The Pied Piper and the support group

When Cecile talks glowingly of making connections, I picture her as a 21st Century Pied Piper, playing her flute, leading crowds away from the shopping malls and flickering television screens.

Fortunately, Cecile would lead us somewhere nice – towards a caring community where conversation thrives.

And yet …

If you read the fine print, getting together is just the beginning. To live closely with other people is to open yourself to complications and uncomfortable feelings.

Is there anything as frustrating or as rewarding as a small group?

These thoughts were on our minds, when a group of us sat down at a cafe several years ago to discuss starting a new Transition group. We recounted horror stories from our pasts of idealistic groups that had gone sour. We vowed we would never let that happen again. Three years later, the Transition group seems to be flourishing.  It has a positive culture and many people have developed good group skills.

A key reason for the success is the “activist support group” that Cecile helped us set up.  About a dozen of us would meet  twice a month to share experiences.  We’d discuss problems like how to keep meetings on track without hurting people’s feelings.  How to handle people who consistently disrupt a group?  How to keep from burning out?

The real benefit was not the specific answers we came up with for specific problems.  If all we wanted were recipes, we could have read books and taken courses on facilitation skills.  Abstract knowledge “out there” is of limited value.

What was valuable was getting into the habit of recognizing issues and articulating them to a sympathetic group.  After someone had described a problem, we did *not* want a self-appointed expert within the group to give advice. Instead,  we insisted that people respond by talking about their personal reactions and experiences. Overly intellectual discussions were not discouraged.

Meeting like this changed my perception of problems.   I won’t say that I looked forward to difficulties, but when something came up, I was able to label it as a problem I could bring up with the group. Somehow this took away the sting and sense of futility I had often felt in groups.

I came to believe that group dynamics make or break a social movement.   Get the dynamics right, and your group will grow and adapt.  Get them wrong and people will trickle away, discouraged.


About bart

My wife and I live in a small condominium in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2004-2009, I was the main editor for the Energy Bulletin website ( In previous lives I was a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard, a high school teacher and a newspaper reporter and editor.
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