Behind The Book: Q&A with the authors of Interactive Group Work (second edition)

By Jane E. Atieno Okech, Deborah J. Rubel and William “Bill” Kline

November 2023

Jacob Lund/

The second edition of Interactive Group Work serves as a comprehensive resource on group work for practitioners and counseling training programs. It includes the history of the evolution of group-specific theory, updated perspectives on diversity and social justice, current research on group efficacy and process, and a discussion of group work in online, rehabilitation and educational settings.

Counseling Today spoke with co-authors Jane E. Atieno Okech, Deborah J. Rubel and William “Bill” Kline about the book’s contribution to the field of group work and the necessity to ensure the proper development of group leaders.

Okech is a professor of counselor education and supervision and vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Vermont. Rubel is a professor of counselor education and supervision at Oregon State University, and William “Bill” Kline is a retired counselor educator and counselor who specialized in group work and qualitative research. 3>How does this edition differ from the first?

Jane Atieno Okech: The original text, which was authored by Kline, was well received, and all three of us have used it consistently to teach master’s- and doctoral-level group courses. However, aspects of the 20- year-old book needed to be updated and revised to align it with the current Association for Specialists in Group Work’s professional standards of practice, ACA Codes of Ethics, and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs’ standards for group work training. The original text also needed updating regarding multicultural and social justice issues and current efficacy and process research. headshot of Jane Atieno Okech

With this edition, we wanted to provide a text that is relevant to a larger group of counselors doing group work across settings and provide content on the critical bridge between essential group work concepts and the typical practices of those settings, e and social justice manifestations in groups; current group work research; and a clearly differentiated set of learning outcomes for entry-level and advanced learning. We have also included 125 test questions and answers and pta-contrast="none">How can group work help overcome challenges and barriers to mental health care such as provider shortages and insufficient resources?

JAO: Group work approaches provide an effective way for counselors or organizations to simultaneously meet the personal and collective goals of more people. Schools, institutions of higher learning, agencies and community organizations can benefit significantly from utilizing group work approaches to help meet their communities’ developmental and mental health needs while using fewer counselors.

Group work is also more economical than individual counseling because services are provided using a group approach. This means that clients can pay lower fees to receive quality group counseling, and counselors can earn a decent living while still serving community members. The cost-effectiveness of group work is crucial in helping counselors fulfill their social justice objectives by catering to clients from underserved communities.

The duration of groups can differ depending on the presenting concerns of the members and can range from short-term groups that last only a few weeks to long-term groups that last months or even years. The availability of these options can lead to more effective outcomes for group members, their families and their communities.

Finally, groups can also be offered in-person and virtually. Contemporary research is increasingly providing evidence of practical approaches to virtual group work. These options can undoubtedly increase access to quality counseling services.

You say that groups are social systems. How does that affect how counselors need to approach group work with clients?

William Kline: Group counselors should remember that people joining their groups are members of social systems outside the group. These social systems (e.g., families, cultures, peer groups) prescribe how people should interact and the behaviors they should enact to play their part in social interactions. Thus, asking people to change how they interact with others may be anxiety provoking because the group leaders are encouraging them to interact in ways they usually avoid. Group leaders who are aware of these systemic factors will quickly observe that as group members interact, they engage in interactions with the goal of reducing their anxieties about group participation.

headshot ofGroup members often attempt to replicate social norms that promote safety in the group based on their social systems outside the group. This means they often try to establish familiar norms and social roles within the group dynamic. Counselors who are aware of how social systems form can work to discourage members’ attempts to avoid open and immediate interaction and instead encourage them to interact openly in the present and work to develop norms that are consistent with the way members learn from each other.

Even as the group develops, group members will continue to avoid necessary conflict and open emotional expression. Again, with this awareness, counselors should point out when the group develops normsthat mayprevent member learning. The goal is for group leadersto help the group develop norms consistent with group objectives and help members become aware of and change roles that interfere with healthy relationships.

