A reader has asked for suggestions on how to interview a potential therapy group. That is a great question! I wish more clients would ask questions, especially up front.
The first thing to consider is whether the group is a support group or a therapy group. These are two very different kinds of groups with two very different goals and methods of attaining those goals.
The primary goal of support groups is to provide a supportive environment where people can share a like experience. Some examples of typical support groups are groups for rape victims, cancer patients or the recently divorced. The idea is that people going through the same situation can share their coping strategies as well as their laughter and their tears. Support groups can be very empowering when done well. They are often peer led with no licensed professional running the group. Support groups are typically free or relatively inexpensive (a small donation may be requested each week to cover the cost of the room and coffee, etc.). Support groups are usually ongoing, attendance is optional and the members of the group may or may not change frequently. One of the disadvantages of a support group is that people who are not trained in psychology are offering advice. This may or may not cause problems, it depends on how the group handles it.
Therapy groups are typically led by a licensed therapist. Group therapy can be a very powerful and illuminating form of therapy. Therapy groups come in several different flavors. The primary form is traditional group therapy. Done well it can provide you with invaluable insight about how you interact with other people. Its primary purpose is to provide you with a place to interact with other people and allow them to give you feedback about how the interaction feels for them. This can be invaluable if you have a history of problems with relationships, or would like to improve your relationships.
Other forms of group therapy can be more like a support group where people are working with a licensed therapist to deal with a common experience (i.e. rape, the death of a child or a divorce). A therapist may also form a group to provide treatment for a specific issue (i.e. anger management, grief management or marital counseling).
There is typically a fee for participating in a therapy group. Attendance is usually required and is considered a boundary issue. Therapy groups can be open or closed meaning that the group may or may no allowo new members. They can also be open or closed in regard to the duration of the group. Open groups are ongoing and closed groups have a set number of weeks or months. It is important in a therapy group to know the qualifications of the therapist leading the group. It is also a good idea to talk to them personally and ask questions about their general philosophy, what goals they have for members of the group and what methods they use to reach those goals.
With that said, here are some suggestions for both support groups and therapy groups.
Is there a fee for attending the group?
Most support groups are free or require only small donations to cover the cost of the room and possibly coffee, tea or other condiments. Most therapy groups charge a fee.
What day and time is the group held?
Most groups meet at the same time every week so members can plan their schedules around them.
Is attendance mandatory?
In a support group attendance is usually optional. In a therapy group it is usually mandatory. For you to benefit in a therapy group it's important to attend regularly. Also, for the other members of the group to be able to reap the full benefits of the group it is important that members be able to count on people showing up, on time and being ready to work.
How is tardiness or absence handled by the group?
This will give you some idea how boundaries are managed. It will also tell you how rigid or flexible the group might be. In a support group this will probably not be an issue and they may have no answer for this. That would be perfectly normal. In a therapy group there should be definite answers to this question. If the therapist does not know how this would be handled, I would want to look for another group.
Is the group open or closed?
Will new members be coming in or will it be the same people every week? This does not usually apply to support groups. They usually have open membership. The one exception may be who can attend the group. A support group for female survivors of sexual assault may not allow male members, but it is open to any woman with this issue. A support group for single fathers might exclude women, but be open to all single men who are parents.
A therapy group is a different matter. In an open group new members may be admitted to the group. In a closed group no new members are added.
What is the duration of the group?
Support groups are usually ongoing. Therapy groups can be open (ongoing) or closed (occurring for a set period of time). It is important to know ahead of time whether the group will be an ongoing source of support or whether it terminates at the end of 12 weeks. This is especially important if you are expected to be there to participate. You need to know what you are committing to.
Are people screened before being allowed into the group? If so, what are potential members screened for?
Support groups don't typically screen people. Therapists forming therapy groups often do. What we screen for can depend on the type of group we are conducting. I may screen out people with a history of violent outbursts for most groups, but include them in an anger management group. I may screen for things which might impair someone's ability to function in a group, such as active psychosis or substance abuse. Someone who is very distracted by the thoughts in their head will not be able to participate effectively in a group. Someone who is inebriated or high will likewise be too impaired to effectively do group work. They will not be able to benefit from the feedback of other members, nor will they be able to be able to provide useful feedback. If you're considering a therapy group the therapist should be screening potential members and have a clear idea of who would, and would not, be appropriate and therapeutic for group participation.
How will conflict be handled in the group?
Support groups, because they are peer led, may not know how to answer this. That would be normal and acceptable. A therapist should have a definite answer for this. A therapist who seems unsure about or afraid of conflict would cause me to have second thoughts. It is reasonable to expect a therapist to know how to handle conflict in a group. This is one of the advantages of going to a therapy group over a support group. The licensed professional guiding the therapy group should be capable of handling difficult situations and keeping the group safe.
What is the purpose of the group (in the opinion of the person you are interviewing)?
You would think the name of the group (i.e. Grieving Parents Support Group) would be self explanatory, but it may not necessarily be so. What kind of support do they believe in providing. What are their goals? That you stop grieving and get over it? Or that you have a supportive environment place to express your grief with other people who understand? It's important to know this before entering the group.
The same is true of a therapy group. A therapist leading an anger management group may have very different ideas about the causes of anger and how to manage it than you do. It's important to know what their philosophy is on the issue and what they perceive the solutions to be so you decide whether it is a good fit.
What would cause someone to be asked to leave the group?
This is another boundary issue that would be good to know before entering the group. What provisions have they made to keep the group safe? It may also give you very useful information about what they feel competent to handle and what they do not.
Will the group therapist communicate with my individual therapist?
Support groups will typically not interact with your individual therapist and that is perfectly normal and probably preferred. A therapist running a therapy group may or may not consult with your individual therapist. Personally, I would always appreciate additional input from another therapist about a client's participation in group or individual therapy. Clients may behave very differently in a group setting than they do when I see them individually. Understanding how they interact with a group may shed light on the issue we are working on individually. Likewise, understanding how they present in individual therapy may help me work with them more effectively in a group. Other therapists may not agree with me on this, so it is important to ask. You should also know whether you would prefer the group therapist communicate with your individual therapist, or not.
These are just suggestions for questions to ask. Depending on your situation and your experience with groups you can probably think of several others. There are no right or wrong questions. Ask anything you think will help you to understand the goals of the group and how the other people in the group plan to reach those goals. This will give you important feedback on whether the group is a good fit for you or not. No matter what anyone else thinks or feels about the group, it has to be a good fit for you. Listen to your instincts and pay attention to any feelings which come up when you are interviewing the person about the group. These will provide you with vital feedback about how well the fit of the group is for you personally.