How Do I Start? The Group Check-in

 

How do I Start

John Gottman says that the way an argument is started helps determine the way it will end. I believe that the same is true for battering intervention program groups: a good beginning can influence how the group ends. I have to confess, when I started doing this work, I didn’t give much thought to how the group started. It was only after I was involved in this work for a while that I noticed the impact of the start-up, whatever it might be. I hear of some programs using mindfulness activities to begin classes, with good results. One man told me of meditative readings that he uses to set the tone for his group. While there are countless approaches to beginning a group process, I’ve noticed that quite a few of us use a version of “check-in” to start group--but the purpose and way it is administered varies greatly.  After trying to use the check-in in a variety of ways, we’ve found a relatively simple version gives both facilitators and participants good results, but for different reasons.   

A typical check-in to start a group in a Family Peace Initiative class asks participants to state 1) their first name; 2) how they are feeling in terms of Mad, Sad, Glad, or Afraid, and 3) something related to the topic for the class.  For example, if we are discussing emotional abuse, we will ask participants to identify one way they have been emotionally abusive in a relationship.  Finally, we encourage group members to let us know if they would like some time during the class to discuss something that might be on their mind.

It is remarkable how difficult it can be for men to even say emotional words like mad, sad, glad or afraid.

Within these requests, several things can be accomplished.  First, the ritual occurrence of the check-in offers everyone the opportunity at the outset of class to share and become focused on the subject at hand. Second, they are moving toward an internal focus by being asked to notice what they are feeling and share it.  How participants respond to the question about feelings can be a powerful indicator of how vulnerable and open a group member is becoming.  We will often see more experienced participants able to identify their emotions openly while those who are newer in the class will commonly say things like, “I’m fine”, or, “I’m alright”, or “I’m cool”.  It is remarkable how difficult it can be for men to even say emotional words like mad, sad, glad or afraid. 

Asking participants during check-in to identify a form of cruelty they have used serves to prepare and normalize the approaching conversation. It helps participants own behavior without feeling like they are being “put on the spot”. We’ve also noticed that the desire to “fit in” provides a subtle pressure to join the others and acknowledge a cruel behavior

In regard to the check-in, leading by example means that we participate by sharing our feelings and our own use of cruelty in relationships. This can feel risky at first, but the effectiveness of this approach in undeniable.

Every so often, we offer a more detailed check-in that invites participants to state a complete list of all the ways they have been cruel, abusive or violent in relationships.  While this check-in requires more time, it is powerful in helping participants take ownership for more cruel behaviors as they move through the class.  Facilitators can gauge the amount of increased ownership participants make at different stages of the class by listening to how they include specific behaviors, expand their lists, and how they talk about their behavior, simply by using this check-in at different stages of the program.

The Family Peace Initiative is well known for how our facilitators are asked to lead by example. In regard to the check-in, leading by example means that we participate by sharing our feelings and our own use of cruelty in relationships. This can feel risky at first, but the effectiveness of this approach in undeniable.

It is valuable to your program to consider what approach or activity you want to use to start each group session. How does it benefit the facilitator’s job?  How does it benefit the participants? Whether you choose to use mindfulness activities, meditative readings, check-ins, or some other approach, keep in mind that the better your start-up, the better your class will end.  

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