What skills make an effective group leader?

WK: Skills are the maneuvers necessary to help members learn from each other. To effectively utilize these skills, it is crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural context of the groups involved and their norms of interaction. Additionally, group leaders need to know the structural forms of privilege and oppression that may arise within the group context.

Skill usage heavily depends on group leaders’ beliefs about what is necessary for members to benefit from group participation. Leaders who believe members learn best from interacting with each other trust that honest emotional expression can develop a member’s awareness and understanding of self and others. If a leader considersconflict crucial for members’ learning, then they will use skills to accomplish these objectives. Conversely, leaders who believe that members depend on group leaders to tell members “what they need to know” would use another set of skills. The leadership approach also affects outcomes. Leaders who feel they need to explain what is happening in group interaction or provide multiple structured experiences to teach members what they need to learn will experience different outcomes from leaders who engage members in describing and developing a shared understanding of group events.

Furthermore, we believe leaders should also help members learn skills to interact more effectively with other group participants. These skills will help members become more effective in their interactions with others outside the group. In our perspective, the most crucial skills for effective group leaders are ones that help members engage in effective feedback exchange, describe their here-and-now experiences, engage directly with others and process group interactions.

What are some ethical considerations when working in groups?

Deborah Rubel: The ethical principles of fairness, beneficence and nonmaleficence encourage leaders to balance individual member needs with overall group functioning. Even the best leader cannot ensure that every group member will get the same benefits, but we should ensure that everyone gets some benefit, and no one is harmed. headshot of Deborah Rubel

While there are some more dramatic ethical dilemmas that can occur in a group, the most common is probably that someone is not getting benefit from the group because of the pregroup process or the in-group process. The pregroup process should include careful screening to determine whether prospective members are a fit for the group and whether group member preparation will help them engage and feel more comfortable with what can be a challenging process. The in-group process should be sensitive to imbalances in participation, support members in learning essential membership skills and foster beneficial interactions like feedback and support between members. For example, if a group leader perceives that a group member is not benefiting from the group, they should solicit that member’s feedback and assess if a referral to another group or individual counseling is necessary. The leader may also want to seek additional supervision, ethical consultation or use an ethical decision-making model to clarify their thinking.

What are some of the biggest challenges of doing remote group work?

DR: The commonly identified challenges of doing group work online are related to licensure issues, remote client safety and encouraging authentic interaction between members online. However, the biggest challenge of doing group work online is the challenge of doing competent group work in any setting. Group work, including group counseling and therapy, receives much less attention in the counselor training curriculum and is only included as the focus of group-specific supervision during practicum and internship. Counselors who are enthusiastic about group work may seek additional training and gain a high level of competency, but other counselors who have not had this level of training still end up doing groups. The challenges counselors doing group work face are similar no matter if they are online or face-to-face and will require them to adequately conceptualize group interaction, derive effective interventions based on those conceptualizations and be able to manage their own needs and emotions so they can enact those interventions.

How can counselors help group members feel safe and stay engaged?

DR: An individual pre-group meeting with the group leader is one of the best ways to set the foundation for a good group experience. This can serve as a time for doing pre-group preparation, reviewing informed consent and processing the potential group member’s anxieties or concerns.

As the group progresses, group members must develop a sense of belonging and trust and be able to interact effectively to meet their own needs within the group. Group leaders can assist with engagement in the group environment by identifying, eliciting and connecting group members through emotional experiences.

Another way for group leaders to improve group member engagement is by seeking opportunities for themselves to experience group membership beyond their training context. The experience of group membership can provide invaluable insights for emerging and experienced group leaders, particularly about how to improve member engagement in the groups they lead. Group leaders who have had meaningful group membership experiences believe in the modality and communicate confidence and enthusiasm to their members.

The views expressed in Counseling Today are those of the authors and contributors and may not reflect the official policies or positions of the editors or the American Counseling Association.

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