John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Kidnapping, Strikes, and Group Dynamics

kidnapping group dynamics

The cornerstone of my group dynamics course is what we call the "process group." Here, for one and a half hours each week, I - the "facilitator" - encourage the group of 7 to 10 students to understand how they are behaving in the group, how they perceive and react to the others, and how each person recreates in the group his or her own unique social microcosm. It's a new learning experience for my students. It's one they meet with an ambivalent mixture of excitement, and anxiety.

One morning, when I arrived at the room for the process group, no one was there. Just a message on the blackboard, written in large letters, "Dr. Suler - meet us downstairs." I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this, but I also had to laugh. Last year when this happened, that group insisted on me meeting them out at the gazebo on the lake. That meeting turned out fine, so I assumed this one would too.

When I got downstairs, the group was waiting for me in the lobby. They all had coats on and were looking rather anxious and fidgety . There was a video camera aimed at me, recording my reactions. "Hi," I said, pausing in the middle of the stairs. "What's up?"

"Come down," they said. I had no idea what they had in store for me, but I figured it would be interesting to play along. When I reached the bottom, Ann told me to turn around. I felt something slip over my head and quickly realized it was a blindfold. Curiously, it was Ann - the caring person, as described by herself and others - whom the group encouraged to begin the kidnapping.

"If we're going outside," I asked, "can I get my coat?" Quickly recovering from this perhaps unexpected glitch in their plans, they threw Bob's coat over my shoulders, someone took me by the hand (I quickly realized it was Bob), and they led me out the door and into the cold fall air. As I was guided over grass and then concrete, I briefly wondered if any of my colleagues were nearby watching, wondering what the hell was going on. Maybe, I thought to myself, it's a good thing that I'm blind-folded with a coat draped over me. Maybe they won't know that it's Suler.

Relying on my spatial memory, I assumed we would be reaching the road or parking lot soon. Sure enough, they stuffed me into a car and proceeded to drive me off campus. It took me a minute or two to realize that Allan and Ann were in the front seat, and Bob next to me in the back. Was it coincidence that just a few days earlier, in my meeting with the co-facilitators, we talked about how Allan and Bob seemed to be forming a "revolutionary coalition?"

"Am I being recorded?" I asked Ann, whose voice I heard coming from the passenger seat in front of me.

"Yep, for our group project."

A very strange feeling - blindfolded, being driven who knows where, my reactions being taped for posterity. I felt a bit uncomfortable, awkward, but also very curious about how this would turn out. As I thought about what I should say - hopefully something that would shed a little light on this group dynamic - Allan and Ann debated about directions. I could hear Bob thumbing through a magazine next to me.

"So who's idea was this?" I asked.

"The whole group."

"Am I allowed to know where we're going?"


The idea of hazing entered my mind. "Is this going to be a humiliation experience?"

"No, nothing like that.... And don't worry. We'll get you back in time for your office hours after our class."

Well, at least now I knew they weren't going to toss me over a cliff somewhere.

We made a complex series of lefts and rights which left me totally clueless as to where we were. Finally, the car came to a stop and they escorted me out of the backseat. I could hear heavy traffic. We were near a major highway. "We're taking you inside this building," they said. "Watch out for the step." I tripped and walked into the doorway. "Thanks a lot, Bob!" I complained. They laughed. When we got inside, I had the impression that it was a large space. It was also quiet.

"Do you recognize the smell?" Bob asked.

I did - a smell from my childhood. But something was amiss. And then, within seconds, it hit me. "Are we in a BOWLING ALLEY?" They all laughed and took off my blindfold. Sure enough, that's where we were - in fact, we were the only ones there (hence the anomaly of there being no bowling sounds). "We're all gonna go BOWLING!" they exclaimed. "Group dynamics in the REAL WORLD!"

Well, during the car ride, or during our bowling, I could have encouraged the group to think about all the fascinating group dynamic issues encapsulated in this kidnapping. I could have encouraged them to talk about their need to rebel a bit, to take me out of the authority figure role, to make me one of them and see me as a "real" person. Or about their need to escape, at least for one session, the anxiety of being in a process group. I could have encouraged them to think about how they were testing whether or not I trusted them, just as the issue of trusting each other and me is so important in group - or testing whether or not I would allow them to be "naughty" and still accept them. I even could have tried to steer their insight into deeper unconscious feelings in the group, feelings they were trying to instill in me by conjuring up this kidnapping scheme - feeling disoriented, dependent, a little helpless, that they were headed somewhere but not entirely sure where.

I could have done this things.... but I didn't. We could do that later. Right now, it seemed more important to just bowl with them and have fun. A group of people who just want to be together.

Sometimes bowling is just bowling.

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