Bill Martin, LCSW: Free Self-Led Group Workbook

Self-led Support Group Guide

Bill Martin, LCSW, Faculty
Chicago Center for Family Health
1300 West Belmont # 309
Chicago, Illinois 60657
312-409-0632 2 VM

Support Group Workbook

Congratulations! You are considering creating a self-led group to help you with your goal of personal growth.

This purpose of this workbook is to provide a guide to some tools to help you along the way.

These tools include:

•    questions and learning objectives
•    exercises and processes (see addendum)
•    suggested readings

There is a lot to gain from participation in the group (or other groups for that matter) and we encourage you to give it serious consideration. One suggestion is to make a commitment to the group for the first 3-6 months after the weekend and then make a decision about whether you will remain a part of the group or move on. Making a commitment 3 months at a time is an excellent idea.

What are the values these groups can help  create?

Take a look at the values below and describe what they mean to you.

•    Being honest with ourselves and others

•    Expressing feelings openly

•    Taking personal responsibility when appropriate

•    Living with integrity

•    Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable

•    Being authentic

•    Addressing and solving problems

Like all structured groups, our follow-up group develops in stages.  These stages of development include:

Deciding to Join

Communicating & Building Trust

Solving Conflict

Developing Intimacy

Personal Growth

Transition/Moving out of the Group

Session 1: Deciding to Join

The first stage, deciding whether or not to join, may be the most difficult. In our busy lives, it is pretty easy to find things to do other than to meet with a group of men for the purpose of personal growth.

So, deciding to join or not requires serious thought. The group will not work if men say, “I will do the group” but don’t show up. Everyone in the group must make a commitment, and show up on time and be ready to work.

We understand that often how we are in the group during the initial phase of the process mirrors how we might be in our own lives. We say we are committed, but have trouble making decisions, remain fearful of new things, or have strong judgements that keep us from being more connected in our primary relationships.

Here are some questions we think may be helpful for you to answer as you consider participating in the group:

•    What are your shifts and blocks?

•    What was the focus of your heartwork?

•    What is your affirmation?

•    What are reasons for you to participate in the group?

•    What are reasons for you to not participate in the group?

•    What might you receive from the group?

•    What strengths do you bring to the group?

•    Who in your life would like you to do the group?

Here are some possible exercises:

Trust circle
Energy circle
“What would my heartwork be tonight?”
Posture & Voice
Body-centered anger work

Session 2:  Building Trust

To grow as human beings, we must learn to trust ourselves and others. This requires time, energy and commitment. Like doing a “trust fall,” we need to feel secure in our relationships with others and then allow ourselves to fall.”

Here are some questions for you to answer that relate to “trust”:

•    Who in your life do you trust?

•    When have you felt like a trust was broken or betrayed?

•    What thoughts and feelings come up for you when you think about trusting men in this group?

•    Would you feel more comfortable making a short-term (3 months) commitment to this group?

•    If men say they will be at the meeting and then don’t show up or call late to say they can’t make it, how would that effect your level of trust?

•    How do you feel about meetings starting and ending on time?

•    How do we determine the leadership structure?

•    How do we communicate important info (time, place of meetings, changes)?

Here are some possible exercises:

“What I trust and mistrust”
“What I need to know about my leadership abilities”

Sessions  3:    Communication

Communication is the way we build relationships, trust, intimacy and everything else important to us as human beings. We usually use words, but there are many other powerful ways we express ourselves, including music, writing, behaviors, and body language.

As we learn during the weekend, our behavior and body language is often the most powerful of the ways we communicate.  This is related to the way we were socialized as boys, as it was often easier for us to “act out” our feelings than to express them in words.  However, the way we communicate is not genetically programmed, so we are able to learn ways to become more effective communicators.

Paying attention to our own bodies is a first step. Headaches, pain, nausea, nightmares, anxiety, depression, frequent accidents, and other body related issues are often a way for our bodies to speak to us. We may not like the method, but our bodies get our attention quickly. We just have to begin to listen. Here are some questions for you:

•    How do you best communicate?

•    If you were upset, with which people would you feel comfortable sharing your feelings?

