The First Meeting
Fifteen parents were present at the first formal session of the group Dick joined, including a gay male couple, three married heterosexual men and three married heterosexual women without their respective spouses, two heterosexual couples, and two single women. They were sitting around the room on couches and chairs, while to one side of the room was a large circle of 15 chairs. There were bagels and beverages on a table at the back of the room. While some of the people were chatting together, there was some tension in the room—after all, they were all strangers to each other, preparing to do some intimate and revealing work together. I run first sessions like most typical sessions, and save the all-important process of getting to know one another’s “stories” for the weeks that follow.
After welcoming everyone and guiding them through a brief breathing exercise and a few minutes of silence, I sounded a soft bell and asked them to move to the circle of chairs. They then did private journaling for 10 minutes, after which the agenda go-round began. During the go-round, each parent briefly shared his or her “high and/or low point” that week as a parent.
When it was Dick’s turn to share, he said: “I’m here . . . and I really want to see if I can get what I need out of this program. I’m just backed up with stuff. Everything is frustrating. I’m running on empty . . . I need to figure out what to do when Timmy ignores me on purpose. I’m getting really pissed—really quick—with him. I don’t want what happened last year to happen again.”
Next the group decided who’d be the focus of the ParentCircle work during the second half of the session. At this first meeting, Dick, the skeptic, asked to be the focus. Several other parents expressed interest in working in the circle, but Dick was chosen.
Following the parent education hour, the group took a break. When we resumed, all 15 parents were sitting in the circle waiting. With my prompting, Dick nervously stood and inched to the middle of the circle.
I started our work together with one of the most important features: helping a parent articulate specifically what he or she wants from the work that day. I asked him, “What would you like to have happen today in the circle?”
Dick answered, “I want to figure out why I am so miserable and cranky. Nothing is really helping,” he added, starting to tear up.
I then asked, “For today, does it fit better for you to do a piece of work designed to help you get it all out and off your chest, or do you want to work at understanding why all this is going on?”
“I think I just want to get stuff off my chest,” he said. “I haven’t really talked to anybody about all this for weeks. I don’t want to explode.”
Once we had a clear focus for the work—“getting it off his chest”—we could begin a process to accomplish that. I asked him to express the frustrations and burdens he was holding, one at a time. Then, anyone from the group was invited to respond by “mirroring” back to him what they’d heard—“You’re saying . . .” —and then inquiring, “Is this right?” If the person doing the mirroring got it right, Dick was just to say, “Thank you,” and move on to the next person.
This basic mirroring technique would allow Dick to experience “being seen” by various group members. By having different members take turns mirroring, a container would begin to form. At the same time, Dick would receive “attunement,” as group members began practicing listening while containing their own responses.
“OK, Dick,” I said. “Stand here and notice your breathing. Look around the group and, whenever you’re ready, just share one of your current frustrations.”
After hesitating a few moments, he said, “I just don’t seem to be able to handle everything. It’s all too much. I feel overwhelmed.”
I gestured for Dick to stop. “Let’s see if we got that,” I said, and waited for someone to mirror him. Maybe a minute—which felt like an eternity—passed without anybody saying a word. I waited in the void.
The ability to withstand the pull of the void is crucial to this group process. Therapists by nature seem to be allergic to staying quiet and getting out of the way of whatever unfolds, because the desire to manage and direct is powerful. However, these “moments of waiting” lead to the group’s claiming itself, right from the beginning.
Finally, Julie said, “You just don’t seem to be able to handle everything. It’s too much. You feel overwhelmed. Is that right?”
Dick nodded. “Yes, Julie, thank you.”
Over the next 25 minutes, Dick brought up other frustrations—he felt that nobody listened to him; that his wife undercut him; that he was a bad father, just like his father; that he had zero time for himself and still wasn’t appreciated; that his kids still seemed scared of him; that he felt like he got nothing from his therapist, who just sat there listening; that work sucked and he felt unproductive and unable to be creative. Each time, a member of the group mirrored what he’d said and received confirmation that he or she had gotten it right.
As I witnessed this simple, seemingly artificial, technique unfold, I found myself thinking: This is powerful for these parents because they’re all working together. They’re joining in an act of giving. It’s energetic and already powerful. They can already sense the potential that exists in the circle, for themselves and the other parents. Dick is feeling ‘seen.’ . . . He doesn’t have to worry about others’ reactions. . . . He’s getting ‘things off his chest’ . . . but is also being filled up by that mysterious elixir of others’ interest and concern for him.
Most poignant for me in this exchange was when Dick shifted from expressing frustrations to feeling the loss and sadness of never having felt loved and valued by his father.
“My dad was always critical or sarcastic,” Dick said. “He just seemed disgusted a lot of the time. I think he hated being a parent. I was a burden,” he added, tearfully, “and he really didn’t want me. . . . He’d actually say that to me.”
At that moment, Frank, a retired police officer, attempted to mirror Dick’s expression of loss: “Dick, what you’re saying is that you’re now aware of feeling a deep sadness . . . about your dad (Frank then started to get choked up) and how he never seemed to love you . . . value you as a son (Frank was having difficulty containing his own feelings). I’m sorry . . . ,” Frank continued, “This is stirring up a lot. Give me a minute, OK? So you’re saying. . . .”
Frank evidently was touched, but equally important, he was able to catch himself and be there for Dick. I noticed that almost everyone had mirrored a part of what Dick had shared. There was a relaxed alertness already forming in the circle. At the very end, Dick was visibly moved and full. A scribe had recorded everything. Dick was given this written account of his work, and then rejoined the circle.
In the debriefing (10 minutes following all group work), which is recorded in a “group journal,” we took a look at what had happened in the circle, how it ended up, and any learning that emerged. A number of total strangers were already finding a simple and natural way to become a group and provide support and encouragement to one another. They’d started a process that would continue for years; a process they all came to value highly, to which they’d all contribute in distinctive ways.
Following the ParentCircle segment, the group moved to more comfortable chairs, for private journaling and to complete a short form that begins with the phrase, “In this moment, at the end of today’s session, what I notice inside myself that seems most important is. . . .”
These forms were left in a basket as parents left. I compiled them all together and sent them to everyone during the next week, using mail and e-mail. Over the months and years, these “learnings” truly become part of the thickening connective tissue that creates the reality of belonging to the emerging community.
As Dick left, he tossed his “learnings” form into the basket, paused, and looked me in the eye. “I get it. Thanks,” he said as he walked out.
That night, Dick found a way into the circle, and then claimed it. He got traction early and went with it for years. This is typical of most parents who settle in and stay long term: they have initial successes, can see the richness of the potential community, and invest early and deeply. They’re empowered and mentored to be highly “active learners” right from the beginning, and if they “buy in,” the payoff is often life-changing.