Steering the Storyteller in Group Therapy

by Darrah Westrup, PhD, author of Learning ACT for Group Treatment

Active participation is one of the main tenets of group therapy. But what about the over-contributor? What’s the best way to work with a Storyteller—the member who uses sessions to regale the group with tales about themselves and their lives. As my coauthor M. Joann Wright and I explore in Learning ACT for Group Treatment, context is key. In assessing the function of the storytelling, the therapist is guided how to best respond. We have to consider not only how the storytelling functions for the teller, but for the others in the group and in terms of the overall efficacy of the therapy. 

For example, consider that a group member spent the last 10 minutes telling a story about something they experienced in the past. Now imagine this is the first time that group member has shared anything personal in group. Now imagine that the group member has in fact shared this same story not once, but twice before. There is a difference in the context. Perhaps the story has been shared before, but is a perfect example of something the group is working on. Or perhaps the story is in fact very brief and new, but functioned to take attention away from something important going on in the session. These are just a few possibilities, all suggesting different responses from the therapist. 

See also: Avoiding the pitfall of focusing on form versus function while in session

So, what to do with the group member who regularly launches into personal stories in a way that is problematic, both for their own growth and for the group overall? We like to go straight to function:

Therapist: (interrupting “Kevin” as he is telling the group about something he experienced in the war) Sorry to interrupt you Kevin, but I think it’s important to ask you something. (Kevin pauses). I would like to know more about why you are wanting to tell the group this right now. What is it you are wanting them to know?”

This intervention invites Kevin to assess the function of what he is doing himself. Often, a group member put in this position will falter a bit as he/she is being pulled out of the story their mind is handing them. 

Kevin: (hesitantly) I’m not sure…

Therapist: Chris had just shared that he got upset by a movie he saw over the weekend and then you began to share a story about how you once decked someone who startled you—

Kevin: Oh yeah. This guy just came up behind me with no warning you know? And I—

Therapist: Let me interrupt you right there—this is important. Can you say why you are wanting to share that with the group right now?

Kevin: (a bit nonplussed but thinking) I…I just feel like I can relate to Chris.

Therapist: Ah, I see. So sharing that situation is a way to let Chris know you can relate to his experience. (Kevin nods). So what are the actual emotions that showed up for you?

Now we are back to the present and building skills with the core acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) processes (contacting the present, defusion, willingness, self as context). You could even point to values by remarking that connection with others seems important to Kevin. In essence, you have pulled the focus away from the story content and towards what is emotionally happening in the moment within the group. 

The key to all of this is to keep your eye on process. It’s not so much what is being said, but why is it being said. What is happening in the room? Remember that you can also put it out to the group to consider. What is happening in this moment? What is not being said? Why are we doing what we’re doing? What is the purpose of telling that story, in this moment in time? What are you needing? In other words, point to the function, and let your group go to work.

Darrah Westrup, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Colorado and California with an established reputation for her work as a therapist, program director, trainer, researcher, and consultant to practitioners at various firms and organizations. She is a recognized authority on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and has conducted numerous presentations and trainings at international, national, and local conferences, seminars, and workshops. She is coauthor of Learning ACT for Group Treatment.

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