In Part 1, we discussed support group basics. In Part 2, we discussed considerations for facilitators. Now, in Part 3, we will discuss considerations for attendees, partly in response to a recent Ask Matt letter in which a reader writes: “A few months ago, I started going to a trans-masculine support-and-discussion group as a way to make some connections and try to meet other guys in my area.
“For the most part, these meetings are fantastic. However, there’s one person who comes who’s been frustrating me more and more every week and there are times when I want to take a break from going because of how he acts. I wonder if other people feel as frustrated by him as I do, but I don’t know how to approach the situation and talk to anyone else about it without sounding like a gossipy jerk.
“This man often dominates conversations and loves to make really general statements about all sorts of things: aspects that were true of his history and transition that aren’t true for everyone else, huge blanket statements about how men are vs. how women are, that sort of thing. He also will interrupt other people in really rude ways.
“He’s a good bit older than the other members of the group, and I have a huge amount of respect for him as an elder member of the community, but I also want to feel comfortable there and don’t want new people to hesitate to come back (one person he interrupted in a rude way has already not come back).
“If it was just my own frustration, that would be one thing, but I get the sense that some other people in this group also feel frustrated with his behavior, but nothing really happens. One moderator will occasionally break in and redirect discussion back to an original topic or call him out on his generalizations, but his behavior hasn’t changed. I don’t know him well enough to feel anywhere near comfortable discussing this with him. Do you have any thoughts?”
One of the biggest complaints that I hear about group attendees is that they are conversation hogs – that they attempt to monopolize the entire group with their problems, issues, and even knowledge.
In this situation, it is really the facilitator’s responsibility to redirect the discussion, and you say that he has tried. It’s not an easy thing to do, and obviously it’s not working. One of the problems could be, as you say, that the guy is older and has been transitioned for a long time. If everyone else in the group, including the facilitator, is younger and newer to transition, it could be intimidating to confront an “elder” – especially one who is so sure that he is right and so rude about his manner of interacting.
But we elders don’t know everything. And being an elder does not give us the right to dominate a conversation, intimidate others, and interrupt and disrespect other people. Also, being an elder does not mean that we “deserve” respect – it still needs to be earned. And it sounds to me as if this guy desperately wants that respect, but doesn’t know how to get it.
I edited your letter for space, but you say that he comes to every meeting. A guy (and this is no doubt true of women also) who has been transitioned for years and comes to every meeting, particularly when the meetings consist of young guys who are in the early or mid stages of transition, is probably there for one or more of four reasons: he wants to help and mentor younger, newer guys; he enjoys the company and camaraderie of being with his “own kind”; he is lonely and has no other community or friends to turn to; or he wants to be in a position of power in one area of his life. In this case, it sounds like the first two reasons are out and one or both of the second two reasons are in.
I know you don’t want to be a gossipy jerk, but I don’t think joining with others, depending on how it’s done, falls into that category. I would suggest that, the next time this guy monopolizes, interrupts, or is otherwise rude and out of control, you look around for the facial responses of others – blank stares, rolling eyes, frowns, looks of boredom or disapproval – then approach one or two of them at break, or before or after group, and say, “I don’t want to be a gossipy jerk, but it looked to me as if you are as bothered by this guy as I am. Is that the case? If so, maybe we can go to the facilitator together and discuss it.”
Facilitators don’t always have all the answers or always know what to do. Sometimes they might welcome the support and backup of others in the group in dealing with a problem member. I realize that this sounds like a contradiction to my advice for facilitators about not ganging up with members of the group against another member, but this is not what would be happening. Instead, you would be helping the facilitator to redirect this member (believe me, this facilitator does not want everyone to quit the group and then be stuck with just this one guy every week).
When the guy starts to monopolize the conversation, the facilitator or someone else can intervene and say, “I’d like to hear from Joe – he hasn’t said much tonight. What do you think, Joe?” When the guy interrupts someone, one of you can say, “Wait. I don’t think John was finished. I’d like to hear what he has to say.” When the guy makes sweeping generalizations, one of you can say, “Well, that’s not how it has been in my experience. I’ve found that …” This doesn’t mean that you silence the guy – it means that you protect your and everyone else’s right to talk and share in the group.
There comes a time when a group member can become so toxic for the group that he (or she) has to be asked to leave. That is the facilitator’s job, and it needs to be done in private. But first, the facilitator needs to approach the person (in private) and try to explain the problem and correct it. If he or she can’t do that, then some group members with the same concerns can be enlisted to help turn things around.
The guy will either get angry at not being the center of attention and leave the group, or he will be forced to change his ways, because the other group members, along with the facilitator, will exert the pressure necessary for him to make those changes. In this case, it’s not ganging up – it’s a genuine attempt to preserve the group and help the guy in question become a valuable, contributing member.
And although this is getting really long, I’m going to add my suggestions for attendees (maybe this guy will read this as well – we can only hope):
1. Honor the time limits given for talking and the age-old tradition of taking turns. I know this is hard, but try to recognize that your problems and situations aren’t unique or special, they are not more important than anyone else’s, and they are not more interesting than anyone else’s. We tend to find ourselves infinitely fascinating. Most other people don’t.
2. Contribute when you have something to contribute and listen when you don’t. Listening is highly underrated, and it can actually help you. Other people know stuff. Learn from them.
3. Check out the group’s description before you attend. If the group is for fully transitioned men or women who identify as such, and you identify as genderqueer and have no plans to transition, this is not the group for you. Don’t show up and then complain that your issues were not addressed and your needs were not met.
4. Pay attention to the rules, policies, and procedures of the group, as well as the unspoken social norms. Most facilitators are working hard and not getting paid. Don’t make them work harder by breaking rules, causing conflict, or creating divisions within the group. If you are not there for support and information, camaraderie, or to genuinely help others, then don’t go.
5. This is not your therapy session. Most groups are not therapy groups, and even those that are run by therapists are groups, not private sessions. If you need an hour to talk about your issues, book an appointment with your therapist. Support groups are for mutual give-and-take and sharing.
6. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the ideas and experiences of other group members. No, their situation might not be like yours, but they might have some thoughts or experiences that you can apply to your own situation. At the very least, they are trying to help.
7. No one is better or worse than you depending on his or her stage of transition or decisions about transition. So what if someone doesn’t want to get genital surgery? So what if he or she wants to date men instead of women or vice versa? So what if his or her path is not just like yours? What’s it to you? Unless the group is specifically for those who have gotten or are getting surgery, those who date women (or men) exclusively, or those who are on one particular path, then none of this matters. And if the group is specific and not appropriate for some of the attendees, that is the facilitator’s job to figure out.
8. You get out what you put in. Although this is not always the case – some groups are really dysfunctional and problematic – it is often true. Decide what you want from the group and create the most positive experience for yourself that you can. Don’t expect your questions to be answered if you don’t ask them. Don’t expect friendship and support if you don’t offer it in return. Don’t sit back with your arms crossed and think, “Okay, solve my problems.” Be an active, but responsible, participant in the group.
Readers, I know you’ve got some other thoughts, so let’s hear them – regarding attendees in general or in response to our reader’s question.