and your fears, your strength and your neediness. But it is critical that you be accepted as you are. It is also helpful for you to accept other group members as they are.

It is useful to share things about yourself that you have strong feelings about. Perhaps you need to talk about how you were abused as a child. Perhaps you are gay, or you are going through a painful divorce, or you are having anxiety attacks. Even though sharing these things is not officially “interactive work,” it is important to do, especially in the beginning of group.

It is especially important to share parts of yourself that you feel ashamed of. These are the hardest to reveal, because you expect to be judged and rejected. But they are also the most valuable because you really need to be accepted with these parts of you. You will discover that when you reveal these parts of yourself in an open way, not only are you accepted by the group, but people actually appreciate you more, because of your courage and vulnerability.

This is one of the magic things that happens in an Interactive Group. There is actually something beautiful about a person when they are being open and vulnerable, whether they are showing deep pain or insecurity or being caring toward others. We all have a great need to show these vulnerable parts of ourselves and be accepted, and in fact the group atmosphere makes it easy for this to happen.

People want to be able to love each other if only they are in the right environment to bring this out. Group members find it natural to be loving and compassionate toward someone who reveals pain or weakness. The pain is experienced as something precious and beautiful, and people welcome this kind of sharing. It makes them feel closer to you. It’s one of those poignant, special moments in group that everyone cherishes.

Negative Feelings and Conflict

One of the big challenges for many people at this stage in the group is the expression of “negative” feelings. It is valuable in an Interactive Group to express all of your feelings, not just good feelings. It is important to say when something bothers you or to express annoyance, disagreement, hurt, or discomfort. It’s also useful to express stronger feelings such as fear, anger, and jealousy, but these can be put off until the Mutuality Stage when you feel safer.

Some people find it hard to believe that expressing negative feelings of any kind will be helpful to anyone. They say:
“It will just hurt him unnecessarily, and it’s not a big deal anyway.”
“It’s probably just my own material. I should just work it out myself.”
“It’s not something she can change. Why make her feel bad?”
This is because they are afraid of hurting the other person and feeling guilty about it, or because they are afraid of the person being angry or rejecting toward them.

In the Interactive Groups, we work on expressing a feeling by speaking for the part rather than as the part. When you speak as a part, it means that the part has blended with you. You have become the part, so if you were angry at someone, you might just blast them, “I hate you. You are so mean to me.” On the other hand, when you speak for a part, it means that you are in Self and you are describing the feelings of the part, “There is a part of me that is angry at you because it believes that you have been mean to me.” By speaking for our parts, we are owning our reactions to other people. We aren’t attacking them, we are letting them know how our parts are reacting to them. This is good practice for communicating in life, and it also makes the group safer. It is OK for you to express negative feelings toward others as long as you speak for your parts.

In fact there are a number of good reasons for expressing negative feelings. It gives you a chance to practice asserting yourself. Many people are afraid to bring up difficult reactions, and this is an ideal way to learn how to do it. It gives you a chance to learn how to work through hard feelings that come up by doing this. It also gives the other person useful feedback about how they affect others. When you react to someone, it’s usually not all their fault, and it’s usually not all your fault either. In fact it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but the reaction is often a due to a part of the other person and a part of yours. So both of you have something to learn from the interaction.

For example, Carole says, “Jan, when you had that interaction with Max last week, a part of me didn’t like the way you treated him. It felt you were being defensive and controlling. You didn’t really give him a chance to explain himself before you attacked him.” I ask Carole if she is feeling protective of Max. “Maybe a little, but I was more just scared for myself. I wouldn’t want Jan to do that to me.” Jan responds, “I don’t see what was wrong with what I did. I was just standing up for myself.” I explore with Jan how she is reacting to Carole, and Jan discovers that a part of her is feeling defensive. She even realizes that she is responding to Carole the same way she did to Max. This helps Jan to recognize a part of her that gets defensive, and she decides she’d like to change it.

In the midst of this, I ask how Carole is reacting emotionally to Jan. She discovers that a part of her feels frightened of Jan’s anger. I check this out with Jan and discover that a part of Jan is indeed feeling a little angry at Carole. But a different part of her appreciates Carole for taking the chance to confront Jan because it gave Jan an opportunity to learn something about herself. So Carole a chance to deal with her fear of other people’s anger. Carole discovers that she can tolerate Jan being a little angry at her.

