July 4, 2014

Men and Young Men Sitting in a Circle

I recently heard from a brother in mission who wants to help others run support group circles for young men. His idea is to write an instruction manual for these groups and he was asking for guidance. His question gave me a chance to reflect on both the gifts that always result for all the males in these groups, and what might be included in a very basic group manual.

Being in groups of men
and also in young men's groups has
without question
made me a better man.

Over the last ten years or so, I've sat in somewhere between five hundred and a thousand circles for both men and young guys. The Man-Making Book and this blog are actually spin offs of my time in those circles. Being in groups of men and also in young men's groups has made me a better man. While these groups vary widely in their sponsorship, purpose, content focus, use of ritual, and general style, the best groups have some important commonalities. Here is a very short list of some of the common elements:

CIRCLES - The good ones put everyone in a circle. I love the idea that males around the world have, for centuries, been gathering in circles. Because of this fact, there is something about sitting in a circle of males that feels right and familiar. A circle represents a flat hierarchy. By its very shape, a circle says everyone is welcome, co-equal, and it allows all participants to be seen and heard.

PREDICTABLE FORMAT - Most circles have a simple format or flow of events which quickly becomes familiar to the participants. That structure creates a sense of predictability and safety.

BUSINESS - Prior to getting into the specific process of the group, there may be a few moments to deal with the business of group functioning like meeting times, arranging meeting places, information about upcoming events, or information about members not present. All the "stuff" of making the group work has a different tone and feel than the more personal work to follow, and it makes sense to get it out of the way upfront.

GUIDELINES - At the beginning of group, and often at the start of each meeting, the group's purpose statement and guidelines may be stated. Remembering why the circle exists helps focus the participants on their purpose and reasons for being in the group. Repeatedly hearing the guidelines sets the group expectations for behavior. Knowing the group norms helps everyone feel safe and leads to a climate of mutual respect.

RITUALIZED OPENING - In order to get the members focused, and to create the special environment for the more personal work to follow, there is often some form of ritualized opening. I've seen a wide variety of opening rituals, often rooted in the unique history and purpose of the group. Opening rituals can include special readings, lighting a fire, prayers or invocations, standing in physical contact with each other, burning of sage, the lighting of candles, or the presentation of a talking stick, special object, or photograph of special significance to the group. Whatever the opening process, formalized openings set an emotional tone of seriousness and clearly mark the line between the everyday world of people's daily lives and the special time/space the members are about to enter.

CHECKING IN - Often, groups begin by going around the circle and giving each member an opportunity to speak. It can be as simple as stating your name, a feeling, and your favorite ice cream. This simple check in guarantees that everyone has at least one chance to be heard in the circle. Check in could be a statement of what major issues in your life you need to temporarily let go of in your life outside of group so you can be fully present to the content and purpose of the circle. Another approach to check in can be asking for an amount of time to speak about a major issue going on in your life that you want to share with the circle. What happens during check in depends on the group's purpose and the degree of trust among members.

If the purpose of the group
is to really support the lives of individual members,
at some point, truth-speaking needs to occur.

TRUTH-SPEAKING - If the purpose of the group is to really support the lives of individual members, at some point, truth-speaking needs to occur. As trust, feelings of safety, and experience with each other grows, in a variety of ways, members are invited to share the literal and emotional truth about who they are and what is happening in their lives. This requires time together, good facilitation, modeling of personal vulnerability, and honoring those who take the risks of authenticity. How a group gets to a place where truth-speaking is the norm is about group design, facilitation, and technique. For now it's enough to say that in solid support groups, in addition to small talk, humor, and information sharing, truth-speaking becomes the most helpful aspect of a good group. Having the rare opportunity to sit in a circle of peers, where hard personal truths can be safely spoken and heard, is enormously helpful for all and the glue that keeps members coming back.

CLOSING - As a best practice, circles don't just drift away at the end. In order to capture the value of what was shared, and to mark the end of the special time spent together, it's important to close the circle with the same intention that was given to its opening. Creating a brief time for checking out with statements of gratitude, specific take-aways, or honoring of each other help members reflect on the value of the circle. It also creates another opportunity for the quieter members of the group to be heard. Closing statements, readings, prayers, are all ways to clearly mark the ending of special time together and cleanly close the group.

These are really just the large bones of a group outline, there is much more that could be added. Just below, I'll add links to some publications that describe different ways to do groups. But do it your way! All successful groups can and do whatever is necessary to make their group meaningful to the members. As part of a basic template, it can be helpful to add some training in how to best set up the group, facilitation skills, and perhaps some pre-group training to increase the young male literacy of the men sitting in young men's circles.

Or you could simply gather a group of men and young guys in a circle and see what happens. If indeed males are hard-wired for that experience, and if the men involved care about the young men in the circle, a lot of what's really important will just happen. The group will eventually teach the members how to be together and what needs to be said.

Please let me know what happens. 
The young men are waiting!


What follows are just a few examples of the many different publications you can find on the web about support groups. They describe groups with many different kinds of content and purpose focus, but in their descriptions of their group process you will find some guidance. Without endorsement and not in any order:

A Circle of Men: The Original Manual for Men's Support Groups. One of the early manuals (from a founder of Mankind Project).

A Gathering of Men: The story of creating a men's group to address perennial male issues.

Tending the Fire: The Ritual Men's Group.. Ally Press, $7.00. 60 pages.
Very old school from the beginnings of men's work.

Young Men's Work. This is a description of a kit for doing groups with young men. What I like about this document is that it lays out 26 content sessions, learner outcomes for each session, and lists the Academic Standards and Life Skills Standards met by the full course. Funders like this kind of background.

Working with Youth. A facilitator's guide from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in Canada.

How to Start a Men's Group in Prison. From the Inside Circle Foundation.

There are many examples about support groups you can find with a quick Google search. Some will have a topic specific focus (gender transformation, religious, violence prevention, teen parenting, recovery, etc.) They all contain some ideas about how to start a group from which you can add in the desired content focus.

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1 comment:

  1. been working with fathers in circles and so the group elements mentioned in your post made sense to me. I'd like to inform you of another resource for group facilitators working with men. I just published Facilitating Fathers' Groups: 22 Keys to Group Mastery and it's available at Amazon (http://goo.gl/R89BdG).


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