President-Elect’s Column: Cultural Group Bonding

Martyn Whittingham explores what cultural lenses of understanding mean for group leaders.
By Martyn Whittingham

Martyn Whittingham Having previewed our president, George Tasca’s column in this newsletter on hockey, I was very tempted to immediately email him and make fun of him for his love of hockey. It was a great column but rife with opportunities for playful, cross-cultural teasing. (George is Canadian, and I am from England originally and a big soccer fan.) Now depending on your cultural background, as you read this, this would either seem like a hilarious and light-hearted bonding experience between two colleagues who share a sense of humor, or a terrible, mean-spirited and unkind act from a genuinely awful human being. Being English, I probably fall somewhere between the two.

So why is this a group moment? It reminds me that our connections to others are filtered through cultural lenses of understanding. In my culture, teasing is a sign of liking and is the social glue of the culture. Equally, the joking self-deprecation in my comment about being English is a national sport. However, I had to pause and think, would George understand the affection behind the teasing or would he take it as a slight? In part this would be based on our shared understanding and liking, but it would also be based on an understanding of the intended cultural meaning behind a behavior. Would it build our relationship or become an alliance rupture? Further to that, if we both understood it to be playful and connecting, would those also party to it, you the reader, interpret it the same way?

It reminded me that in groups we are always dealing with multiple audiences, each with their own cultural lenses for making sense of and labelling interpersonal behavior. Is direct challenge and confrontation “loving and genuine truth telling” and a sign of respect, or is it a “terrible attack” on our core self, designed to do nothing but destroy and belittle? What for one group member, partly based on their cultural background is the former, for another, it is the latter.

I have recently been presenting and teaching internationally a great deal, and this idea of cultural meanings behind interpersonal behaviors is a significant part of our discussions. My model, Focused Brief Group Therapy, typically prescribes positive feedback at the end of the group to bolster and reinforce learning. It was developed in a U.S. university counseling center, and I found over time that finishing with positives worked well. However, when I teach in China, there is consistent push-back on this idea, with therapists describing positive feedback as inauthentic and members demanding critique. I have worked to be flexible to the culture and incorporate their feedback, despite reservations. I have noticed that when this critical feedback is delivered, it is seen as highly meaningful and connecting, with members seeming deep in thought and appreciative of the comments.

women A few things spring to mind about these examples. First, as group leaders, we need to consistently challenge our own assumptions. The more we remain curious and open, the more this enhances group process and provides a more holding and culturally responsive climate for the members. We must also remember that leadership style is formed by multiple, interrelated factors - our training models, personalities and cultures. For example, is our tendency to suppress or promote conflict in groups, a) useful for the group, b) a function of our theory, c) an interpersonal tendency based on our attachment style that either favors or avoids conflict, d) a cultural norm that we are imposing on the group or e) some combination of those? Second, we always need to ask members what interpersonal behaviors mean to them. Seeking input from members can both illuminate process and generate both personal and interpersonal learning, self-compassion and empathy from others. Third, we need to study outcomes. In this case, observation and follow up questioning were the data points, and this combined with the outcome data I routinely collect showed strong outcomes for members. Lastly, we also benefit from putting cultural data into group process and asking group members how they understand and feel about what has been said, what is meant and how this is filtered through a cultural lens.

All this requires the group leader to risk – to risk opening a door to cultural data that may be surprising or at odds with our cultural understandings or contrary to our training and theoretical models, to risk tension in the group as we explore sometimes difficult topics. However, it is necessary and important to engage in this process. Clients expect us to understand and encourage exploration of identity and interpersonal behavior. Culture is folded into this in ways that constantly need process illumination and for us, as group leaders to be constantly learning and growing as we allow clients to teach us.

So, in that spirit, here goes nothing. I went to a fight tonight and a hockey game broke out. George? Are you with me? George…?