•    Do you avoid or directly address difficult emotional issues?

•    How do you experience and express the following feelings?







•    Are you more likely to express yourself openly to friends, significant others or family members?

•    If you allow yourself to believe our bodies communicate to us through our aches, pains, illness, anxiety, sleep difficulties, etc, what is your body saying to you?

Here are some possible exercises related to communication:

Using I statements
Speaker/Listener Communication exercise (thoughts, feelings, needs)
Understanding defense mechanisms
Telling the truth

Sessions 4 & 5:  Conflict Resolution

Conflict is normal.  The big question is do we face it directly, avoid it, or some combination of the two. It is always best to directly resolve conflicts. If conflict is not addressed in the group, the group will not work.

Most of us do not have great training in this area. The basic steps in conflict resolution are to listen to our thoughts and feelings, define the conflict and who else may be involved, communicate our concerns, brainstorm ways to resolve the conflict, and then evaluate any solutions after some time has passed. Easier said than done. However, it’s progress, not perfection. Resolving conflict is an important path to feeling love, joy and more energy in our lives, so we need to improve our skills.

Here are some possible exercises dealing with conflict resolution:

Conflict resolution role-play
Owning projections
Feedback Seat
Writing letters
Grieving fire

Sessions 6 & 7: Building Intimacy

Intimacy has many shapes and sizes. We experience it as someone caring about us and it probably has its roots in evolutionary biology. We became “attached” to our caregivers and could feel their concern/love for us by all they did to help us survive in the cold cruel world.

If we didn’t grow up in the safest environment with the best possible family support, it is likely we may have fears about being intimate with others. Our fear often looks like, “I am not getting my needs met” or “I can’t trust this person – he/she is going to hurt me.” However, if we want to feel joy and love in our lives, it is essential to learn how to build intimate relationships.

•    How well do people really know you in your life?

•    What do you share and withhold in your relationships?

•    What is the relationship between sex and intimacy for you?

•    What do you need (physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually)?

Here are some possible exercises related to intimacy:

“Brainstorming: ways I avoid intimacy”
Group sculpture: how intimate does group feel
Out of group events
Asking for help
Trust fall
Lighting candles

Session 8: Personal Growth

When we are lost, we need to find a map, study it, and then find the best way to get to where we are going. In our lives, some of us don’t have a very good map or are hesitant to ask directions when we are lost.

•    If you had a magic wand, where would you be, who would you be with, what would you be doing?

•    Where is your life’s road map taking you right now?

•    How do your life’s mission, purpose, energy, values feel to you?

•    What do you do to excess and what don’t you do enough?

•    What role do your feelings play in keeping you stuck or moving you forward?

•    If you knew you had 1, 3 or 5 years left to live, how would you live your life differently?

Here are some possible exercises related to personal growth:

Creating life goals
Strategic plan for living

Session 9: Transition

Transitions are both natural and unavoidable.  Men will join and end their participation in the group for many different reasons. Some men are already too involved and need to set limits to outside activities. Other men are more isolated with very little to do.  Each man needs to decide when to transition out of the group, communicate this decision clearly, and then make a transition plan.

•    What types of endings have you already experienced?

•    How do you handle endings?

•    How would it feel to talk about an ending for a few weeks or months?

•    What do you want your ending in the group to look like?

•    How will you send off  the group leaders when they have ended the facilitation?

Possible exercises:

Creating ending rituals
Grieving exercises

Basic Group Procedures
The procedures laid out here are, like most of this book, are meant to guide,  not to hard and fast rules. At the outset and until your group is comfortable it is highly recommended that you and your group follow the basic procedures in this section.

1. Meetings start on time. All meetings should start ON TIME.  If your meeting is scheduled to start at 7:00pm, then that’s when it starts – not at 6:55 or 7:05. The reason behind this is to create a stable container and to put everyone on notice that they are meeting to do some work not to have a social event. If the men in your group gather earlier, and spend some time “socializing” before the agreed to start time, that is fine as long as the host does not object. Some groups will meet for dinner before the meeting so that the socializing is then completed first.

