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Addressing challenges

A variety of challenges may be encountered which reduce the effectiveness of support groups, such as:

  • The facilitator dominates the group sessions and may attempt to resolve problems personally rather than engaging the group in the problem-solving process. This can impede effective group process and development, causing participants to view the facilitator in a position of power. Such power dynamics can hinder group empowerment and cohesion and reinforce participants’ feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
  • The facilitator has fixed preconceived and stereotypical expectations regarding how survivors will behave, which can result in overlooking or ignoring emotions such as anger or depression. This may disempower participants.
  • A facilitator presents herself as the expert, rather than supporting and reinforcing to survivors that they are the experts in their own lives.
  • The facilitator tries to avoid silence. Feeling pressured for time or experiencing discomfort with silence can lead some facilitators to talk whenever there is silence. This interrupts the natural flow of the discussion and group process. Silence is a necessary aspect of group work. It allows time for participants to think and reflect, and may create tension that forces group members to seek solutions.

Shelters should develop practices which can prevent and address these common challenges, such as:

  • Provide sufficient training and regular supervision for support group facilitators.
  • Invite participant feedback on group sessions to highlight impending difficulties and respond to concerns expressed by participants.
  • Establish and inform participants of the shelter’s complaints procedure at the beginning of the group.
  • Create opportunities for the facilitator and co-facilitator check on each other and provide feedback.
  • Ensure facilitators maintain ongoing records or reflective journals regarding the group in order to evaluate their experience and support themselves with any issues that emerge.
  • Consider creating a network of facilitators in the community as a means of support and opportunity for development relevant to the unique aspects of facilitating groups.

Violations of the rules, which may be managed by clearly indicating to the group that the violation was noticed, and using effective techniques to address them.

Repeated violations of the norms should be addressed in a one-to-one session with the woman to discuss and understand the behaviour, and try to develop agreement on how it can be resolved.

Excluding a member under certain circumstances when necessary, for example, if a member’s behaviour prevents the group from functioning and they:

  • Jeopardize the safety of the group
  • Disclose personal information about group member to persons outside the group
  • Attend the group while severely influenced by alcohol or other substances
  • Repeatedly break the rules or written contract of the group
  • Behave abusively toward other group members

Using appropriate strategies to exclude a group member, including:

  • The exclusion should not be discussed in front of other group members
  • The member should be told in an individual session, providing opportunity to discuss the issue and explain in a caring but firm manner the reasons she is not invited to continue in the group
  • Where appropriate, reference should be made to the original rules and agreement that were violated
  • Provide the individual with support for accessing other more suitable services that are not group oriented (e.g. individual counseling sessions)
  • Work with the woman to complete a risk assessment and safety plan.

Dealing with repeated conflict in the group, which may result from women who bring dominating or submissive patterns of behaviour to the group, based on their experiences with abuse. This may present tension between group members and the facilitator (for example, perceptions of the facilitator as overly demanding or demanding too much independence from group members). When such patterns of repeated conflict occur, it is important to discuss the reasons for the conflict as soon as possible and try to resolve the conflict.

Generally the process of conflict management involves:

  • Defining the problem, by identifying the different issues and needs of individuals concerned
  • Considering alternative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing which solution(s) to implement
  • Taking action to implement the solution

Specific conflict management strategies that can be used include:

  • Constructive decision-making. If a conflict issue is of concern to the entire group, involving the group in the decision-making process can empower members. Using this strategy, group members are involved in a discussion of the problem that results in a consensus about the action to be taken. It is important that all group members feel that their voice is considered important and respected during such processes.
  • Focusing on the problem, and not on the person. In conflict situations, people tend to choose sides. It is important that facilitators take a non-blaming approach, using language that separates the person from the problem.
  • Using “I”-messages, which allow a person affected by the behaviour of another person to describe how they are personally affected by the behaviour, and keep the focus of responsibility for change on the person demonstrating the behaviour. This technique is useful in developing relationships between group members. 
  • Reflective feedback, which involves one person repeating what they have understood the other person to say. For example, “I am hearing that you would prefer ________” or “I understand that when the group discusses __, it makes you feel pressured to make a commitment/ decision about ___”.

It is important to keep in mind that the resolution of conflict can be a positive experience. Positive aspects of conflict resolution can include:

  • Improving women’s self-awareness of their own needs in a situation (e.g. the need to feel safe, be heard, supported, etc.) and their ability to communicate those needs (for example, through participation in group discussions and joint problem-solving; etc.) .
  • Resolving conflict involves listening to and thinking about the opinions of others, which can help women to experience peaceful ways of resolving conflict.
  • Survivors may be used to fearing conflict due to experiences with conflict resulting in violence. Creating experiences in which conflict is resolved constructively and non-violently can show women that conflict does not always cause violence.

(based primarily on guidance in The Power to Change (Martins, et. al., 2008))

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