ON THE COMMON GROUND
SUPPORT GROUP GUIDELINES

Suggested guidelines for a Men's Ritual and Support Group

Initial Steps:

1. Make operations definite so the group will be safe/trustworthy:

It's important for the entire group to agree on costs, when, where, how frequently, and for how long, our group will meet, in a way every man understands clearly.

2. Make membership clear so the ongoing work together will be safe:

a) What kind of commitment am I making to attend, and asking each other man to make? Is the meeting to be my highest priority for the agreed upon time?
b) How will a member let the other men know when important business forces him to be absent from a meeting?
c) After a brief time of openness when it first forms, we strongly recommend a group's membership be "closed".
d) If at any time during the group's life new members need to be admitted, it is most effectively done for a period with a clear beginning and end, and after enough discussion allows all the members to agree and know how they really feel about it.

3. Be wary of rules and structures -- best to form "agreements".

a) Every group will want some. (And some men are uncomfortable without a lot.) But a Men's Group is not another "family of origin" with its own set of overt and covert obligations which I must conform to and once again "give myself away to".
b) Being a member of the group never automatically "obliges" me to do things I haven't examined for myself.
c) I am responsible for what I clearly agree to do after examining my own feelings.

Ongoing Steps:

1. Participating in the group:
There is a definite art to doing this. For me to benefit from my experience in the group:

A) I must always be aware that everything I say, do, or think really expresses some form of what I'm feeling here inside myself. (This is true even though I may not know it and may firmly believe that "it's happening out there", that "he really is saying or doing" what I think he is, or that "someone else is making me feel" the way I do.)
B) Thus: without exception, every statement or action I make in the group is something I ponder in order, first, to see that it is my feeling, and second, to name what the feeling really is. From this it follows:
a) I can make room for silence and slowness -- so I can discern what I really feel about my own statements or about yours.
b) All my statements during a meeting should be "I statements": I feel. I believe. I think. When you say that, I feel... When you do that, I feel ... When that happens, I feel... When we do this exercise, I feel ... (I must keep the focus on myself, speak about myself, reveal myself, because that is all I can really know and speak of [if even that], and that is what I'm here to learn about.)
c) Every statement or action I make means "I need to talk", "I need to act". Every question means "I need to know". So, a very basic issue for every man in the group is: how do I go about expressing and taking care of my needs? How do I relate my needs to yours? How do I really feel about your needs? (Personal Boundaries)
d) I should offer only sensory based feed-back about what another man says or does: I heard your voice quiver. I saw your eyes blink. I felt your hand shake. I saw you lower your head.
e) I can NOT interpret or judge another man's statements or experiences. I can NOT analyze what he really means, or why he really does what he does. I can NOT decide what his feelings really are. I can NOT "help" or fix him, no matter how many pointed questions I feel entitled to ask, or how much "good advice" I believe capable of offering. (And quickly ask anyone who tries to do any of these things what his own feelings about doing it really are).
f) In other words, I should avoid "you statements", because in fact it's not possible to really know what's going on inside another person: What you're saying is... I feel what you're saying is ... What you should do is... I think that what you should do is ... You are ... I believe that you're... I sense that you're... I see that you're ... (These are all either direct or sneaky forms of "you statements". And, no matter what I believe, they are always really about myself!)
g) To state the secret of profitable participation in a nut shell: What it all comes down to is that I'm in the group to listen and to witness -- to myself, as I speak or act -- and to you, as you do. I witness only by speaking of my own feelings in relation to what you say or do. I am not here to meddle.

2. The Group's On-going Work.

a) Being in a group does take real work.
b) The only absolute foundation for my group's success is each man's determination to show up, combined with what might best be called his humility. (Humility in this sense implies a combination of courageous honesty, vulnerability, willingness to accept all feelings that come up as my own, and a sense that there is always something for me to learn. of course, this in itself takes work.)
c) If the men in the group come from. such a place, then absolutely anything can be the subject of a meeting -- including an inquiry into why we can't come up with any topics or exercises!
d) Lately some groups have come up with apparently unresolvable disagreements over whether to work ritually and mythologically, or psychologically. This is an absolutely false dichotomy because:
e) Work with rituals and mythic stories invites me to use them to study my feelings -- so that I learn to walk more richly in the story of my life despite the "bad" stories from my past.
f) Psychological work invites me to understand my feelings to the point where they bring me fully into contact with myself, with you, and with the world.
g) The two goals are totally compatible. It only takes a little generous "humility" for men favoring one approach to find The Common Ground with the men favoring the other. And that might be great work for the group.

3. Basic Purposes.
From time to time, it's important to review my purposes or goals for being in the group in order to make conscious my expectations about what the group is.

a) Some of us join for a clear purpose. Some of us aren't clear why we're in our group.
b) In fact, no matter how he pictures its work, every man in the group wants something different from it: to explore feelings, to be with men, to develop friendship, or love, or support, to deal with problem areas in life, with father, mother, girlfriend, wife, children, divorce, death, to be with men who are the same as I am, or whatever. In sum, conscious or not, each of us has an agenda, an image of what the group must be or do for him.
c) So, at first, all groups start out cautiously, politely, tenderly. It usually feels great.
d) Sooner or later, the differences emerge. The group may head into a direction a member didn't "expect", or be filled with men who are "different" -- and the fighting or struggling starts. At this crucial point, many men leave, figuring the group isn't happening ("this isn't what I was looking for", "this isn't working for me"). Other men try to take refuge in organization, rules ("let's settle this with a vote") -- some structure outside themselves to shield themselves from what they are feeling.
e) But, this is precisely the moment when we begin to form a true group. It's vital to see that the group really forms -- we truly come into intimate contact with each other -- only as I work through my demands, my expectations, my judgments, both about myself and about you. And, as you do the same.
f) That is: we truly come together only as I learn to be myself in your presence, and allow you to be yourself in mine -- only as you learn to be yourself, and allow me to be myself in your presence.
g) Therefore: as the group works on, every part of me, and of you, is welcomed into it. No need to abandon any real part of me at the door, or to "fix" you or myself once in. All my dark (anger, jealousy, despair) and my light (hope, joy, love) feelings, my heroism and my brokenness, are OK -- as long as I remember that they are mine, and that I must keep the focus on myself in order to understand them. (I have something to learn.)
h) So, every single thing that happens in the group (including violations of all these guidelines!) is an opportunity for me to understand what my feelings are, and to learn better how I can be together with you.
i) Ritual or mythological work, psychological talk, bodily exercises, personal problems, arguments, disputes, power struggles, meals together, expeditions to places, excess or lack of material, or anything else you can think of: WE CAN'T GO WRONG. EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL FOR WHAT WE HAVE TO LEARN.

ALL I HAVE TO DO IS STAY WITH THE GROUP, THEN
LISTEN, LOOK, AND BECOME AWARE.

John Guarnaschelli
1992

 


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