You may be among the many therapists who, because of COVID-19, are already working online with your individual clients and are now considering leading a therapy group online. Here we consider what is lost and gained in the Zoom group experience, differences in the Treatment Agreement, and modifications in leader behavior.
Gained in the Zoom Experience
In many ways, we are more separate from one another than ever before, given the restraints imposed by COVID-19. But along with this, there seems to be a heightened appreciation of the importance of connection and the ways that groups, especially online groups, can be helpful. Because of Zoom and other similar online platforms, we are able to stay connected.
Moreover, some aspects of group life on Zoom are actually easier. No one has to drive or find a place to park, group members are more likely to arrive on time, and members (as well as leader) can attend even when afraid they may be coming down with something that might be contagious. As a result, attendance is extremely high. In addition, all group members’ faces are fully in view. And there is opportunity to gather data, available only in this context, as we see group members in their natural habitats, and have an opportunity to meet their pets and kids.
Lost in the Zoom Experience
When doing groups on Zoom, we lose the physical group room with its privacy from outside intrusions, as well as a waiting room where members have an opportunity to socialize briefly before the meeting, and to wind down as they exit the group. We also lose a sense of reliability given the not-infrequent Zoom interruptions when a group member (or leader) temporarily freezes or disappears from the screen.
But perhaps hardest of all, with online groups we lack the usual cues we have come to count on in terms of direct eye contact and body language. The loss of these cues poses a special challenge which, for many of us, make doing group therapy on Zoom more tiring. This is because the brain searches for cues that are no longer available and keeps attempting to compensate for what is missing.
Differences in Expectations of Group Members
It is important for the leader to be explicit about what will be different in terms of expectations of group members. The Zoom group ground rules will specify member behaviors that maximize engagement in the group process, asking members to:
- Find a quiet place that allows for privacy.
- Keep themselves on video and maximize ability to be seen by others by having adequate light on their faces.
- Select gallery rather than speaker views so all members can be seen throughout the group.
- Pay attention to physical sensations in their bodies that might be put into words.
- Raise hands if having trouble getting in.
- Stay alive to differences experienced in this new modality and address this as it comes up in the group.
- Avoid disruptions caused by joining Zoom by phone.
Members should be encouraged to use computer rather than smartphone whenever possible, since smartphones can create audio difficulties. If a phone connection is the only way a member can join on a given night, muting oneself when not speaking can minimize phone interference, or if this does not do the trick, getting off phone Zoom altogether and calling the group leader using standard phone only (no Zoom). The person on phone-only can be heard perfectly and all members can also hear that person.
Modification in Leader Behaviors to Foster Connection in the Zoom Group
Overall, I have found that it is important to be more active, more nurturant, more playful and more transparent (basically, to add glue by increasing the pleasure and support aspects of the group). More specifically, I recommend more active summarizing and clarifying. Similarly, it is helpful to check in when a lot of faces seem stoney; are members tuned in and reflecting? or tuned out?
Because it is not possible to see who one is talking to on line, it is also helpful to preface comments with the name of the person you are addressing, and to ask members who they looking at and talking to and what they see in people’s faces. It is also useful to help members to be seen more clearly, with reminders when the lighting is poor or when a member is too far from the screen.
To bridge the intimacy gap imposed by Zoom, I encourage leaders to be more personally transparent. This addresses the fact that in a unique way, we are all ‘in this together’ – COVID-19, Zoom difficulties, doing new things to adjust to the world we are now living in.
Finally, it is useful to ease the end boundary of the group. With online groups, the transition out is considerably more stark, given the absence of exiting transitions, such as a drive home or waiting room connection. Especially if things are intense, it may be helpful to ask what needs to be named as the group ends so that members don’t leave feeling they have to hold onto painful feelings alone until the next meeting.
Other Relevant Articles
- Supervising the Beginning Group Therapist
Becoming a Group Therapist
Co-Therapy for Group Leaders: Sharing the Challenge
Referring a Client to Group Therapy
Guide to Group Therapy: What to Expect as a Group Member
© 2023 Marsha Vannicelli