The Power of Group Work: Building Bridges to Shared Understandings Some time ago I had a group of school counselors come to do an Expressive Arts workshop that was arranged by their independent school district. The purpose of the workshop was to reduce the counselor’s stress levels and for team-building; to get to know each other better. The counselors came in not feeling very thrilled about doing anything to do with art. One of them told me very clearly that she thought there were better ways to release their stress and strengthen their friendships. The rest of them laughed in agreement. With that I understood that they were uncomfortable and not familiar with what was about to happen.
As a warm up to break the ice among them, we did some theater-based activities in which we explored the idea of greeting people and their favorite ways to greet people. I had them walk around first passing by each other without eye contact, and as they were doing that they commented on how that felt. Then I had them make brief eye contact and slightly nod. Again they commented on how that felt. Finally I asked them to pretend that they were at the airport meeting a dear friend that they hadn’t seen in years and really cared about. The participants began to give each other big hugs, to laugh, to be affectionate with each other, and have pretend conversations.
Once they were more comfortable, we did other art-based activities where they collaborated to create small artworks that specifically addressed communication style, current emotional state, desired emotional state, and other aspects. All the activities were experiential and their expressions were spontaneous reports of what they wanted to share. After the 2-hour workshop, several participants said that they had come to the workshop feeling alone and overwhelmed with their work stress, but that after the activities they realized that their experiences at work were similar to that of the other participants. The person who stated that she believed that there were better ways to achieve relaxation and friendship at the beginning of the workshop told me that other’s responses about their artwork had mirrored her own feelings. She shared that she now felt heard and deeply understood. She mentioned that realizing she was not alone also helped her to feel more relaxed and empowered. Several individuals said that it had been a profound experience and that they had a change of mind regarding the usefulness and power of art.
I share this story because it exemplifies the process of how individuals can find common ground through art in a group along with others who endure similar stresses. The reason I love to use art processes with groups of people is because it allows individuals to create tangible representations of their own perspectives and interpretations of events that might be hidden even from them yet may guide their behavior and emotions. These perceptions are often painful and the suffering may be compounded by the fact that individuals feel alone with them. When a group of people use art processes to decipher what is happening or to make sense of situations, they become able to see with their own eyes the commonalities among their perspectives and interpretations which would have otherwise remained hidden in their individual minds.
Art processes provide a bridge to other people’s minds that can allow a group to become aware that they share much in common. During art-based experiences members of a group often realize that they are not alone; that they can provide support to each other and that they can help each other gain more balanced understandings, perspectives and interpretations of events. This process of finding common ground among members of a group is what routinely happens in Expressive Arts workshops.
When something bad happens in an organization, such as a disaster or scandal, individuals are first alone with their fear and grief about the situation. They might fear for the organization, for their own job, and they might experience grief about the disaster or scandal and its consequences.
If at the time of confusion outside entities such as the press come to talk to individuals from the organization, individuals may offer statements in order to mitigate their own confusion, fear, and grief. While many organizations have a communications department that issues ‘talking points’ for individuals to recite to outside entities, this strategy does not address the underlying emotions of confusion, fear and grief felt by people in the organization. Moreover, the communications department may be dealing with their own confusion, which may result in talking points that are defensive, erroneous, or regrettable.
When an organization or individual has made a mistake, it is helpful to do the following:
1. Take responsibility for the mistake.
2. Acknowledge publicly that a mistake has been made.
3. Announce that amends will be made and ensure that efforts will be made to fix the consequences of the mistake as best as is possible.
4. Announce and implement extensive measures to prevent the mistake from happening again.
While these are the steps individuals and organizations may follow once the rational mind has begun working again, in times of high emotions and confusion it may be very difficult to follow these steps because many other concerns and possibilities torment the individuals involved. Therefore, it is helpful to have an Expressive Arts workshop to facilitate the expression and release of the emotions that are clouding people’s minds. Art-based activities are an effective way to help the group arrive at a clear intellectual grasp of the situation as it tends to emerge in group process. Emotional turmoil, fear and grief provoked by a crisis in an organization make rational thinking very difficult.
Emotional turmoil can be dissipated much faster if we intervene with an art-based procedure in which people can express all their fears privately inside the organization. After that process everyone may be more able to think clearly and discern rational steps to take.
Lorena Fernandez, PhD, is the author of Art and Self-Creation: The Roots of Creativity and Innovation (Think Media: EGS Media Philosophy Series). She is a creativity coach working in Houston, Texas.