John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology
The Group Tell-A-Story
This very simple and fun exercise is a fascinating way to explore the various facets of a group's personality. It works well for groups of 4 to 20. The task is for the group to create a story, ONE WORD AT A TIME. The group sits in a circle and one person is chosen to start the story by offering one word. The person sitting next to that person then offers the second word... and so on around the circle, with each person adding one more word to the story. Periods to end one sentence and start another usually happen spontaneously, but a person may insert one explicitly if she/he so chooses. Usually there is a good sense as to when to stop the story.
As a variation of the Thematic Apperception Test, this exercise produces a story that reflects underlying (perhaps unconscious) issues, affects, and attitudes within the "group self." Examining how individual people contributed to the story can also reveal their particular role within the group. The story can be analyzed similar to a TAT story - for example, by examining predominant themes, struggles, emotions, the organization and structure of the language, the qualities and actions of the characters, etc. Here are some questions for discussion that encourage students to think about how the story might reflect underlying group dynamics:
- How does the story start off? Might this say something about how the group started off?
- Are there themes or issues that repeat in the story? Are these important themes in the group itself?
- Is there a pattern to the verbs and adjectives in the story? What does this say about the group?
- Are there symbols in the story?
- What are the feelings and moods in the story? Do they change?
- What are the relationships among the people in the story?
- Where does the story "fall apart" (become chaotic) and where does it flow well? What might that mean?
- Do conflicts/problems arise in the story? Are they resolved?
- What other changes or transitions occur in the story?
- Where do direct references to "group" occur in the story? What might that part of the story mean about the group?
- How does the story end? Might this say something about how people think the group will someday end?
Here is an example of a story from one of the groups from my group dynamics course:Once upon a time there was a class of students that joined a club of psychology majors. Bob said it was fun to get crazed people who would do anything for each other, then sold their ideas about anything discussed in their troubled groups. Then they took a poll and decided to put it to a vote. However, they obsessed about money and what to do with the group which disclosed about anything in sex. In their minds they dreamt spaceships sped Jim's environment bizarre. What did Suler say about interaction among horses that swam wildly with Jim's small roommates? Sadly, Jim's ideas brought criminals together. Unfortunately, they couldn't act upon the desires on their bed. Quickly, his thoughts turned outrageous urges into reality. But when Jim tried to get the cat out, he tripped and fell over the biggest horse. William laughed. Subsequently, Sally drove to the lake behind the restaurant near Susan's house. Then snow fluttered from the mountaintops while skiers warmed their marshmallows over the open flames. Next they watched people dance by the lake near Lodge Psychology. Outrageously, scientists discovered Linda's toothbrush near the fireplace, propelled through the group's shoes that moaned loudly enough to cause a ruckus.
And here is one possible line-by-line interpretation that we discussed in class:
Once upon a time there was a class of students that joined a club of psychology majors.
There is a sense of joining and the group sees itself as starting off with a sense of cohesion. Everyone is a psychology major, therefore everyone has something in common with everyone else. There is a sense of identity.
Bob said it was fun to get crazed people who would do anything for each other, then sold their ideas about anything discussed in their troubled groups.
People have ambivalent feelings about the group. On the one hand, the group wants to become a place where everyone is devoted to and helpful to everyone else, but there also is worry about whether people will violate the confidentiality of the group. There are concerns about whether the group will become "troubled" and "crazed." In fact, there is some concern about being people being TOO enthusiastic ("crazy') about helping each other (possibly related to "fusion" and aspects of the "harmony" phase) . But, on the other hand, this enthusiasm could also be "fun." The reference to someone who is NOT in the group (Bob) might suggest (1) another concern about the confidentiality issue, or, (2) a concern about how outsiders will perceive the group, or, (3) the yet to be fully formed identity of the group, or, (4) a hesitation to say anything about someone IN the group.
Then they took a poll and decided to put it to a vote. However, they obsessed about money and what to do with the group which disclosed about anything in sex.
The group wants to be democratic and fair, taking everyone's thoughts and feelings into account before making important decisions. However, there is some worry that people's needs and emotions might overwhelm these positive intentions of the group. What will happen when people start self-disclosing? Will the group be able to handle it? In particular, what will happen if sexual issues are discussed? Will the group get obsessed about these issues, or obsessed about itself?
In their minds they dreamt spaceships sped Jim's environment bizarre.
