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Facilitating and managing the group

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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When engaging the group, women should be made aware of key components of the support group at the beginning, so that they are able to make informed choices about their participation and actions within it. A group contract may or may not be used to formalize women’s agreement related to these issues, as some women may be uncomfortable with signing a contract. Regardless of whether a contract is used, the group (facilitators and participants) must be informed of and agree to:

  • Confidentiality of the meeting location and the personal information of group members, including their names, and any other personal information disclosed during the sessions. This is critical to the safety of members and building trust within the group. Some groups use code names instead of their real names.
  • Legal issues related to disclosure, with members informed of any legal requirements related to disclosure of women’s personal information (e.g. that child protection laws require facilitators to notify authorities in cases where there is serious risk of harm to the life or wellbeing of a child or other vulnerable person).
  • Restrictions on behaviour that will not be accepted in the group (e.g. attending under the influence of substances or using violence).
  • Group rules and norms [any generic templates here?], which may be provided to members for review or included as part of a written contract.

Certain group protocols and processes must be in place for effective group work, such as:

  • Establishing group norms and rules which may create an environment in which participants can achieve goals that they would not achieve individually. Rules can also:
    • Encourage predictable group interaction.
    • Create stability and support the development of trust, acceptance, and respect through effective group communication.
    • Describe patterns of communication and coordination.
    • Inform a guide to agreed behaviour (written agreement may be established, and may be particularly important if some participants violate agreed rules).
  • Explaining to participants at the start of the group that rules and guidelines are used to facilitate group discussions. Group members should also be involved in developing these guidelines as a positive and empowering exercise. Through their participation, members may be more invested in following the rules. Possible questions for facilitating discussion of rules are:
    • “What might help you to participate fully in this group?”
    • “What might make it easier for you to talk about your personal experiences?”
    • “What might prevent you from sharing your thoughts and feelings?”
    • “What do you think encourages open communication?”
    • “What do you think discourages open communication?”
  • Informing any new group member (if groups are open for women to join at any time) of the norms and rules in place, and give them an opportunity to add or suggest modifications to the rules.
  • Ensuring there is an explicit and standard rule stating that belittling, abusive language or attitudes will not be tolerated (given the focus on changing abusive patterns), and inviting members to determine how such behaviour will be prevented and challenged.
  • Writing and presenting the rules on a flipchart or large paper, and as a symbol of each member’s commitment, inviting women to sign the page to indicate that they are satisfied with the rules. The paper can be displayed at every session as an easy reference.
  • Allowing each group to identify their own rules, considering important guidelines for group process:
    • Give everyone an opportunity to speak. Each person should avoid dominating the discussion (including the facilitator/s).
    • Good listening is important. Hear what a person is saying before speaking. Don't interrupt others.
    • Speak from one’s own experience.
    • Be honest.
    • Value and validate others' differences and experiences.
    • Confidentiality. All discussion and contributions are confidential – no personal information ever leaves the room without express consent.
    • Arrive on time.
    • Attend regularly and contact the facilitator if unable to attend a meeting or if deciding to leave the group to explain their reasons (Martins, et. al., 2009).

Specific considerations should also be made during certain periods of the group sessions:

  • During the early phase of the group, it is important to create a sense of group belonging and mutual trust in order for members to feel comfortable talking about their personal experiences with abuse. This requires allowing time for information communication and enabling positive personal contact between group members, such as a coffee/tea/snack break and short team and relationship-building activities at the beginning, end or in the middle of long sessions, to help members become familiar with one another.
  • As the group sessions are underway, it is important for the group to assess its health. A healthy group is able to carry on stimulating and productive discussions and members are motivated, cooperative and interested in group activities. It can be a useful to engage an outsider to evaluate the health of the group.
  • As the group nears the conclusion of the sessions (the last month or so), it is important to remind group members that the group will be coming to an end to help them prepare for closure of the group. Members can be assisted to prepare for and have a positive experience toward the end of the group by:
    • Asking members to share what they have gained from their experience in the group.
    • Providing time for informal social interaction.
    • Describing the positive aspects of concluding the group (e.g. the opportunity for a new beginning).
    • Providing a certificate of participation indicating members’ achievement.
    • Asking participants to complete an feedback form – this can be useful in helping women to see their progress during the time in the group.
    • Incorporating risk assessment and safety planning into the closure process, either during the final session of the group or in individual sessions with members.
    • Being aware that group members may need time to adjust to coping without the group and informing women of options for support if the need arises. This may include encouraging women to continue friendships with each other after the group concludes.

