Groupwork Centre Blog

How I was frozen out of a group process

What’s going on when our basic needs in a group are overlooked? Hala Abdelnour runs a temperature check over a recent chilling experience.

It was the first morning of the first day of a five-day residential program. We participants were sitting in the usual horseshoe formation budding with the excitement, angst and nerves that sprout at the beginning of a group journey. In this session we were being invited to bring ourselves more deeply into the space and the group.

It was a sunny day and the skies were a beautiful deep blue. Not many clouds around and for the locals, who were in the majority, this was a lovely day. They welcomed it by opening the doors and letting the “fresh air” in.

Unfortunately for me, I was sitting on the edge of the horseshoe close to the open space outside; and as much as I love the sun, 10 degrees Celsius does not qualify as a lovely day in my DNA!

I held my little body, willing it not to get too cold, willing it to enjoy this fresh morning as my peers seemed to be doing. Once again, I learned there’s only so far I can go with mind over body and about  90 minutes into the session, I started to shiver from within.

I stood up and grabbed a thicker jacket. People made comments: “looks like Hala’s cold” … some friendly chuckles. I confirmed their observations with a firm “yep!”

The process continued. The doors remained open. I shivered some more and then I got up and added my neck warmer to my layers and pulled it halfway over my face to cover my nose.

More friendly chuckles. “I think Hala’s really cold” someone said, perhaps with empathy trying to break through the apparent indifference to my needs. I asked if we could close the doors. Nothing happened.

Three hours had now passed. I was the only participant who had not yet brought herself into the group and the lead facilitator noted this, with a gentle invitation for me to do so.

But I had shut down about an hour earlier and completely disconnected from the process. Feeling alone in caring for my needs and not wanting to disturb the group’s comfort and enjoyment of the “nice weather”, I had submitted myself to suffering.

By the time I was invited to speak, I felt like I just wanted to leave. Like I was not going to “fit in with this mob” and I should just go and be warm. I was also secretly praying for a blizzard so that everyone would be so cold that they’d close the doors and put the heaters on and I’d be guaranteed warmth.

As soon as I was asked to bring myself forward, I burst into tears.

Crying like a baby and laughing at myself at the same time for responding this way, all I could say was “I’m so cold!” Immediately I was met with compassion, care, empathy.

The doors were closed and the heaters were turned on. Somebody gave me their thick woollen scarf and others offered me a seat right near the heater. The blizzard came, my wishes were answered – and the doors remained closed for the remainder of the program.

I learned over the next few days how loving and kind my peers were. How caring they were of group participants and how skilful they were as group facilitators. The space had a strong feeling of family and  there was a powerful yet gentle energy the entire time.

So why was I frozen out in the first instance?

As group facilitators we know we’re part of a secret profession. We know it takes immense skill to facilitate a group and create a space where participants feel safe enough and included enough to bring themselves forward and engage as fully as possible.

Yet, sometimes, we can get it really wrong. We can absolutely neglect the most basic hierarchy of needs and lose a participant for a moment – or completely.

Even the most talented facilitators can get it wrong because we can only ever be who we are and there are great limitations to understanding someone else’s perspective – so what blocks our listening even when we’re the best listeners?

What tools do we have as facilitators to create space for every participant to be equally valued and every participant can experience the core elements that drive active group participation:

  • Safety
  • Belonging
  • Inclusion

I’m left with some questions and some food for thought …

  • How do we notice that a participant has shut down? What are the signs of disconnection?
  • How does a group ignore this? And why?
  • What needs dominate a group subconsciously and how does the minority get seen?
  • How do we create space for needs when they are conflicting / clashing?
  • Where else do we see this happening?


Hala Abdelnour is the CEO of the Institute of non-violence and a graduate of our Advanced Diploma of Group Facilitation (2015).

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