Sometimes two people have an extended interaction to work through a conflict between them where there may be hurt and anger. I provide extensive facilitation to ensure safety, help the two people resolve their conflict, and also to help them learn from it. They learn what parts of them get triggered, what exiles are being protected, and how to communicate clearly, assertively, and with vulnerability. The rest of group members support both people rather than taking sides, and this makes it much easier to resolve any bad feelings between the people. In fact, often their relationship emerges stronger as a result of this kind of interaction.

Asking for Feedback

Like many people, you may join an Interactive Group partly to learn more about how other people react to you, and to learn what you may be doing to keep your relationships from working. You will get this information through the ordinary working of the group, as people express their feelings toward you. However, if you want to make sure you get it in a relevant way, you can ask for feedback explicitly.

For example, Lilly said to the group, “I’m concerned that a part of me may be pushing away people whom I’d like to be close to without my realizing it. I end up alone so much when I really want people around, and I never know why. Recently someone suggested that I was unconsciously pushing people away. I’d like to know if any of you think I’ve been doing that.” In response a man said that Lilly discounted the good things he said to her. A woman said that Lilly acted sour and complaining even when they had nice contact. The group helped Lilly to sort out what she was doing and how she might want to change.

Consultations

Each group member consults with me individually on a regular basis to help you get the most out of the group. The consultations have a number of purposes:

  • To help you learn how to initiate interactive work in the group.
  • To help you get in touch with subtle but important reactions you have hain group but weren’t aware of.
  • To talk to me about feelings from group that you don’t feel safe to explore in group. This gets you ready to deal with them in group.
  • Sometimes you have a specific issue you want to work on, but you don’t know how to do this in an interactive way. We can strategize about the best way to make this work happen in the group.

For example, suppose you want to learn to deal with people expressing negative feelings to you, but it isn’t happening in the group. We might discuss how you are pleasing people and not expressing any of your negative feelings, so that’s why no one is reacting to you. I could help you get in touch with some negative feelings and prepare you to bring them up in the group.

Commitment

It is a big emotional step to commit yourself to an Interactive Group. You’re not just committing yourself to come each week and work on yourself. You’re also committing yourself to be involved emotionally with the people in the group–to care about them and to let them care about you and be important to you. In fact, if you have no emotional room in your life to get close to people, an Interactive Group won’t work very well for you. You may get something out of it for a while, but then you must be willing to get involved emotionally or not much more will happen.

The commitment issue usually comes up during the Inclusion Stage. People ask themselves questions such as:

  • Do I really want to get involved with these people?
  • Are they good enough for me?
  • Am I good enough for them?
  • Will they accept me?
  • If I commit, will I have to give myself up?
  • Can I really be myself and still be close to these people?

These kind of questions also come up for people in love relationships. People who have commitment problems in love relationships often have commitment problems with the group at this stage. So this can be an excellent opportunity to work through your commitment problems in your life by working on them as they come up in the group.

At some point you feel ready to really commit yourself to the group. You have revealed most of who you are–especially parts of yourself that you are ashamed of–and discovered that you are really accepted by the group as you are. You have confronted people and have been confronted by people, and you’ve worked through these confrontations to strengthen your relationships with those people. You may have asserted some power in the group to make it operate in ways which you need.

Now you feel safe to be yourself in the group and the group feels like it is really yours. You are entering the Mutuality Stage.

Mutuality Stage

In this stage, the preliminaries are over and you move fully into the major work of the group. Not that you haven’t been doing significant work already, but now you feel safe enough to let out all the stops. So your work deepens.

You can think about your work in group in terms of the question: What is my growing edge? In other words, what are the areas where I need to grow and I’m ready to take the step. We all function within a certain circumscribed area of behavior/feeling that is safe and comfortable for us. Your growing edge is the place where you are ready to take the risk to try new ways of being.

For example, if a part of you usually fights to defend you in ways that keep people from being close to you, your growing edge would be to allow yourself to be vulnerable. If a part of you is usually self-effacing, your growing edge would be to speak up with your opinions and feelings. If you usually take care of people instead of expressing your needs, your growing edge would be to ask for what you need. If a part of you usually controls yourself and your environment so that you avoid feeling uncertain, your growing edge might be to initiate work without knowing where it is going to go.

IFS Work

When a part of you, usually an IFS protector, is triggered in an interaction with someone in group, you have a chance to not only access that part but also to work with it using IFS. In some cases, I may lead you through an IFS session where you access the exile that the protector is protecting and heal it. This helps the protector to let go of its dysfunctional behavior and transform into a healthy asset.

Once this work is complete, I will often have you return to continue interacting with that person, so you can practice relating to them in a different way from your transformed protector. Of course, this deep healing can sometimes take more than one session, so it all may all be completed during that meeting.