2.  Circle up and perform some exercise to signal the move from socializing to serious work. Once the meeting has begun it is often best to start with something that helps men become more present, more aware of themselves as thoughtful, physical, emotional and spiritual beings. These exercises are designed to signal to the men that it is time to get serious about the work that needs to be done in the meeting. Exercises can be reading a poem, moment of silence, imagery, and/or deep breathing, Be creative!

The point of an exercise at the beginning of each meeting is to get everyone focused on the meeting and not on the everyday stresses of our lives, like whoever cut you off on the expressway as you hurried to get to the meeting on time. It is essential that everyone become as present as possible and get ready for work.

3. After the circle and ritual, time for men to “check-in.”  Remember, the “check-in” is not the meeting. “Check-ins” should initially be brief – one word “check-ins” are a very good idea for the beginning of the meeting.  After the opening ritual, a round of “check ins” usually follows. As with everything, there are variations to this as well. Some groups will do a round of “Popcorn” check-ins, where each man throws out one or two words about how they feel at that moment or describe what they want. It is best to stick to emotions like, happy/joy, fear, anger, sadness, rage and so on.

Next, it is helpful for each man to “check-in with  “what my ‘heartwork’ would be tonight,” if I were to take more time later.

All of the “check ins” should be about how each man is feeling at that moment. Sometimes it is appropriate to give a brief reasoning behind that feeling as in, “I’m really angry right now because…”

Story telling is not a good idea during “check-ins” because more often than not the story will ramble on and not be about how the man is feeling. If a man is just telling a story and not checking in, try to bring him back to the task and ask him to tell you how he is feeling right now, right here. Encourage him to stand up, move around, get in touch with his body and “hear” what his body is saying to him.

Another round of even deeper “check- ins” can be done (if all agree). This round is called “What I did not say” and can be very rewarding, because it forces each man to dig a little deeper and will often bring about a need to do some work.

“Check-ins” should be focused, brief, and help a man get more present, connected to his feelings and potentially lead to his work for the evening.

4. Next, explore if there are any conflicts between members of the group that need to be resolved. Unresolved conflicts can hinder the work of the group. Facing conflict directly offers everyone in the group a healthy model for living life with less conflict and more joy.  Follow the directions for conflict resolution or make up your own ways to repair broken bridges in the relationships in the group.

5. After conflicts are addressed and resolved as much as possible, men who want to do deeper work can step forward.

6. Business for the next meeting, selection of leader, and then closing of the meeting is the final step in the group meeting.

The Exercises Defined.
All of the exercises in this book are designed to help guide you and your group in creating a safe container that allows for significant growth both personally and as a group. While the exercises are provided in a structured format there are going to be variations due to the nature of the beast, i.e. being human and male.

A note about safety. Safety is very important to observe in all of the exercises – not just physical safety but also psychological safety. When performing a physical exercise, make sure that all potential hazards are cleared. Do you have enough space? Is there a rug that could cause a man to slip and fall? Do you have any injuries or weaknesses? Make sure that glasses, watches and other jewelry are removed. Always consider the possible hazards and remove or at least reduce them.

We suggest using sturdy walls, the floor, or something else as a way of creating physical restraint, rather than other men. Other men can be injured; walls and floors offer a man something he can control himself. If he has felt enough restraint, he can let go whenever he determines is the right time for him.

As for psychological safety, that can be harder to judge, but if you feel that an exercise is doing more harm than good, do not be afraid to speak up. If you are the person in the “heart” and feel unsafe speak up. If you are not in the heart or participating in the exercise, first check in with the person leading the exercise and or the man in the “doing the work.” It is always better to err on the side of caution than to keep crashing ahead with something that could lead to disastrous results. Having said all of that, the exercises in this book are all tried and true methods that have been used successfully for many years, but…the phrase “famous last words” sometimes comes to mind.

This is another name for psychodrama, which is the use of role-playing and acting to explore and resolve conflicts. There are many ways to utilize psychodrama in the group. Our goal is to teach several methods which can be used easily and safely.

