Work with Groups, Organizations and Communities

Process Work as applied to groups helps a group or organization celebrate its identity, deepen its vision, and transform conflict. Conflict, low moods and lack of motivation, as well as communication challenges, power issues, and diversity work all become part of the fabric of a group on the verge of important change. The following are two case examples of my work with groups.

Case 1

I was hired to work with a group of 30 hospital staff in a new department that focused primarily on dealing with patients struggling with addictions and other health issues. I was told that morale was low and there was tension between the staff. We met once for a three-hour session. I opened up the discussion and invited people to speak. Jody, the team-leader spoke first and explained that things were really challenging since they were creating a new department. People were working long hours and that she really wanted to have an effective team and resolve any issues that were present.

Staff began to speak about long hours, scheduling problems. Many complained about the challenge of working with their clientele, people with multiple diagnoses: addictions, mental health challenges, and physical symptoms. Staff shared stories of their work with patients, the unending needs and challenges dealing with a population that is often neglected. Staff felt drained, overloaded, and felt that management didn't understand what they were dealing with. They needed more staff, more time off, more training, and more flexible scheduling. They said they were hesitant to speak so directly because Jody, their boss, was really terrific and they felt she was doing the best she could.

Jody was the only person present from management, she was team-leader and she was hired to launch this new and exciting department in the hospital. She thanked her team for their direct feedback and shared that she felt a lot of pressure for this project to succeed.

She then started to tear up and quickly wiped her tears away and apologized. A woman on staff reassured her and told her it was okay and said she felt badly that so much falls on her. Jody thanked the staff member for understanding and the group was then silent.

Quiet in groups can be an indication of many things: fear and tension, a fear to speak out due to potential consequences, fear of bringing in a lone viewpoint; quiet can also indicate a relaxation or a resolution, or a deep feeling that the group is having. In this case, the group silenced itself not wanting to burden their team-leader. However, one could feel the tension in the room that occurs when a voice does not feel free to speak.

I asked the group about what kind of quiet was in the room. People shared that they felt they couldn't say more, that the leader was at her limits and that the real culprit was higher up in the management chain in the hospital. They cared for Jody, but they were terribly frustrated. If she couldn't hear their complaints, who could?

Groups have very powerful identities and beliefs that need to be appreciated. This group shared the very noble identity of caring for others. Indeed many of them had come into their profession with the ideal to help others. At the same time, in order for a group to realize its potential, it must in some way embrace, use or transform the difficulties that threaten its identity.

At this important juncture I supported the group in its identity as caretakers. I admired and thanked them for the work they do, the care that they give to others on a daily basis. Such work is often unseen as well as not appreciated. I also framed how their care-taking style was present in the moment in how they related to each other. It was admirable how they put their own feelings aside in order to not burden their boss. Their sense of care and feeling for others was a strength. I then suggested though that they might need to learn more about the "disturbing" energy manifested in their patients. The role of the patient is the one with intense needs, the one needing help and personal attention. Jody had begun to step into this role when she began to speak about the burden she feels and became emotional. In this moment she was the one who needed care.

I explained that Jody had begun to speak about her personal burden and how important it was that we might all have a chance to speak more personally about our needs. As caretakers we rarely take the chance to do this and then feel burdened by others. I suggested that we actually cannot care as well for others if we have no possibility to acknowledge our own need for care. Individuals began to share some of their needs that they had been holding back. Different people spoke about personal issues around relationships, family health issues, finances, and problems with their children. One woman sat quietly with tears rolling down her face. The group noticed her and asked her what was happening.

Sarah could hardly speak. She said it was such a relief to just spend a little time in their busy day together to talk about themselves. She then spoke about how she does not have a minute to check in with herself and never even considers that she might need something. No one knew that she had been caring for her husband at home who had cancer and that she was the sole provider for her family. On top of that she was mother to three young children. The group was very supportive and kind and Sarah felt that just being heard gave her a sense of care and not being so alone.

Even though it was quite foreign for her to ask for anything from others, I encouraged her to consider asking this group in the moment for something. Shyly, she said she would love it if someone might occasionally cook a meal for her family. She also said she would love to just go out and have fun after work, if she could arrange childcare. The group was happy to help and created a schedule that once a week someone would bring a meal over to her home.

The atmosphere had changed in the group. Gone was the tension and resentment of having to care for others as the group discovered that it also needed to be cared for. Jody, the team-leader, also wanted to try and make a policy change, but said she needed support from the group. She declared that she felt stronger and needed to speak with hospital management with some workable proposals.

However, what remained was the role of the hospital management. This role was the so-called "bureaucrat," the one who was not interested in people but only the bottom line. We represented this role in a role-play and encouraged the role of the "needy or personal one" to interact. The basic dialogue went as follows:

"We don't want to know about personal needs. Personal needs inhibit performance. There is a profit to be made."

