The deliberate study of group work in social work reveals that many spheres of our personal and professional lives are comprised of groups.
Whether family groups, committees, work teams, therapeutic groups, etc. social workers are likely to navigate and traverse many different types of groups during their profession.
Therefore, a more intentional and elevated understanding of the distinctions between major group types, including their core elements, purposes, and functions is crucial to establishing more competent approaches and effectively meeting the needs or work the group is formed to fulfill.
The groups discussed in this writing are 1) task, 2) counseling, and 3) psychotherapy group work in social work as distinguished by R.K. Conyne.1
Task Group Work in Social Work
Task groups are designed with the primary goal of accomplishing a single actionable goal or fulfilling a series of identified objectives within an established goal, i.e., tasks.
Task groups are generally structured within professional, academic, political, or advocacy parameters and not designed to meet the socioemotional needs of members. As such, members are likely to organize around or be assigned to task groups based on their skills, expertise, or resources rather than commonality of psychosocial experiences or shared personal issues.
Task groups tend to be more formal in their structure and decorum and focus on goal-setting, objective outputs, problem-solving, and decision-making around principal tasks to which their personal growth or well-being are secondary.
Some of the readiest examples of task groups students may expect to be a part of our group project assignments in an academic program, from jointly constructed papers to active reading partners to class presentations.
In my experience, the group project experience is deliberately intended to foster academic and professional growth, and cultivate collaborative skills and attitudes, with the success of the group hinging primarily on the completion of an end-product, with that product often evaluated by a third party or authority.
In the field, social workers may encounter opportunities to observe or become part of program committees, task forces, or team training groups, all of which are examples of task groups.
Learn more about Group Leadership.
Counseling Group Work in Social Work
Counseling groups are distinguished by their cognitive-behavioral focus on using the group to identify members’ ideas about the kinds of persons they wish to be, and identifying or removing obstacles or blockages to that goal in growth.
Counseling groups tend to be occupied with themes and tasks of growth, enhancement, prevention, and development in the here-and-now, whereas psychotherapy groups may be more invested in treatment, remediation, and transformations in personality structure, with goals surrounding the alleviation of psychological problems and working with both the past and present.1
Counseling groups offer more present and future-oriented growth goals, such as clarifying values and ideas, increasing self-confidence or developing new interpersonal skills. Behavioral modeling by the counselor is emphasized.
An example of a counseling group might be a life-adjustment group offered by a college wellness center for students who are coping with living away from home, making new connections, and new responsibilities and independence.
There are three common counseling group formats used:
- Maypole (leader in middle, addressing each member individually)
- Round Robin (every gets a turn go around, leader in circle)
- Freeform (members and leader in circle formation, communication is open)
Psychotherapy Group Work in Social Work
Psychotherapy groups are generally distinguished by the unique emphasis on the treatment aspect of developing a culture of mutual aid between group members, and focusing awareness on the here-and-now process.2 Psychotherapy groups are essentially concerned with:
- Differentiating content (what happens) and process (how it happens)
- Growth taking places largely through the group process
- When someone speaks or acts, what are they really sharing? What is the process of their action in the here and now?
Through the therapeutic support modality, members are given socio-emotional space to 1) safely and bravely navigate the course of their addiction behavior, 2) manage the emotional content of addiction, and 3) explore the addictive behaviors as coping mechanisms for underlying issues such as anxiety or depression. Facilitator techniques for inducing regression may be used to access and “map” psycho-emotional trajectories and locate their origins in time.4
An HIV support group I co-facilitated at a health outreach agency is another ready example of a psychotherapeutic group. Toward the development of my work as this support group’s facilitator, I have come to prize Roth’s assertion that “a healthy group engages conflict with an appreciation that the conflict affects the group as a whole…with some members carrying the conflict and others metabolizing the conflict so that the whole group is able to resolve the conflict.4”
This group type requires social workers to be more cognizant of how some group members hold or highlight feelings such as anger, fear, confusion, and desire for the group to rally around or resist, all which is a shared process. Furthermore, it helps social workers become more prepared and articulate in bringing the group’s attention to that process in the present, which may empower members to recognize and operationalize the group as more than just a device for their relief, but a living system of recovery and healing within a culture they co-create.
- Conyne, R. K. (1999). Failures in group work: How we can learn from our mistakes. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Gitterman, A., & Salmon, R. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of social work with groups. Taylor & Francis.
- McRae, M. B., & Short, E. L. (2009). Racial and cultural dynamics in group and organizational life: Crossing boundaries. Sage.
- Roth, J. D. (2004). Group psychotherapy and recovery from addiction. Haworth Press.