Trust Circle. The whole group stands in a circle, shoulders touching, in a power stance with their strongest foot forward, arms bent at the elbow, hands outstretched. A man steps into the center, keeping his body rigid as an oak board, allows himself to rock gently back and forth into the outstretched hands of the men in the outer circle. The man in the circle can keep his eyes open or closed. Those forming the circle gently guide the man back and forth and around the circle. During the process, the man can express any random thoughts, feelings, memories or other sensations he is experiencing. It is crucial for the men in the outer circle to remain stable, reliable support if the man in the middle is to build trust. Joking, sudden movements, not being in a power stance, can all create problems during this exercise.

Energy circle. The energy circle is set up exactly like the trust circle. Men circle around another man and place their hands on his back and shoulders as an offer of support. It can be helpful to encourage the man to feel the warmth from the men’s hands and also offer affirmations for the man in the circle. Men need to be conscious of their own and the man in the circle’s comfort level with touch to maintain feelings of safety.

“What would my heartwork be tonight?” This is a brief exercise that can also be used as a “check-in” in the beginning of the meeting. Men complete the sentence, “If I were to do heartwork tonight, I would…..”

Cradle. Men create a cradle where a man can be supported. Cradles are suggested to be on a floor where all the men can be supported. Do not do a cradle where men are lifted off the floor as this is a safety risk.

Posture & Voice. These are more body-centered exercises where men can create the posture (body-language) and voice (the message they send and hear) in situations of conflict.  For example, if a man feels criticized in a relationship with someone else, he might create a posture for the other person with a grim face and a finger pointing a threatening way. For himself, the posture may be him with his hands outstretched trying to block the message. The voices might be “you screwed up again” and “I wish you would stop criticizing me.” Posture and voice can serve as the foundation for deeper work in a psychodrama.

Body-centered anger work. There are several ways to energetically access, express and resolve anger. One might use a large cushion, do role-playing, psychodrama, letter writing, or any other means to creatively deal with these complicated feelings. Safety is critical in this activity and safeguards need to be established clearly before any work is begun. Men are not to use other men as a way of creating physical restraint to access anger. Follow safety guidelines which recommend using floors, walls, large cushions, or other safe methods.

Tombstone/grieving.  The use of cloth (often black), role-playing or psychodrama to facilitate grieving.  We identify an issue or person for whom we grieve and speak directly from our heart about whatever feelings surface for us. It is often best for us to get as close to the person or object symbolizing our unresolved grief.

Brainstorming. This is one way to get all possible ideas about a topic out in the open. You get a large sheet of paper or dry erase board.  Based on the topic or decision that needs to be made, men suggest any idea they choose without discussion or debate.

“Who/What I trust and mistrust?” This is an exercise that can be used with relaxation, imagery and drawing. Men are asked to identify who/what they are able to trust and mistrust.  Men can do some drawing and later volunteer to disclose their thoughts and feelings, but should not be forced to do so.  A variation of this can include men sharing their thoughts and feelings about trust in the group.  Maybe someone in the group does not trust someone else or a facilitator for some reason. Exploring these issues can be very strengthening for the group. This could also lead to a conflict-resolution process.

“What I need to know about my leadership abilities.” This is a simple process where men share their strengths and vulnerabilities regarding leadership. Many men have been injured by the exercise of power by others. As a result, we can often be insecure when called upon to offer leadership in our lives. Practicing leadership in the group is a great option.

Using I statements. I think, feel, need/wish for myself, rather than talking about or blaming someone else.

Speaker/Listener Communication exercise (thoughts, feelings, needs/wishes). A role-play is set up with a speaker and listener. For the speaker, it’s “I think, feel (anger, joy, sadness, rage, fear) and need/wish for….” The listener simply turns off his internal judge, critic, analyzer and repeats back what he hears to the speaker. It’s important for the listener to use the exact words of the speaker as much as possible.  The speaker uses only “I” statements and does not blame. If the speaker uses “you,” that is a clue they are getting off track.

Defense mechanisms. Rationalizing…rambling thoughts and excuses (“I would have had my homework in on time, but my cat ate it…”)


1.    I didn’t do it; it never happened. This can be conscious or unconscious…meaning the person may not be able to remember something happening, as in traumatic abuse.