The incoherence of this sentence might be a reaction to the introduction of the issue of sex. Will this topic make the group an incoherent, fragmented, or bizarre environment? The reference to dreams, "in their minds, " "spaceships," and "bizarre" suggests concerns about what effect the unconscious in general will have on the group - i.e., hidden fantasies, and strange things from the "other" world. Jim is the first to be singled out as a key figure in the group. Is he seen as someone who will contribute to the "bizarre" nature of the group (for example, by making jokes), or is he seen as a anchor to help stabilize the group?The fact that he is the first person to be singled out suggests that the group is confident in his ability to handle this. He may be a symbol of any person's willingness to sometimes be the focus of the group.
What did Suler say about interaction among horses that swam wildly with Jim's small roommates?
The group looks to Suler for some help and advice about the possibility that interactions and relationships within the group may get "wild" (the horse as a symbol of strong emotions and needs). The group also is concerned about relationships that may develop with people who are outside the group but related to people in the group. How will this affect the group boundaries and how people relate to each other in the group? The reference to "small" might reflect concerns about inferiority. This sentence is more coherent than the last, indicating the group's ability to spring back and deal with powerful issues.
Sadly, Jim's ideas brought criminals together.
Sadness might be introduced early as an important issue in the group (the first word in the sentence). The group is concerned about being bad or doing something wrong. But everyone feels this way at some time or another, so this might be something that everyone has in common and therefore can bring us all together. We are ALL criminals! Perhaps "Jim" here symbolizes the person who will lead the way in talking about such things - the person who will disclose first (about sadness, or doing something "wrong," etc) and therefore brings the group together. The fact that Jim is mentioned three times now suggests that there will be a tendency for the group to focus on one person - a person who doesn't mind this as much as others might. It's easier to focus on one person than for everyone to take turns being the focus of the group.
Unfortunately, they couldn't act upon the desires on their bed.
The "desires" that the group feels it can't act upon might be sexual (as suggested by the bed) - and there may be some regrets about that. Sexuality is a powerful issue, so it still lingers in the story. But, more generally, the desires could be any underlying need or feeling, positive or negative.
Quickly, his thoughts turned outrageous urges into reality. But when Jim tried to get the cat out, he tripped and fell over the biggest horse.
On the other hand, people's needs or feelings MIGHT be expressed rather unexpectedly! And if people actively try to get out those needs or feelings (the cat) , they might do so clumsily - especially if it's a "big" or important feeling (the horse).
Some people (perhaps William) serve the role of making jokes to ease these tensions in the group and build cohesion.
Subsequently, Sally drove to the lake behind the restaurant near Susan's house.
As a result of all these things happening in the group might want to get away from the group and all it represents by going to a more comfortable place (going for a walk around the lake, or going to the cafeteria?). Going to Susan's house could represent the need to pair or form subgroups outside of group.
Then snow fluttered from the mountaintops while skiers warmed their marshmallows over the open flames.
A peaceful image. The peace and quiet OUTSIDE of group, or maybe the peace that is possible INSIDE the group. Perhaps the group sees the possibility for safety and warmth within its boundaries. The "open flames" might symbolize the hopes of taming and working productively with the "fires" inside the group - i.e., a mature, fully functioning group.
Next they watched people dance by the lake near Lodge Psychology.
These people could be the group itself, perhaps in celebration of their group that is cohesive and supportive. People are expressing themselves, together. There is almost a tribal spiritual feeling to this image. The group identifies itself with psychology.
Outrageously, scientists discovered Linda's toothbrush near the fireplace, propelled through the group's shoes that moaned loudly enough to cause a ruckus.
Before the group gets to that mature, fully functioning stage, it's still got to work through all that "ruckus." It needs to figure out what is good "hygiene" for itself. It needs to deal with it's own uneasy self-consciousness (the scientists discovering the toothbrush). All this work may indeed cause a ruckus now and then, but the final result could be the group's ability to propel itself with its own shoes - i.e., an autonomous, mature group.
Here's a variation on the Group-Tell-A-Story exercise suggested by John Provo (Reitaku University, 2-1-1 Hikarigaoka, Kashiwa-shi, Chiba-ken 277, Japan)
"Dictate a sentence or two that sets up an ambiguous situation and ask each student to write the sentence at the top of a blank piece of paper. One that works for me is:
- I usually caught the six o'clock train home, but that night I missed it and had to wait for the six-fifteen train. -
Then in groups (four works best for me) I have each student add another sentence to the story and pass it around the circle--each student adding a new sentence and passing it on so that there are four different stories circulating in each group. After this point you'll know better that I how to proceed.
I don't dwell on the psychological aspects of the activity and just use it as a highly motivating writing exercise. With my students the theme nearly always ends up related to sex/romance, violence, fears, food or money, usually in that order. Pretty close to the basic drives I'd say."
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