Years ago a support group formed for those dealing with the ending of a significant relationship, whether by death, divorce, or separation. It was called We Care. In the late 70s, divorce was still rare enough that a support group was very helpful. I didn't find it until the early 80s. It became the healing influence in my life. The reason it worked so well is the groundrules it developed. Some will be familiar to anybody used to, say, 12 step groups, like confidentiality. Others were different, like non-judgmental support as opposed to the often confrontational style of AA. The groundrules were the framework which made the group a safe place to open up, explore your self, and share with others. I heartily recommend them to anybody thinking about setting up a support group, or wondering why their current group just isn't working for them.
We usually met in church basements, not from any religious connection, even philosophically, but the space lent itself to the group needs: evening availability, one large meeting room, several small rooms, a kitchen or other area for coffee, plentiful free parking. The space was usually very inexpensive or free. A basket was passed for donations from those able to make them, paying
for coffee and space. Nobody was paid for their services. Nearly every night of the week a group was available, sometimes two.
People were encouraged to stick with the group past their own crisis which brought them there, continuing their growth. Many did, and of those some were encouraged to become facilitators. Twice a year facilitator training was held, where listening skills and a host of other things were taught. Would-be facilitators would do at least three practicums, leading small groups in a center setting with an experienced facilitator evaluating them and giving feedback. Not everyone made it through the rigorous process to become a facilitator.
A management board, the Fellowship for Renewed Living or FRL, was also developed to oversee quality, fund raise, offer workshops for those interested in further growth past the support group setting. One topic became an annual workshop tradition: sexuality. Part was education, part was exploring our own values and the new "resingled" situation, part was exploring personal issues, including abuse. Some was taught by outside experts, such as STDs in a time when AIDS was a new thing. Some was explored in the setting of small groups. Eventually interest and need waned and the board and center groups formally disbanded. The records are archived at the U of M.
The format was similar to many support groups. It opened in a large circle, with one leader. Everybody was welcomed, given a chance to go around the circle and give their first name, often followed by a word or two about how they were doing. Announcements were made, groundrules listed and briefly explained, topics and locations announced. The body broke into small groups for about an hour, led by a trained facilitator, then met back in the large group for closing announcements and putting chairs away, cleaning up coffee, etc. For those who could and wanted to, a purely social time followed at a different location, usually a bar with music. Dancing and conversation was for many a "safe" reintroduction to being social with the opposite gender before actually getting back into dating.
Following are the groundrules for those small groups.
CONFIDENTIALITY: What is said in the small group stays in the group. It isn't talked about later, in large group, at afterglow, at home, not even next week to the person who said it in the first place. If you want to know how somebody is doing, you simply ask them that, not what they did about a specific issue they mentioned. You don't tell Sally what John said. For some, it even extends to not telling Sally how it is you even know John, where you met, what kind of group you share. Knowing that our personal stuff stays in the group makes it safe to open up.
EQUAL AIR TIME: Everybody has the same right to air time. Just because Sally is really hurting doesn't mean she gets to take the group's time. John may find his own issues equally as urgent, to him. And Sally might well welcome not being the center of attention or feeling like she was the only one there that evening with some kind of issue. When she did listen, she could be giving back to the group, rather than just taking. You did have the right to pass and not speak, although sharing was encouraged.
ACTIVE LISTENING: When somebody else was speaking, we listened to them. It seems like basic manners, but the active part meant that we weren't just quiet while planning what we would say next, but really hearing what the other was saying.
WE DON'T INTERRUPT: The speaker was given a gift all too rare in ordinary conversation: the right to finish their thoughts. What they were saying was important. Some of us were coming from abusive relationships, and this may have been the first place where we felt like we had some value to others.
YOU CAN ASK A QUESTION. YOU DON'T HAVE TO ANSWER: Not everybody is a good speaker, or storyteller, or even clear about what their issues are. For our own understanding as well as theirs, as well as demonstrating we are really listening to them, we can ask a question. On the other hand, being able to refuse to answer is often the first step in learning to set personal boundaries, and again, those of us entering the group from abusive relationships often have no idea that boundaries are even possible, much less how to go about setting them.
