the circular runner

group therapy at the workplace…

In observations on October 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

some therapists just make me mad

OK, so here it goes. The non-profit I work for recently hired a couple therapists to come in and consult about the dynamics of the organization, which in theory, is not a bad idea, actually. There’s a lot of overlap and a lot of territorial thinking, and like every other workplace, there’s a lot of ego and insecurity. But here’s the thing: in practice, I’m not sure what to make of the meetings that we have with these therapists. The staff has been broken up into small groups that meet bi-weekly. I’m tempted to describe these get-togethers as being group therapy sessions, but that’s not quite right because then there would be an obvious goal of some kind. As far as I can tell, the therapist has some plan for us. She really wants us to move in a certain direction, but she just doesn’t want to come clean about it. She wants us to believe that we have come upon this direction on our own.

Maybe the best way to show you what I mean is to show you what I mean. As the writing teachers of the world say, “show, don’t tell.” So, imagine, if you will, a therapist who speaks in calming tones sitting in a dimly lit, dingy rec-room at a long table with four employees who probably should be doing something else with their time apart from sitting in said room with said therapist. (We work with under-served young people in the Mission in San Francisco, by the way.) Now, imagine the following exchange:

Therapist: I thought we’d start things off by going over some of our wish-list for how to improve the way the organization functions. Would that be ok with everyone?
(SILENCE. Employees look down at their papers. A couple braver souls look up but avoid eye contact with therapist at all costs.)
Employee #1: I guess I’ll start.
Therapist: Good. Great!!
Employee #1: I guess because of who I am and because of my interests, I’d like to start a birthday calendar. I think it would be good for morale if every month, we’d do something special for each other.
Therapist: OK, yes. Nice. (Big, calming smile.) So what I’m hearing you say is that you’d like to help people feel special because of your interests and because of who you are. Would you say that that is a fair interpretation?
Employee #1: Umm, I guess. I guess that’s what I mean.
Therapist: Good. Yes. And not to put you on the spot, but would you feel comfortable coming up with an action statement for this very worthwhile project?
Employee #1: I guess. What’s an action statement?
Therapist: Oh, it’s just a way of breaking down your goals into manageable chunks. We don’t want anyone here to be overwhelmed. (Bigger, more calming smile.)
Employee #1: So what are you asking for, exactly?
Therapist: We just want to know if you can come up with–oh I don’t know–a way of cutting up this really wonderful goal into smaller goals. Do you think that would work for you?
Employee #1: I guess I could go and find out everyone’s birthdays?
Therapist: Yes!! Yes, that’s a great first step.
Employee #1: And then I could make the calendar and put the dates in.
Therapist: Yes. That’s wonderful Now, tell me: I’m hearing that you are going to find out everyone’s birthdays and then you’re going to record those days on a calendar?
Employee #1: Yeah.
Therapist: Great. That’s really great. I think we’re really making progress here. Let’s go to the next person. Would that be ok with everyone?

Maybe you’re wondering if this therapist gets paid for this? I imagine so, and though we are a poor organization, we are probably paying her well to hear us out, and to repeat what we say with slightly different prepositions prefaced by a cooing-therapeutic-support voice. And she does this for each of us until our hour of power is over. I’m trying not to complain. I mean, I am complaining a little, but it’s difficult to listen to a voice that sounds like the female equivalent of Hal from 2001. It makes me feel like I’m being manipulated, actually. I mean, Hal was trying to sound calm as he was taking over a ship that was about to blow up, and in a way, the therapist is doing the same thing. For all her language of open exchange, the fact is that she has an agenda. I just wish she’d admit it. That would make me feel relaxed. All I’m feeling now is tension. For the whole hour, I’m constantly hoping my face won’t twitch, or worse, grimace.

This situation, of course, could be one serious cliche. The therapist is all touchy-feely, and I, being a man and not in touch with that softer side of myself, want to run away and hide in my man-cave. It’s possible. But then again, maybe the therapist is just lame and I need to rant. My colleague who feels that the best way to help the organization is to have a little b-day party for employees every month has every right to believe that. And if he is willing to go out and get other people interested in helping him set these things up, then I say, “Great. Have at it!” But did we need to pay someone to tell him that she heard him saying what he said and that she suggested (never pushed or cajoled) that he should then go out and do what he said he was going to do anyway? I don’t think so.

I won’t bore you with the details of my wish. I’ll just tell you that my action plan for the next week is to write my boss an e-mail (my boss was there at the meeting, btw) in order to remind her to send other staff an e-mail asking them if they can come to yet another meeting in which we all tell each other what we want and hear each other out, and, more than likely, repeat back what each of us just said to each other and look pleased while doing so. Is this what therapists do? Is this community building in the workplace? Let me tell you, if the road to community is paved with more and more meetings and soft, computer-sounding tranquility, and therapists keeping us happy and underwhelmed, then please hear what I am saying to you now: I’m going to go out and find myself a cave, and I’m going to do it soon.

  1. I worked for a non-profit years ago that hired a consultant to help the organization “work through some issues.” The consultant held meeting after meeting, asking us to use “I-statements” and “feeling words” to tell our colleagues how we saw things. “When you do x,” the consultant coached us, “I feel…” So, I would say things like, “When you say you’re going to perform a certain task and then go on to neglect or forget to do it, oblivious to the consequences, I feel like you’re an inconsiderate and irresponsible jerk.” “That’s not a feeling,” the consultant would object. “It’s MY feeling,” I would retort. “You said we were not supposed to judge each other’s feelings. You’re judging my feeling that so-and-so is an inconsiderate and irresponsible jerk by saying that my feeling is NOT a feeling. When you say things like that, I feel like you are wasting my time.” In other words, I was “being resistant to the process.” I forget how it all worked out. As for me, when Ronald Reagan was elected and we all lost our non-profit jobs–I guess that’s how it all worked out–I went to graduate school and then on to work in academia. The end.

  2. We had a similar ‘team-building’ session with one of our uni assignments. 10 people just before finding out what their brief is for a short TV production. The team-building session consisted of the lecturer guiding us through how we would organise a dinner with friends where everyone has a role and budget and stuff… With this same calming, reassuring voice that you’d only expect to hear in kindergarten. Some women leading group sessions are just unbelievable. Feeling too significant – ‘all eyes on me’ maybe.

    • It’s an interesting point about women leading groups. Though I would say that I’ve met a lot of men who take on the same “non-threatening” vibe. In fact, I think some men work really hard to keep that up. Of course, I live in the San Francisco, so we need to keep that in mind.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

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