Ensuring facilitator roles and responsibilities are clear and competencies are in place

Shelter support groups should be facilitated by staff or trained volunteers who have experience working with survivors, whose role is critical to the success of the group.

The primary role of the facilitators is to create safe, supportive and inclusive group sessions. They should promote an environment of cohesion, respect and stability that is safe and supportive, while encouraging constructive and interactive debate between the participants through activities that build and sustain an atmosphere of empowerment and self-help within the group.

Facilitators help to manage the discussion by providing members with ample opportunity to share and discuss ideas while gently guiding the group to maintain a productive discussion if the conversation strays from relevant topics or fails to follow group rules.

Drawing upon their skills, experience and knowledge of gender-based violence, shelter guiding principles and the dynamics of self-help groups, facilitators should:

  • Promote warmth and acceptance among group participants.
  • Involve all participants in the group process, supporting inclusion and equal participation.
  • Assist participants to understand the dynamics and processes of the group.
  • Assist women to be aware of what they are feeling, and why.
  • Encourage participants to share their experiences, express ideas, and discuss various aspects of issues that emerge from this discussion, such as basic rights, self-esteem, assertiveness and boundaries.
  • Encourage awareness of individual and group growth and change.
  • Assist participants to understand the meanings behind behaviours and issues pertaining to domestic abuse.
  • Provide information for group members on violence and specific forms of abuse.
  • Promote understanding that violence against women is unacceptable and a violation of human rights.
  • Provide information and referral to other services as needed.
  • Encourage participants to take an active role in the discussion and empower them to lead the work.
  • Provide one-to-one support for group members if needed.

It is preferable to have two people facilitate support groups, a lead facilitator that plays a central role, and a co-facilitator that supports throughout group activities. This can be particularly helpful when a participant needs individual support during a group session. In such cases, the co-facilitator can provide one-on-one support to the woman while the lead facilitator remains with the group. This approach can also support co-facilitators to learn and the process for self-help groups.  It can prevent the need to cancel a group should the facilitator need to be absent for unexpected reasons.

The lead and co-facilitator should have similar knowledge and training to shelter staff, as well as skills in management of group process. This includes the ability to:

  • Plan and facilitate group sessions effectively.
  • Communicate clearly (both verbally and using positive body language), effectively listening and respond empathetically to group members.
  • Challenge participants, where relevant and necessary, in a non-confrontational but assertive manner.
  • Identify and respond effectively to group dynamics and processes, both negative and positive, to manage the group effectively, and equip participants with the awareness to use the group resources to achieve their personal goals. This may include anger and conflict in the group setting.

Key responsibilities of facilitators include:

  • Organizing the group, by setting up the sessions, taking into account any access, mobility or other participation needs, and preparing proper materials for each meeting.
  • Running the programme, explaining the necessary group rules and ensuring they are followed, encouraging participants to take responsibility for their own behaviour, and challenging myths or stereotypes about gender-based violence that arise within the group.
  • Promoting Safety, by informing group members about available risk assessment and safety planning processes; identifying and responding to any safety issues that emerge during group discussions; and maintaining the confidentiality of personal information.
  • Supporting participants, ensuring diversity and fair access, by:
    • Respecting the diversity of all women.
    • Engaging in anti-discriminatory practice, and dealing with each group member equitably.
    • Recognizing their individual needs and experiences.
    • Creating a welcoming atmosphere listening to and not judging group members.
    • Promoting diversity of literature, approaches and tools; avoiding the use of jargon.
    • Monitoring access to the support group to determine whether participation reflects the demographics of the local community.
    • Recognizing the additional barriers that some women may face when attempting to access the group (e.g. related to language, class, mental health issues, etc.). 
    • Taking action to reduce identified barriers to the support group.
    • Supporting members to make informed choices and decisions in relation to the options available to them.
    • Providing information regarding resources and supports in the community that may be available to assist them.