Group work versus one-to-one work

Group work and one-to-one support – which has proved to be most valuable?
Which has been most worth the investment?
Which would support you best?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books, “Love’s Executioner” by Irvin Yalom. In this book, Yalom, a world-renowned psychotherapist, shares his personal experience of working with particular clients. I love this book for many reasons, feeling especially comforted by Yalom’s honesty about his own struggles as a therapist. More about that another time!

Reading his book this time, I was particularly curious about the clients he discusses who benefitted from two different experiences, both their one-to-one therapy with Yalom as well as group work. I found myself reflecting on my own clients, several of whom have had one-to-one therapy with me and have been participants in some of my online groups or in-person retreats. I found myself wondering, why both, and which was most valuable to them, and which was most worth the investment?

  • Real experiences of group work
  • Permission gained to share the experiences
  • Participant and/or client anonymity preserved

I’d like to make this a topic of further research but for now I will share some interesting anecdotal feedback that I have received. Some of this feedback has been from my own clients, experiencing both individual and group work with me, and some is from participants in my groups, who have had one-to-one therapy with another therapist.

This anecdotal evidence does in fact align with existing research affirming the potential benefits of both; however, it is very precious to me to have experienced this reassurance directly from clients. I absolutely love the real case studies that Yalom shares. It makes the learning very real and practical. Therefore, with their permission, I will share some real, individual stories and I hope you will find them both engaging and enlightening.

“There is a solace in knowing that others understand me and can relate to what I am thinking and saying” – group participant

A number of years ago I had the privilege to work with a lady who experienced intense anxiety. Anxiety about her job, anxiety about her family, anxiety about social events, anxiety about her relationships and friendships, anxiety about the past, anxiety about the present, anxiety about the future, anxiety about therapy, anxiety about her anxiety! As our work together progressed and she began to tentatively trust me and our relationship, she bravely shared and explored some of her thoughts and fears about me and our work together.

One of the things I loved most about working with this lady was her capacity to self-reflect – to dig deep mentally and to clarify and name her in-depth understanding of her own thought processes. She knew that she was living in her head, wondering and worrying about every scenario and imagining negative outcomes and projecting negative reactions onto others – all in her head! It was a stressful place for her to be and she felt judgemental of her own mental processes and understandably expected others to be judgemental too.

I believe my one-to-one support of her provided a space for her to share and be seen and experience a lack of judgment and move gently in the direction of both trusting me and most significantly, trusting herself and even accepting herself. I recommended an online group to this client and she decided to try it. Had we not had a pre-existing connection, she would have been extremely unlikely to have the courage to enter any kind of group experience; therefore, her one-to-one work was irreplaceable.

So what could be the benefit for this lady of attending a group? She captured it most profoundly when she spontaneously shared within the group, “I hear my thoughts coming out of other people’s mouths!” With this pithy statement she has acknowledged so much. Firstly, the realisation that she is not alone in her struggles and this in itself can be such a relief. Knowing that others have similar thoughts and feelings and struggles as us can help us realise that we are not crazy! We are simply part of the human family!

Secondly, hearing other people put words on the thoughts in our head brings clarity to the thoughts themselves. Often, when we are alone with our thoughts, they can loop back on themselves and we find ourselves going around the same track again and again without getting anywhere. Hearing someone else express themselves clearly and logically about a topic that we have struggled to put into words can really help us move forward beyond our internal ‘loop’.

This lady recently shared, “There is a solace in knowing that others understand me and can relate to what I am thinking and saying. People being open and honest with no hidden agenda is an experience that I wish more people could have.” I agree with her!

“People being open and honest with no hidden agenda is an experience that I wish more people could have” – group participant

I would like to share a recent experience.  A client is receiving one-to-one therapy with me at the same time as attending a group. In a one-to-one session, she described how ‘mind-blown’ she was by a concept that I had shared within the group. What was so interesting for me is that I know that I had shared the same concept with her in a previous one-to-one session! It had had so little impact that she had not even remembered it. I believe this is the experience of many participants. They have explored various concepts with their therapist; however, it ‘lands’ with them in a very different way when they see the same concept on a slide, presented to a group. Maybe the client’s internal defences are such that in the one-to-one space it is hard to consider a particular thought. Maybe in a group, where the focus is not so specifically attached to the client, the internal defences are lower, so the concept can be ‘heard’ and absorbed differently.  

A client ‘hears’ things differently in a group

Another client’s journey in personal therapy involved connecting with early childhood trauma and the deepest feelings of self-loathing. I believe it was scary and profoundly challenging for this client to begin to allow herself to be seen, heard, held, and cared for by me. However, that courageous process was rewarded with the realisation that being fully ‘seen’ did not cause me to run away and reject her – but rather to feel more and more deeply connected.

Once again, this client courageously joined a personal development group. In this space, she had the opportunity to expand her realisation that she is accepted not only by me but by a beautiful group of fellow humans. Her feedback on the experience is given in the five bullet points below.

Benefits of group work - participant feedback

  1. I have always felt alone and strange with regards to my thoughts and feelings, but group work helped me to realise that my thoughts, feelings and reactions are just a part of being human
  2. I met kindred spirits who have become cherished friends of mine. Several of them have become a permanent part of my support system
  3. I learnt how to really listen to others in a way that they feel heard
  4. It allowed me to do inner child work in a low pressure environment which felt safe.  I was able to connect with my inner child at a deeper level
  5. This personal development course helped me to love myself after a lifetime of self-loathing

So, in conclusion, I feel like I am scratching the surface of an intricate and exciting topic. I feel inspired to write further blogs and share more detailed examples of how clients have valued both their one-to-one therapy and group work.

Maybe one day, I will write my own version of Yalom’s book, in the hope that it will inspire someone and give hope to someone in need of hope.

If you would like to share thoughts around your own experience of group work in contrast to one-to-one therapy, I would love to hear from you. Please email at [email protected].