Ain’t It Awful?

Support groups can be empowering, but unless appropriately structured, they can result in a downward spiral that leaves everyone with unresolved anger, hopelessness and no clear direction forward, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

April 27, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

As one of few women of color on my campus, I felt pretty isolated during my first year on the tenure track. This year, one of my colleagues suggested that I join a support group of other underrepresented faculty at my university.

At first, it was helpful. I met new people, I felt less alone and it was oddly comforting to hear that the experiences I was having were not specific to my department.

But as this year has progressed, the group has settled into a pattern: introductions become an opening round of complaints, discussion involves someone telling a story about a terrible incident, others commiserate by sharing their own stories of even more terrible incidents, somebody points out how the same terrible incidents have been going on for decades and nothing changes, and then we all go home. Lately, I leave the meetings feeling worse than when I came: exhausted and hopeless. I’ve noticed the group gets smaller with each meeting, and I’m thinking about quitting because it feels like a further drain on my limited energy.

I thought the negative pattern might be specific to my campus, so I joined an online support group recently, and while it started out positively, it has quickly devolved into an unending stream of complaints and commiseration (and now this negative energy is in my Facebook feed 24-7).

Does every support group fall into this rut, and what can be done to shift the dynamic? I really do need positive support, and I’m not getting it.



Dear Unsupported,

I appreciate your painfully honest set of questions. My experience with support groups runs the full gamut. The best support groups leave me feeling seen, heard, motivated and empowered to make change. The worst support groups leave me feeling like I want to go fetal and eat carbs. My observation is that voluntary support groups emerge for the purpose of community and connection. But without specific guidelines for how to provide positive support, a structure for group interactions or consistent facilitation, they devolve into a pattern one of my former colleagues refers to as ain’t it awful?

Ain’t it awful? occurs when participants share challenges, and well-intentioned group members respond by telling even more awful stories (“You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what awful thing my colleague did at our faculty meeting!”). And because it’s a group of academics who are trained in analysis and criticism, the downward spiral is often detailed, nuanced and sophisticated. It not only includes escalating awful incidents but also a structural and historical analysis of why they occur and persist. The energy of a downward spiral leaves participants with negative emotions (unresolved anger, free-floating frustration and hopelessness) and no clear and concrete direction forward.

While downward spirals are one possible direction a group can take, it’s also possible to have an upward spiral of energy that propels a group’s interactions. That happens when: 1) a structure is in place, 2) participants are specific about their needs and 3) the group meets challenges with an intentional mix of compassion, brainstorming solutions, collectively solving problems, identifying individual agency and/or organizing for change.

When you understand that conversations are driven by either upward or downward spirals of energy, you can shift any group you participate in -- whether you are the designated leader or not. If you decide to stay in your existing groups, here are a few questions for you to ask yourself about how you can work toward getting your needs met:

What Exactly Do You Need? I hear you saying what you do not want from the group (complaining and commiseration ad nauseam), but I’m not clear what specific type of support you are seeking. Do you want problem solving, cognitive reframes, role-playing, strategizing on different means of conflict resolution, organizing social action or something else? I get it: You’ve heard enough complaints, but what do you actually want and need to feel supported by your on-campus and online groups?

Ask for What You Need. Once you know what you want to get from the group -- and you acknowledge that people cannot read your mind -- you can start shifting the energy by asking for what you need. Specifically, I suggest that when you present a situation, you explicitly tell the group what you need in response. In other words, don’t just share a challenging situation and sit in silence. That void typically triggers the downward spiral. Instead, tell others what you need. For example:

  • What I need right now is _________.
  • Can you help me brainstorm a few different ways I could respond to _________?
  • Can we role-play alternative ways this interaction could occur?
  • I feel disempowered by what happened. Let’s talk about what it looks like for me to exercise agency in this type of situation moving forward.
  • I’m tired of _________. What specific policies can we work toward changing so that it doesn’t reoccur?
  • Once I’ve resolved this conflict, I need suggestions for how to discharge any residual anger so that I don’t carry this into future interactions. How do people here do that?
  • I need some self-care. Who has ideas for free or low-cost possibilities? 

I hope you can see by these examples that how you choose to participate in a group can catalyze an upward spiral of positive interactions or contribute to the downward spiral.

Are You Asking Powerful Questions? Another way to disrupt downward spirals is to learn to ask powerful questions. The ain’t it awful? cycle begins when someone responds to a negative incident report by sharing a story of his own. Instead, why not express compassion and then ask the storyteller a powerful question?

In supportive communities, stories are often shared in a wholly disempowering way that revolves around what some external entity -- a student, colleague, administrator, campus policy, etc. -- did to the storyteller. She presents to the group as someone without agency, choice or possibility. Powerful questions bring the storyteller out of the past (repeatedly retelling what was done to them) and into the present (what’s possible now). While it’s important to validate what happened and express empathy, transformative support occurs when you help her get present to her own power.

Consider asking the storyteller: How do you want to move forward today? What are you willing to try now? What is your specific question for the group? What is your next best move after this meeting?

Suggest New Ways to Proceed. It sounds like your campus group has a basic structure for their gatherings: opening check-in, discussion and closing. Why not jump in and suggest an alternative way of proceeding that disrupts the negative pattern and catalyzes an upward spiral of positive energy?

Instead of a generic opening where people introduce themselves in whatever way they feel, why not suggest something new: “How about today we introduce ourselves by sharing our biggest win since the last time we met?”

Instead of having an open discussion, why not suggest a theme for the discussion: “For today’s discussion, how about we share our biggest challenge and ask the group for whatever specific support we need to move forward?”

And instead of just closing with shrugged shoulders and a halfhearted “see you next meeting,” why not close with a lightning round of gratitude or action items people commit to completing before the next gathering? We use this format for small groups in our faculty boot camp, and it consistently results in action-oriented and empowered participants.

I mention these alternatives because no matter how your group is organized, you can subtly alter the structure to stimulate an upward spiral of positive energy, conscious conversation and forward motion. Even in online groups that have no face-to-face component, you can create structures for the week. Why not post at the beginning of the week asking people to share their goals? In the middle of the week, you can post a gratitude thread, and you can close out the week by asking people share their top three wins for that week. Goal setting, gratitude and generosity are contagious, and they also trigger agency. These are the kinds of slow and steady mechanisms that can shift a group from a downward to an upward spiral.

Are You Willing to Tell the Group How You Feel? I’ll bet you’re not the only person who is feeling the way you’ve described. But instead of openly discussing the direction the group has taken and members’ disengagement, your colleagues keep repeating the same pattern. You can disrupt this pattern by speaking openly and honestly to the group, telling your colleagues how you feel, and requesting a collective conversation about moving forward in a different way.

That can be done when you introduce yourself at your next meeting or via email. Or you could even just forward (or post) this article and say: “Can we talk about this?”

I realize this is a difficult subject to discuss, but I think it’s worth the awkward conversations and interventions. I feel so strongly because complaining to a group of like-minded others doesn’t change anything and often leaves you feeling exhausted and hopeless. Instead, strong and healthy support groups empower people and catalyze personal and collective development. They are worth fighting for, and trust me, once groups start to experience the difference, nobody will want to return to yet another round of ain’t it awful.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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