WE SPEAK ON THE "I" LEVEL: The group is about me. It is what I am or have experienced, done, felt, plan to do next. We're told in society not to be selfish, but here is the safe place to be as selfish about our own needs as we need to be during our air time. I don't speak about others: they're not here to defend themselves. We can't change them. I can only help me by dealing with my stuff.
WE SPEAK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS: Some of us enter the group not able to recognize feelings even as they are biting us in the butt. Gradually we get behind the actions, past what we intellectualize about events, learn the language. We are angry, sad, ashamed, guilty, happy, scared, frustrated. We learn not to fear feelings but to accept them as universal. Feeling anger is not the same as needing to act out from that anger. We begin to understand we can't assume that everybody knows how we feel about something in our lives because they lived different lives and often feel differently about the same things. What makes up happy may well scare them or carry sad memories, and vice versa. We learn to ask, "How did that make you feel?" We learn to figure out the answer.
WE NEITHER GIVE NOR TAKE ADVICE: Nobody else can fix our problems. Their situations are different, their morals are different, their needs are different, their feelings are different. Their solutions are not what will work for us. Nor will ours work for them. Any time we hear a sentence with "you should..." in it, we shut down emotionally rather than digging deeper into our own situation. We've all been "shoulded" way past any sense, and it's part of why we need to be here. What we can do, however, is relate to the speaker, carefully saying, "I was in a similar situation once, and I tried such-and-such, and this is what it did for/to me." That allows the other to decide if there is something they can learn from your experience, and take away however much of it for themselves as they wish to. It also allows them to feel they are not alone in their situation, and that somebody in the group actually is listening to them.
NON-JUDGMENTAL SUPPORT: This is one of the big keys that make it safe to explore our own deepest, darkest, and most painful selves. If we're truly not judged, it's finally a way to get past the shame and guilt that are the big barricades preventing self-healing. Without judgment, we can finally say, "I did this, and here's why, and what else was going on, and how I feel about all of it, and now I see how it's been interfering in my life. Now I can change." Nobody says you were awful, stupid, slow, rash, mean, selfish, or any of the truckload of things you've heard about yourself in the rest of your life. The turtle inside its shell can't walk down the path, and neither can you.
Another big part of this is we recognize that we are all adults here, each capable of taking care of ourselves, able to see ourselves and do what needs to be done in our own way, at our own speed. We learn to trust ourselves and others, to be human, make mistakes, learn from them, set goals, grow, heal, change.
SMALL GROUPS WILL BE ON MANY TOPICS, BUT THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A "HURTING" GROUP: The centers come in many sizes, having one or ten small groups. Facilitators are also working on their personal issues, and set topics useful to both themselves and others at the same time. You are free to pick a group to meet your needs and interests. Large groups can grab another facilitator and split in two so everybody gets useful air time. But whatever else is going on, there is always a "Hurting" group, taking care of the needs of those in emotional pain or crisis, whatever their topic otherwise is. That is the core group.
YOU CAN ASK FOR A ONE-ON-ONE: Sometimes we come in hurting so badly that our small share of air time just won't do it for us that night. We're in too much personal pain to listen to anybody else. We can ask somebody we've come to know a bit and trust if they will spend their small group time listening just to us. There are often other facilitators attending the groups but not facilitating that evening who would be willing. They too get to tend to their own needs, and can refuse if they're not in a place for a one-on-one. They will be in the best position, however, to recognize other facilitators there and steer you towards somebody else who can listen.
I personally spend 13 years in We Care. I thought I was there for a quick fix and as a way to meet nice men. I listened long enough to start figuring out that the real questions were. I became a facilitator, a Lead Facilitator in two different centers, joined the board and became an officer for several years, both Recording Secretary and President. When we made a connection with the YMCA, I organized and attended week-long workshops at Camp Northland near the BWCA. I left for a while, to come back and help with the formalized disbanding process, as FRL was a non-profit. I learned a lot, healed a lot, helped a lot, met the best friends of my life there. And, oh yeah, met Steve there in one of my first weeks. At the end of facilitator training, we were asked to line up along a row from one to ten, giving the trainers feedback on just how valuable the training experience had been to us.
We two were the ones standing at "11".