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Chapter: Essentials of Psychiatry: Group Psychotherapy

Group Psychotherapy: Group Dynamics

Group dynamics refer to norms and cultures that are unique to each group.

Group Dynamics


Group dynamics refer to norms and cultures that are unique to each group. They are influenced by group size, members’ race, gender, age and the social environment. Group dynamics are also a product of members’ personalities, the leader’s functioning and their subsequent interactions. The dynamics emerge as mem-bers go about their tasks of determining how they will achieve their goals and maintain personal safety. Norms are rules defin-ing what is acceptable, that is, how people express themselves, what one can do or say. Illustrative of norms are the pressures of using “politically correct” (PC) expressions. There are sanc-tions, both conscious and unconscious, against violating norms. In part, norms are initially defined in the therapeutic agreementdiscussed later) as presented by the therapist, but they are modi-fied as a result of group development.



The concept of role is intimately linked with group ther-apy. Roles are essential functions that help the group achieve its goals and support members’ emotional tasks. Four general roles can be defined for groups (MacKenzie, 1997): structural, socia-ble, divergent and cautionary roles. The structural or leadership role helps the group address its work. The therapist is the pri-mary occupant of this role, but members also function in keeping the group on task, organizing the experience and maintaining a perspective of the group process. The social or emotional role helps contain feelings and assists in managing social relation-ships among the members and with the leader. Some individu-als relieve group tensions by changing the topic, making a joke, smoothing ruffled feelings, or by encouraging others to express their less acceptable and/or painful feelings. The divergent role is filled by persons who seem oppositional, who “don’t go along with the crowd”, or seem to fight authority. They are likely to become a container for unacceptable thoughts or emotions. Such individuals are vulnerable to becoming scapegoated, a process in which inadmissible feelings are seen (or placed) in one person and thereby kept out of awareness in the others. The cautionary or silent role may be played by a member who seldom speaks or keeps his thoughts and feelings hidden. These persons are often a threat to the others because they keep secrets or avoid painful affects. When a group is ready to take action, members often at-tempt to “recruit” the silent person into their ranks; this process is most frequently seen when there is preparation for fight-or-flight (see discussion of Bion below). Roles may be filled by one or several persons. They are essential for group functioning, and, theoretically, each member has the psychological potential to fill varying roles.


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