Group processes and power relations

In a previous post I wrote about how the conventional way of thinking about meetings separates out task from process. Instead I offered an alternative way of understanding the patterning of human interaction, suggesting no separation between task and process. The way we choose to work together will directly affect what we achieve. There is nothing separate from what we are engaged in called ‘process’ that is other than what we are doing here and now.

Recently I was consulting with a group of health professionals on a project which is set up to research and develop inter-professional working. One idea that we’ve had, as a group of researchers, is to convene four learning groups of professionals already working in the community to meet once a month to reflect upon their experience of working daily with other professionals. We meet with the volunteer convenors of these learning groups as a way of exploring how they might work with the participants in the groups and how we might work with them. Since we’ve called them to a meeting we have a responsibility to explain what our thinking is so far, but beyond that our intention is to negotiate with them what they think they might be doing.

An interesting thing happens right at the beginning of the meeting, even before we get into this discussion, as one volunteer convenor tells us that she thinks that when they start working properly with their learning groups convenors should do  introductions with participants and then establish some group rules. As researchers we respond immediately to this suggestion realising that although we have been chatting in a friendly way before this meeting started we haven’t introduced ourselves in a more formal way in recognition of the task that we are undertaking together. After the introductions we researchers draw attention to this intervention  and it becomes an object of attention and discussion, and a good example of what it is that we think is central to the method we are proposing. Because one way of understanding what the volunteer convenor did was to challenge the existing power relations between us as researchers  who had called the meeting and the volunteer convenors, who had come mostly expecting to be told how to work. Perhaps one thing that she was implying with her intervention was that we weren’t running the meeting very well!

With this intervention we have already begun negotiating together and are exploring, in the here and now, what it means to work inter-professionally. This may feel like a direct challenge to role and identity: we might have felt, as convenors of this particular meeting, that it was our job to ‘keep in control’ and to steer the group towards what we thought should be happening. In most learning situations that is exactly what happens between the person designated as teacher and those designated as learners. And in some learning environments it may be appropriate always to try and direct. Interestingly, because of people’s expectations of what happens in these kinds of learning environments, it is often those designated as learners who are as likely as the teacher to try and keep the power dynamics as they have come to expect them. It is often very destabilising for learners to be encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.

In our current situation we are more open to negotiate the way forward because we are about to work with professionals whose daily experience is to work with others, and we want to encourage them to articulate and explore this. We are joining conversations which are already going on.

However, our suspicion is that working relationships only change when we start to pay attention to the relationships of power that arise between us. And it is not as though anything goes even in this group. Although we gave way on this issue as it arose, we might not have given way on others. When groups of professionals come together to discuss their working relations they have to feel relatively safe in doing so. The purpose of the group is reflection on practice, it is not a therapy group, although it may also prove therapeutic for some. But being able to discuss what we are doing and to question the way of doing it enables participants in this group to experience what it is we intend in a way which no amount of grids, frameworks and powerpoint presentations would have been able to convey. We are already paying attention to the patterning of our engagement with each other as it emerges.


7 thoughts on “Group processes and power relations

  1. Linda Guinee

    Wondering also about when and how power relations change not just at the interpersonal level, but at the organizational, structural and cultural levels. Can this be done through group process? What would it take? What about our current assumptions about working together in groups support this – and what would need to be changed? I did some digging a few years ago and found that discussion of power relations (other than positional power) is all but absent in the group facilitation literature. How then do we work with groups to address power imbalances?

  2. reflexivepractice Post author

    Linda, I suppose that my view would be that power relations only arise between people and are always therefore ‘inter-personal’. Your systemic analogy of inter-personal, organizational, structural, cultural implies that you think that the social can be disaggregated into ‘levels’ and some lever can be applied to make it work differently across the board which I guess I don’t share.

    I think the way to address power relations in groups is to pay attention to what is going on between people as they work together and to try and find ways of talking about it.

  3. Linda

    Thanks Chris. Great points. And I would add that there are many power dynamics at play beyond just how people are treating each other in the room – some more obvious than others (posiional power as opposed to identity-based power dynamics). And while power itself is something constructed between people relationally (and contextually), there are structures (sometimes hidden) that keep it in place. And added to that is that each of us comes with our own lens through which we see and understand power dynamics. In my mind, this makes the role of group facilitator take on added responsibility related to deeply understanding our own relation to power and privilege and how that may affect what we see (and don’t see) playing out in a group. A lifelong project to be sure!