How Growth Transfers to Your Outside Life

There are three ways that learning and growth from the group transfer to your outside life.

Communication Skills. In the group you learn various communication and awareness skills. You learn how to speak to people directly without judgment. You learn how to be open and vulnerable. You learn how to be aware of and express your emotional reactions. These skills will be valuable in your outside relationships with friends, family, spouse, work relationships, acquaintances, and strangers.

Awareness and Choice. Many of our interpersonal issues require that we change some of our deeper patterns–our growing edges. In group you learn to become aware of these patterns, not only in the abstract, but also in the moment. For instance, suppose a part of you says “Yes” to everyone who asks for help, no matter what the cost to yourself. You will not only learn that have this part, you will also learn to become aware of it at the moment it gets triggered. You will learn to notice when this part is about to give in to a request even though it wouldn’t be good for you.

Once you have become aware of your behavior in group, you can start noticing it outside as well. Then you can choose to act differently. Even though you may still have the urge to say yes, you can say instead, “Let me think about that. I’ll get back to you.” Then if it is something that really isn’t good for you, you can tell the person no. You can use awareness and choice to change your behavior.

Deeper Change. The major learning in an Interactive Group goes even deeper than this, in two possible ways.
1. You do deep IFS work to heal an exile and transform a protector.
2. You try new healthy ways of relating in group and get positive responses from the group members. As this happens repeatedly, you change at a deep level. Your natural responses begin to be healthy ones.

For example, suppose you are afraid of being close to people because you fear you will lose yourself in trying to please them. In group, you have a chance to work on and transform your People-Pleasing Part. You will also have opportunities to practice being assertive rather than pleasing. You also have opportunities to practice allowing yourself to being close to people and not losing yourself. Eventually, you know at a deep level that you can hold your own. You know that you can be close without giving yourself up. Closeness doesn’t feel so frightening. You find yourself just naturally opening to closeness rather than closing down or running away.

Relationships Outside Group

Unlike some groups, there are no rules against having contact with other group members outside of group. In fact, I think that it enhances the value of the group if people develop outside relationships with each other. In the later stages of the group, it adds depth and intensity to people’s interactions, so the work goes deeper into your psyche and is more potent for healing and change. It also brings the group experience closer to real life and helps you to transfer learnings from group to your regular life. Usually during the Mutuality Stage, some people begin to reach out to each other to make contact outside group.

As your relationships with the other members deepen, some of them may become genuinely important to you as friends in your life, not just as companions in group. This means that you are moving on to the Intimacy Stage.

The Intimacy Stage

The Intimacy Stage continues the work of the Mutuality Stage, but some of your relationships have deepened to an intimate level, and therefore, the issues and growing edges that come up reflect that depth and intensity.

As your relationships in group become more important to you, many issues that were resolved before come up again because of the deeper intimacy. This allows you to work through the issue in a more complete way.

Group as Healthy Family

By the time a group enters the Intimacy Stage, there are not only close relationships between pairs of people in the group, there is also a profound sense of group connection. By this time, you’ve been through a lot together. You’ve challenged and fought each other. You’ve helped and cared for each other. You’ve revealed some of your darkest secrets and been accepted and appreciated. You’ve shown your pain and also your strength and joy. The group has become a community, a healthy family, in which you are valued and loved and you can be autonomous and powerful. This bonding has already begun in the Mutuality Stage, and it becomes even clearer and stronger in the Intimacy Stage.

This connection gives the group enormous power for healing. Most of our psychological problems come from the way we were treated as children. We were very dependent and vulnerable as children, so our relationships with our caretakers shaped our psyches to a large extent, in both positive and negative ways. This is why exile work is so important in IFS.

Since the origins of most of our problems are in our early relationships, our healing can also come through our relationships with the other group members. The group will often trigger painful experiences from your family in childhood, giving you a chance to heal them. The group becomes like the healthy family you always wanted and needed. When you open yourself to pain (which often comes from childhood) and are then offered a healing response from the group, you are able to take it in fully and let it truly change you. You can do this because you trust your group. You have a sense of coming home.

You also participate in other people’s healing and growth, and this helps you recognize your own value and worth. You feel yourself as part of a larger whole that is loving and growing.

Conclusion

I have been leading Interactive Groups since 1978, and I incorporated IFS into the process in the last decade. I love the Interactive process. I love the excitement and the intensity. I love the genuineness of people’s responses and the depths to which people go. Most of all, I love the deep caring and love that people share. I hope that this article has given you an idea of the richness and possibility of Interactive groups.

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