"We can't work this way anymore. It is not good for our morale and ultimately, our health. We are people who work with people and can't help others if our own basic needs aren't met. We need more scheduling flexibility to incorporate our needs. We also need more staff, we are terribly overburdened."

Jody found this role-play very useful and thanked the group. She felt that by playing this out with her staff she was more equipped to have a conversation with her superiors. For the first time she felt confident that she could get what she wanted because for the first time she really saw and believed how important it was to have policies that really reflect the humanity and feeling needed to work with people.

This was a big change for the culture of this group. Some of the staff members shared that by denying their own needs they had sometimes become bitter and harsh with patients. Another caretaker realized that he was so one-sidedly nurturing and responsive to his patients' need, that he inadvertently inhibited their ability to identify and pick up their own care-taking capacities.

Many hospitals, caretaking facilities, and agencies polarize around their roles as caretakers and their own personal needs are often neglected. The staff felt supported in its basic identity as caretakers, renewed in its larger vision as community-based health practitioners who deeply want to care for all people. In addition, they were able to transform their own internal bureaucratic and impersonal style into something more meaningful and relational and felt empowered to make policy changes. I received an email from Jody a week after this session who reported that her meeting was successful and that the management was making changes and morale was high.

Case 2

A non-profit environmental organization wanted some support in building team-morale with their diverse staff. The director felt that the team wasn't clicking and there seemed to be unspoken differences that kept the staff of twenty from working together effectively.

The conversation began by people sharing that they enjoyed their job and were excited to be hired to work in this new organization. Many people mentioned that they were particularly excited to work with people who were from different backgrounds and cultures. Indeed this was clearly the identity of the group. They identified as a diverse group of people with a vision for creating sustainable environmental solutions by promoting new technologies and a sense of community where people can work together.

The atmosphere felt subdued and formal, almost too polite. Group members asserted that they were an organization that cared about people and one woman shared that it was a relief to be part of an organization that was sensitive to diversity issues. She said that at her other job people made appalling comments that she didn't know how to respond to. This statement got a lot of feedback from the group. People chimed in in agreement; it seemed that everyone had a "horror" story to tell.

The ghost in the group had now appeared. Here we were a sensitive and caring group with an inclusive and admirable vision. However, another part of the group, which was less known, was appearing in the form of the insensitive or ignorant one, seen in the stories of the "other" workplaces.

The "other" in groups is that with which the group does not identify. It is however an important piece of group life that needs focus. The "other" often emerges as a ghost in groups, a figure in a story about another group or organization, or people not present. Ghosts have a lot of emotional energy to them. The ghost that people gossip about is attractive and enticing because it embodies something unknown and forbidden, a part of the group's identity which has the potential to be transformational and vital. However, bringing a ghost into a group is no simple intervention. Groups, like individuals, feel most comfortable and at home with the known and familiar, and fear and defend against that which they experience as foreign.

I supported the group's identity, their admirable vision, and their desire for a more diverse world. I also shared that I noticed energy and excitement when the talk turned to others who are insensitive to diversity. "Something changes in the atmosphere when we talk about these others. You all seem looser and less careful in your interactions," I commented. I asked them if they noticed the difference.

"Oh yeah, I notice" says an African American man. "It is easier to talk about others than ourselves. We're too good here." He chuckled. A few others giggled nervously in acknowledgement. "Yes, you are careful," I acknowledged. "That is part of your strength, your consideration and sensitivity for others. But this "other" side, if we were to see its essence, is loose. It says what is on its mind. It doesn't hold back. Sometimes it can be insensitive, ignorant and say awful things, but the incredible thing is, it is free to speak out."

I showed the two roles to the group. Showing a group the roles in its atmosphere helps it know itself more and enables the group to interact with an often unconscious polarity.

I stood up and began to speak from one role:

Role A
"I respect all people and feel sensitive to people's differences. This is our strength and I am proud of this part of us."

I then walk across from this role to represent the polarity.

Role B
"On this side we think you guys are too uptight. You are just politically correct. We just let stuff out. If we think something we say it."

I invite people to help represent these roles as they are moved to. Role-playing gives a group the chance to see more of who it is. Roles are vehicles for individuals to speak the often unspeakable, to represent voices that otherwise would not be heard. Both individuals and groups need encouragement to notice the small and often marginalized voices and thoughts inside of them, and to come forward and represent them. No individual or group member need stay in one role, but in the group dynamic, participants can speak from one role and then change roles, or even just observe.

Our role play continued as more people began to flesh out the dialogue.

A: We aren't uptight. You guys are just ignorant. This isn't about being politically correct. It is about doing what is right and knowing more about diversity.