  4. Linda

    Thinking about this a bit more, the question I ask myself is this: “What, as a white American woman, do I have ‘blind spots’ about in relation to understanding the power dynamics at play in this group? What am I missing?” Those are always helpful questions to me.

    And when I think about narrative approaches, there’s much research showing that the narratives most like ours are the ones we resonate most with. As facilitators, we then tend to (without great attention) privilege those narratives in the questions we ask, etc. Which again plays into these identity-based power dynamics at play.

    Very interesting topic. Thanks for starting it!

  5. Andre Ling


    Here’s my 2 Rupees worth… While I agree that power relations are essentially enacted inter-personally, they simultaneously manifest in and structure (though not necessarily in a constant manner) patterns of relationships at both local and global levels. When we use words like ‘interpersonal’ and ‘group’, we are probably referring to the experience of patterns of interaction that we are directly participating in, what could be thought of as local. When we use words like ‘organisation’, ‘society’ or ‘culture’, we are probably referring to a global patterning in which it is not only the pattern of interaction amongst proximate, directly interacting individuals that concerns us… but rather, it is the macro pattern that emerges from the totality of many local interactions… In Elias’ terms, I suppose, it would mean looking at ‘figurations’ and in Bourdieu’s, the ‘field’.

    And this leads us to find certain groups or individuals who appear relatively more ‘powerless’ and others who appear relatively more ‘powerful’ in some measurable or observable sense. Of course, ‘power’ itself is a contested concept. But if we can accept that the more ‘powerful’ are those who are more able to shape what is possible for others to do, including by creating a sense of what is appropriate for or achievable by them, then it is not such a leap to reach the conclusion that a person does not have to interact directly with every other individual in a figuration in order to be in a power relationship with respect to them, even if the power relation is played out through other individuals over extended networks of ‘inter-personal’ interaction. And thus the global patterns – what we tend to reify as organisations, society, culture – emerge.

    The idea that society can be disaggregated systemically at different levels – even if it is an abstraction, a reification or a construct – seems to me to be quite distinct from the idea that there is a ‘lever’ that can be used to bring about systemic change across all levels of such a ‘system’ simultaneously. Regardless, the paradox remains that, at once, the global patterns shape local interactions (reproduce or transform them) and the local interactions shape the global ones.

    Indeed, the potential for (and even the very process of) change is already inherent in the unfolding patterning of interactions at the local level and can be either assisted or impeded by the effect that global patterns have on the local ones. More importantly, however, since control over global patterns of interaction (which emerge from local patterns of interaction) is impossible, change efforts are best directed at the local (what might be called ‘interpersonal’) level. And here, Chris, it seems that you have provided something of a lever:

    “I think the way to address power relations in groups is to pay attention to what is going on between people as they work together and to try and find ways of talking about it.”

    I wonder if this can be taken further to suggest that this focus and approach at the interpersonal, group or local ‘level’ is one of the main or important ways in which changes can be introduced in local patterns that have the potential to influence (though not control) changes in global patterns. What do you think?



  6. Linda

    Very interesting – the butterfly wing! And I would add that another key in the lever Chris has identified is the work to deeply examine our own biases – the ways we have absorbed the global patterns – likely unintentionally – so that we may be reinforcing global patterns (unwittingly, and often really not meaning to) through our actions. My questions lie around the extent to which we can, through changing our connection to these patterns, have a local influence which may have some impact on the whole thing.

    Thanks for an engaging conversation!

  7. reflexivepractice Post author

    I suppose if we followed through the implications of Complex Adaptive Systems theory we would conclude that we are only ever acting locally, even if we were to be a world leader. So President Obama’s speeches to the American people, and to the world, are gestures which have huge symbolic importance, but in the end will be repsonded to in a myriad different ways in local interaction. Technology extends reach but not control.

    There is a seductive lure of ‘having an impact on the whole thing’ , which can lead us to forget about how caught up we are in the games we are obliged to play. So even world leaders inherit sets of constraints, including their own attitudes and habitus, which have a tendency to oblige them to think and act in a particular ways. However, proceeding one step at a time and in local ways does not mean that occasionally things won’t tip over into a completely different state as a result of what we are doing and everything else that is going on at the same time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s