Groupwork Centre Blog

Normalising: How do we handle sensitivities around this microskill?

Who wants to be normal? It was a question I often asked myself in my youth. Normal to me meant straight, mainstream, suburbia. As a queer kid growing up without any role models, I didn’t know too much. But I knew this was not my thing.

“Normality” often equalled repression or worse, oppression. The imposition of a group norm on others, whether they liked it or not. Whether it fitted with who they were, whether they agreed with it or not.

This discomfort with the term has stuck with me throughout my life. In my twenties, when I worked with Indigenous people in Central Australia, I began to better understand how the dominant culture is practised at imposing its “norms” on others.

“Normal” was white, Anglo-Saxon, and all too frequently male in its outlook. Normal accounted for so much poor and sometimes barbaric behaviour. So much of the violence, exclusion and denial of the wisdom and richness of First Nations people and culture originated in the forlorn proposition that normality demanded a Sunday School-style whiteness. Scrubbed and sanctified by the Lord.

So, when I first encountered the term “normalising” in the list of microskills at Groupwork Centre, my hackles bristled, ever so slightly, but the feeling was palpable. And it’s never entirely disappeared.

I soon learned this feeling was shared by many of the people I worked with. As a facilitator, I’ve encountered plenty of people in groups who have flinched when I use the term “normalising”.

Normality has an uncomfortable edge

It turns out that for many of us, whether we are queer, brown-skinned, neurodiverse, non-binary, or we just stand out from the crowd in some way, “normality” has an uncomfortable edge to it.

I began to use a preface to the words on the card of the microskill. “Normalising is a concept, it’s not a word we use directly to describe others or the actions of others,” I would say. “It’s to reassure people that what they are feeling or experiencing is quite common.”

Recently, when we unpacked the term at Groupwork Centre during one of our Practice Circles, we came up with the notion that to “normalise” was to highlight a shared experience or feeling. Simple as that. It’s not about imposing a group norm on others. It’s about letting them know that many of us have had similar experiences or feelings.

This can be important to do in a group when someone steps out of their comfort zone and allows themselves to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable, sharing something we hold close, is one of the most powerful things that can happen in a group. It allows us to be our authentic true selves: doubtful, sensitive, imperfect, flawed even. What a relief!

Being vulnerable takes courage

Acknowledging the courage that takes by validating the person and then normalising the discomfort they feel makes it safe in the group for anyone to share stuff that’s alive for us. This is how we create the connection that makes a group buzz. It builds the container we need to do great work.

“That’s a big thing for you to tell us Max. I can see how that experience has had a huge impact on you. Thanks for sharing. It reminds us all how, during these discussions, stuff can come up for us that may need to be said, even when it’s hard to say or hard for others to hear.”

We are interested in your experiences of using this microskill. Do you take care with the words you use to describe normalising? If we were to rename it, what could we call it instead? We’ve asked ourselves this question, but have yet to come up with a simple alternative. If you have any suggestions, we would love to hear them via:

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