When I first began doing seminars, I was immediately struck by the power that group dynamics can add to this work. I soon discovered that by providing a minimum of structure and information, focus and motivation, a powerful wave of self-sustaining energy would begin moving through the group. As people began sharing their deepest desires with a group of like-minded and supportive individuals, the energy in the room surged—taking on a life of its own.
The truth is, many people feel isolated with respect to their career issues, having no place in their daily lives in which to really explore their dreams. Seeing others from all walks of life engaged in the same process is both reassuring and highly motivating to them. Listening to and sharing with others makes the whole process seem more real to many. People begin to feed off each others’ insights and breakthroughs. They share invaluable advice, timing-saving practical tips, and important connections with one another. Those who might be more timid on their own gain confidence from the example provided by more confident or self-aware participants. In a variety of ways, people in this kind of supportive group setting benefit from one another’s energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and insights.
The basic structure to all my career coaching work involves asking clients key framing questions (many of which are contained in my books). The trick is getting people to confront and answer these questions in a sincere and honest way, which is to say, from their hearts. The group dynamic adds momentum to the process, an intangible but palpable energy that individuals can access to move more quickly through areas that might bog them down on their own. They start to think, if the person sitting next to me can do this—so can I.
Because of my own experience in working with groups, I was delighted to learn that people were beginning to form their own support groups for working through the exercises in my career books. And I was gratified to hear about their results. You may want to create a life’s work development group of your own. Providing this kind of context can be a valuable service to others. It can also support you in your own quest. Below are some tips that have proved helpful to those who have set up successful groups in the past.
Your group could simply be you and a friend. To tap in the power of group dynamics you’ll probably want a minimum of four, and no more than twenty, people. Optimal group size ranges between ten and fourteen members. It’s best to have an even number of participants so that each group member will have a partner to work with. Participants might include friends and acquaintances, co-workers, or members of organizations you belong to. Some people post flyers or listings on their favorite social networking sites, or run ads on Craigslist or in their local newspapers to fill out their groups. Restrict membership to those who are seriously committed to the process of creating a new life’s work. You’re much better off with a small group of dedicated seekers than a larger group with a lot of dead weight.
Discuss the issue of membership at your first meeting and establish clear policies about adding new members. Because this is a step-by-step process in which each new element depends upon what has come before, you will probably want to close the group to new members after the second or third meeting. Group members should be expected to attend meetings, complete homework, and participate in group exercises and discussions. If it is impossible for a group member to attend a particular meeting, the meeting facilitator should be notified.
Without clear direction and a well-focused agenda, your life’s work gatherings run the risk of degenerating into chat, gossip, or gripe sessions, where energy and time are spent, but little is accomplished. For this reason, I strongly recommend that your group designate a facilitator or discussion leader for your meetings. It will become the facilitator’s responsibility to set the meeting’s agenda and to keep the group focused and moving forward.
Your group may choose to elect a single leader or a leadership team that takes turns in facilitating the meetings. Group leadership might rotate from person to person, with each member taking a turn leading a meeting in his or her home. However your group chooses to resolve the leadership issue, make sure someone takes responsibility for each meeting. The facilitator should participate in all of the activities, and not dominate the group. At the same time, he or she should make sure that the group stays focused on fulfilling its objectives for the week.
Of course, the structure of the meeting will vary from session to session, depending on the topic under discussion. Generally though, meetings might include discussion of reading material and the completion of exercises from the book. When moving through the exercises, instruct participants to write down their responses to all the questions in a given exercise (they will have a record of their responses that they can take with them), then have them share their answers with a partner, a break-out group, or the group as a whole. One of the principal values that many receive from the group experience is that it supports them in doing the exercises they might otherwise avoid. In addition, sharing their answers with a partner or in a small group context enables them to affirm their answers and receive feedback on them. You or your facilitator may develop creative group exercises or projects that reinforce your team’s work.
The process of getting to a life’s work can bring up a host of related ideas and issues that participants may want to discuss. Nevertheless, it’s best to stick to an agenda. Don’t allow the group to get sidetracked with chit-chat or dominated by the personal concerns of a single individual. Leaders should encourage those who would like to, to carry on their dialog outside designated meeting times—over coffee after the meetings or at other times throughout the week. Offering light refreshments after meetings can provide group members with opportunities to socialize and make arrangements to carry on their discussions. The exercises contained within the books are designed to take you step by step through the process of discovering and ultimately realizing your life’s work. Encourage participants to trust the process and remind them that their concerns will most likely be addressed at a later point in the work.
Establish and agree upon clear operating guidelines at the first meeting. Take notes and distribute copies to all the members. Basic guidelines might include: agreeing to create a supportive environment in which people feel free to share their dreams without fear of condemnation and in anticipation of acknowledgement and support, giving full attention and respect to whomever is speaking, keeping “sharings” brief enough to allow all members a turn to speak, and staying within the time limits specified by the facilitator.
At your first meeting, agree upon a regular and unchanging time for all future meetings. While flexibility is nice in theory, a regular meeting time greatly increases the likelihood of holding your group intact. Weekday evenings early in the week tend to work best for most people. Depending upon the size of your group, allow an hour to two hours per meeting—a large group may need even more time. Plan to meet once a week for eight to twelve weeks. At your final meeting, evaluate your group’s progress and determine where to go from there.
You can hold meetings in your home, at a public venue (e.g., a conference room in a public library), or in various group members’ homes on a rotating basis. In any case, make sure the room you use is comfortable and inviting. Anticipate potential interruptions and distractions, and do your best to eliminate them. Unplug landline phones and ask folks to turn off their cell phones. Make childcare arrangements for the little ones. Keep household pets outside or confined to areas away from the designated meeting area.
Each participant will need a copy of Zen and the Art of Making a Living, a notebook for written exercises, and a writing implement. If the meetings are being held at your home, you may want to supply extra pens, pencils, and note pads for those who forget them.
Each group is an organic entity with a personality and intelligence all its own. The guidelines above are offered as a basic structure that you can adapt to meet the needs of your group. Starting a life’s work development group can provide a fun way to begin the process of taking creative control of your work life, while at the same time assisting others to do the same. If this appeals you, by all means go for it!