B: But you are just so stiff. I feel you really don't even mean it. You just avoid each other. You are really afraid of each other.

Suddenly there was a silence in the room. Something of truth was spoken. People were afraid of each other, afraid to risk ignorance and therefore, afraid to really get to know each other. The role-play had served its purpose in showing us why the atmosphere had been so stiff. It revealed the group dynamic that kept people more distant and cautious with each other for fear of being hurtful, seen as ignorant, or worse, bigoted.

I supported the integrity of the group and gently encouraged them to take a risk with someone who they felt was really different than them or that they didn't understand, or were curious about. This next intervention I encouraged them to do in pairs. The task was to approach someone they felt nervous with, not quite free with and to take a risk in interacting, in perhaps being "ignorant."

We took a break and casually people approached each other. I had hoped to bring them back together as a group after half an hour, but they were engrossed having revealing and honest discussions about things they would otherwise never have mentioned. After an hour we came back together and shared our experiences and learnings.

A white woman spoke and said she realized she had been fearful to really speak her mind with people of color. She felt because of the history of racism and her privilege as a white-skinned middle class person she had to step back and always listen and didn't feel free to bring in her own leadership and ideas. Her carefulness had created tensions between her and others.

A gay man shared that he often felt subtly judged by a Muslim colleague. Even though the man said he "accepted" him, he felt this was condescending. The Muslim man shared that he could understand his feelings. He acknowledged that acceptance doesn't really feel like total inclusion, that he often feels that way when people say they accept his faith. He then said that he was truly struggling with gay culture inside of himself and that he hoped his colleague would be patient with him in his learning. It was a touching moment, honest and real and ended with the group really celebrating its diverse nature and the continual growth and possibility that awaits them as they discover each other more genuinely.

Books on Group Facilitation, Organizational Work and Worldwork

Audergon, Arlene. The War Hotel: Psychological Dynamics in Violent Conflict. London: Wiley, 2005.
Author explores how people get excited and traumatized by conflict. Uses examples from Nazi Germany, Balkans, Israeli-Palistinian conflict and Rwanda.

Halprin, Sara and Hohler, Ursula, eds. Alternative to War: Creative Aftermath of Worldwork, Eugene, Oregon: Changing Worlds Publications, 2004.
The editors compile memories, pictures and poems from participants of the 2003 Worldwork seminar in Newport, Oregon.

Mindell, Arnold. Sitting in the Fire; Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity. Portland, Oregon: Lao Tse Press, 1995.
Absorbing, interesting, a must read for understanding the Process Work paradigm for working with groups and group conflict.

Mindell, Arnold. The Deep Democracy of Open Forum. How to Transform Organizations into Communities: Practical Steps to Conflict Prevention and Resolution for the Family, Workplace and World, Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads, 2002.
Practical and philosophical guide to conducting an open forum.

Mindell , Arnold. The Leader as a Martial Artist: An Introduction to Deep Democracy, Techniques and Strategies for Resolving Conflict & Creating Community. Currently available at 1992/2000.
The concept of Deep Democracy first introduced by Mindell has now found wide acceptance. In this book he explores the need to acknowledge and pay attention to all parts and aspects of conflicting parties.

Mindell, Arnold. The Year 1: Global Process Work with Planetary Tensions. New York, Penguin-Arkana, 1989.
First book in which Mindell shows how global dreaming organizes the behavior of groups and networks.

Menken, Dawn. Speak Out: Talking about Love, Sex and Eternity. Tempe, Arizona: New Falcon Publications, 2001.
Explores the relationship between mainstream and marginalized groups and looks at diversity issues in relationship.

Reiss, Gary. Beyond War and Peace in the Arab Israeli Conflict. 2004, Currently available at
The author demonstrates how we can move beyond the domination and revenge of war and the temporary harmony of treaties into more lasting, and satisfying resolutions.

The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Volume 7, Number 1, Lao Tse Press, 1995.
This issue entitled Politics and Process Work, has many articles on the subject. See

Diamond, Julie. A Democracy Dialogue: Getting to the Essence of Freedom. The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Volume 8, 2001.

Jan Dworkin and Lesli Mones, Some Thoughts on the Development of Worldwork, December 2004
A research article written after the authors studied videotapes of the the 2004 Worldwork seminar in Newport, Oregon. The article focuses on the evolution of Worldwork theory and practice, from a social activism orientation to a truer practice of deep democracy.

Go to
This website promotes the concept of Deep Democracy, first coined and introduced by Arnold Mindell. It includes numerous articles on the topic.

Go to
See especially "the paradigm", "the practice" and "case studies".

Go to, A Users Guide to Power: Thoughts on Leadership Development, Learning and Change, for writings on democracy, power and organizations.

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