2.    I did it; it happened, “but it really didn’t mean that much. (denial of meaning)

3.    I did it; it happened, “but it really didn’t have any impact.” (denial of impact)

4.    I did it; it happened, “but they asked for it…” (sadistic denial)

5.    I did it; it happened, “but everyone else did it or is doing it too…) (denial of personal responsibility)

Projection: feelings, judgments I deny about myself by putting them onto others (“if you spot it, you got it”).

Telling the truth. This can be a role-play where men in the group break up into smaller groups and create a role-play where they have used some defense mechanism to deal with intense feelings. They describe the situation where defenses were used, then tell the truth instead.

Brainstorming: ways I avoid intimacy.” Men use brainstorming to identify all the ways they may use to avoid intimacy (telling the truth, being close) in their lives.

Group sculpture. Men pretend to be human sculptors and sculpt the closeness and distance in the relationships in the group.

In-group/ out of group dynamic. Interactions between men in and out of group can have both positive and negative impact on the group. Create an exercise where the group is broken down into smaller groups. Give all the groups envelopes with instructions about ways to keep secrets from the other groups, for example you all have been invited to someone’s party, but you can’ let the other men in group know about it. Brainstorm ways that in/out group experiences can be managed in ways to strengthen the group.

Asking for help. This is easy and extremely difficult. Create an exercise or ask for a volunteer. Each man takes a step out of their comfort zone and asks another man or the whole group for help. There is no shame in asking for help, it just does not come naturally for most men because we have been taught to help, to fix other peoples problems. The message is that men should ask for help, for what they need at every opportunity in group and in their lives.

Lighting candles. This is often a way to make a transition from the ordinary to the more sacred and spiritual.

Self-portrait/Mask-making. Using art, men create images to describe themselves and/or the masks they show the world.

Mandalas. This is an ancient form of meditation using a circle on paper to do free-style drawing with colors and shapes.

Creating life, relationship, work and other  goals. Exercise where men explore, identify, and clarify goals.

Strategic plan for living. This is a variation of the goal exercise where the men actually develop a strategic plan for living…who, what, when, what does it look like in 6 months, 1-3-5 years from now.

Plan a Group Retreat. Some of our groups have found that a weekend retreat together can lead to “giant leaps” in their personal growth. Each man is responsible for a block of time and brings an exercise that he feels will advance the group’s work.

Creating ending rituals. Exercise where the men remember ending rituals in their lives and also failed endings in relationships and other venues of their lives. Then, they create an ending ritual that could have worked better for them. They also envision how they can manage endings more effectively.

Grieving exercises. These can include letter writing, role-playing, imagery, burning, music, poetry, and anything else that can help us release sadness, anger or rage related to loss in our lives.

Bringing in a symbolic object  (Mother / Father/ Self). This exercise provides a vehicle for each man to discuss their Mother/Father/Self while holding a significant object and in doing so to get closer to the person they are discussing. It also allows the other men in the group to start understanding the history of each man. Beyond that, at least one other man will discover that there is a commonality between him and the person speaking, thereby increasing the bond of the group.

Suggested rituals. The rituals discussed here are provided as guides some of them have been adopted by some groups while other groups have decided to either modify or create their own rituals. Many of the rituals listed herein are based on Native American rituals because in general Native American culture relies on the concept that we are all connected not only to the family of Man but also to all that surrounds us. If you take a close look at the basic tenet of all religion there is little if any real difference.

•    Reading poetry or a meaningful quote

•    Calling in the Directions

•    Smudging

•    Using Music

•    Using a Talking Stick

Suggested Readings:

Black, C. (1982). It will never happen to me. MAC Publishing

This book describes the impact of alcohol abuse on each member of the family and the personalities which develop over time, including the over-responsible or parentified child, lost child, scapegoat or problem child, and emotional caretaker.

Black, C. (1985). Repeat After Me. MAC Publishing

This is the companion workbook to It will never happen to me for adults who grew up in alcoholic or other vulnerable families.

Burns, D. (1980). Feeling good: the new mood therapy.  Signet Books

This book helps us understand and recover from the impact of depression in our lives.

Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s search for meaning, Washington Square Press

This is a truly inspirational story about Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the horrors of a
WW II concentration camp by focusing on his love for his wife.

Goreman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
New York

If you are interested in understanding the impact of trauma on the development of the brain, how the brain stores emotional memory, and why humans become “emotionally hijacked” during stressful times, this is a must read.

Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child: The heart of parenting.  Simon and Shuster. New York

For parents who are interested in a researched based approach to parenting, this is an excellent resource. Gottman describes the importance to teaching children how to identify and express emotions, building on childrens strengths, and natural and logical consequences instead of time-outs, grounding, and other punishments

Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail…and how you can make yours last. Simon and Shuster.

A great resource for couples who want to learn research proven methods to improve their relationship. Includes informative questionnaires to help you determine your styles of communication and ways you address conflict.

Herdt, G. and Koff, B. (2000). Something to tell you: The road families travel when a child is gay. Columbia University Press

A valuable resource describing the emotional challenges families face in dealing with a child
identifies as gay or bi-sexual.

Mark, R. and Portugal, B. Victories of the heart.

Tells the story of the Victories program and men whose lives have been changed.

O’Neil, M. and Newbold, C. (1994). Boundary power: how I treat you, how I let you treat me, how I treat myself.  Sonlight Publishing

A workbook especially for groups which explain the concept of boundaries and boundary violations, including sexual, emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse.

Ornish, D. (1998). Love and survival: the scientific basis for the healing power of intimacy.

Fascinating research showing that feeling loved is much more important to remaining healthy than any other factor, including stress, diet, exercise, or smoking.

Ornstein, R. &  Sobel, D.(1989). Healthy pleasures. Addison-Wesley

This easy-to-read book emphasizes the importance of a healthy life-style and the supporting scientific research. If you want to know why we like chocolate or the benefits of walking for 20 minutes, 3 times a week, this is the book.

Pennebaker, J. (1997). Opening up: the healing power of expressing emotions.

If we  express our emotions through talking, writing, or other creative methods, we will feel healthier and happier. This book describes the research that proves it!

Sapolsky, R.  Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress-related diseases.

Perhaps one of the most informative books describing the complex, inter-relationship between the mind, body and emotions and stress and disease. If you are one of the men who think stress will not make you sick, read this quickly.

Samuels, M & Samuels, N. (1975).  Seeing with the mind’s eye: The history, techniques and uses of visualization. Random House

An interesting resource on the use of imagery throughout history.

Sonkin, D. (1998). Wounded boys heroic men: A man’s guide to recovering from child abuse. Adams Media Corporation

A good resource for men interested in a workbook approach to exploring the impact of abuse in their lives.

Travis, J. & Ryan, R. (1998). Wellness Workbook. Ten Speed Press

Interested in seeing how healthy you are? This workbook offers self-evaluation tools and extensive guides to getting and keeping you on the road to health.

Rossman, M. (1987). Healing yourself: A step-by-step program for better health through imagery. The Institute for the Advancement of Health

This is for anyone interested in a self-help approach to guided imagery.

Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers.  W.W. Norton & Company. New York

An excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring the impact of trauma on the mind, body, and emotions. Similar to Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence, Rothshchild describes how the mind and body store traumatic emotional memory and why it is important to have an integrated, body-centered approach to healing.

Whitfield, C.  Healing the child within.  Health Communications

Written by someone with many years of experience helping people impacted by addictions and other substance abuse, this book makes the point that  compulsive behavior and/or addictions often are efforts to self-medicate emotional pain and suffering. Once the compulsive behaviors or addictions are in remission, it is time to begin the task of healing the emotional wounds of the “child within” all of us.

Whittfield, C. (1993). Boundaries and relationships: Knowing, protecting and enjoying yourself. Health Communications

More wisdom about boundaries and relationships.  “Good fences, make good neighbors”, and much more.

Yalom, I. (1995). The theory and practice of group therapy.  Basic Books

One of the best books written about groups. It deals with every aspect of group process imaginable, including the function of groups, stages of group development and advanced issues like in-group/out-of-group activities.  Recommended for anyone interested in the serious study of groups.