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/ Home / Library / Articles on Education / Counselling / Understanding and Using Group Work

Understanding and Using Group Work

Author: Robert K. Conyne
Date: 2000

An evolution in group work training has been occurring within counselor education since 1990. That was the year the Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW) published its revised "Professional Standards for the Training of Group Workers" (ASGW, 1990). Until then, understandings of group work within the counseling profession were limited to group counseling. In fact, it could be said that group work was group counseling. Consequently, training in groups and the supporting professional literature were both focused on group counseling. Practice, however, varied. Many counselors in the field included group counseling in their helping repertoire but, also, other forms of group work heretofore unsystematically addressed in counseling curricula: counselors led committees and task forces, they conducted skill training groups, they facilitated education and prevention groups, and they sometimes worked with disturbed clientele in groups. In fact, the scope of group work practice exceeded the extent of the training in groups that was being provided by counselor education programs.

The professional training standards committee of ASGW, which I chaired, predicted that the practice trend noted above would increase into the 21st century. We concluded that there would be a demand for more and different kinds of groups, including brief therapy groups, prevention groups, skill-based groups, support groups, and task and team groups, as well as the more familiar counseling groups (see, for example, Klein, 1985; Reddy, 1994). Our mission, then, was to reflect this anticipated surge in the range of group applications within revised training standards. We intended that these standards would be used to more comprehensively prepare tomorrow's counseling practitioners in group work.

What is Group Work?

The standards define group work as: a broad professional practice that refers to the giving of help or the accomplishment of tasks in a group setting. It involves the application of group theory and process by a capable professional practitioner to assist an interdependent collection of people to reach their mutual goals, which may be personal, interpersonal, or task-related in nature (ASGW, 1990, p. 14).

Key elements of this definition are that group work is a broad professional practice oriented to help-giving or to task-accomplishment. That is, group work is comprehensive, not restricted to any one particular methodology, such as group counseling or group therapy. Moreover, group work can be used to help people to grow and change, goals that are well within the heritage of group counseling, and to help people to solve task and work problems (Conyne, 1989). These concepts give rise to the evolution underway to make group work training more consistent with the growing intensity and diversity of demands for group work practice.

Using Group Work

According to the standards, four major types of group work are available for use:

  • (a) task/work group work;
  • (b) guidance/psychoeducation group work;
  • (c) counseling/interpersonal problem-solving group work; and
  • (d) psychotherapy/personality reconstruction group work. Each of these types is described briefly next, using their working title.

Task group work. The practitioner focuses on applying group dynamics principles and processes to facilitate the accomplishment of identified work goals in such groups as committees, task forces, teams, community organizations, and discussion groups (e.g., Reddy, 1994).

Psychoeducation group work. The practitioner focuses on educating, preventing, and developing competencies in members through such structured groups as social skills, parenting, substance abuse, and life skills training (e.g., Gazda & Pistole, 1985).

Counseling group work. The practitioner focuses on helping group participants to resolve usually non-severe career, educational, personal, social, and developmental concerns through processes of interpersonal interaction, support, and problem-solving (e.g., Gladding, 1995; Trotzer, 1989).

Psychotherapy group work. The practitioner seeks to help individual group members to understand and remediate their significant emotional and psychologicial problems, focusing on intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics (e.g., Yalom, 1985).

Of course, in reality considerable overlap may be found among these four types of group work. Psychotherapy group work may involve some educating and use of structure, as found typically in psychoeducational group work, for instance. Yet, the four group work types are helpful in conceptually marking the breadth of possible group work practice, in designing appropriate training for each, and in guiding valid application.

Regardless of which group work type is being used, the practitioner needs to possess both a general and a unique set of competencies. Core skills that all group workers need to master are touched on here. Please refer to the standards for elaboration.

Core Skills for All Group Work

All counselors doing group work need to be able to do at least the following:

  1. Encourage participation of group members.
  2. Observe and identify group process events.
  3. Attend to and acknowledge group member behavior.
  4. Clarify and summarize group member statements.
  5. Open and close group sessions.
  6. Impart information in the group when necessary.
  7. Model effective group leader behavior.
  8. Engage in appropriate self-disclosure in the group.
  9. Give and receive feedback in the group.
  10. Ask open-ended questions in the group.
  11. Empathize with group members.
  12. Confront group members' behavior.
  13. Help group members attribute meaning to their experience.
  14. Help group members to integrate and apply learnings.
  15. Demonstrate ASGW ethical and professional standards in group practice.
  16. Keep the group on task in accomplishing its goals.

These competencies represent the foundation for all group work practice. Counselors who lead any of the four types of group work need to master additional competencies and obtain appropriate supervised experience, as indicated in the standards.

Suggested Directions for Group Work Practitioners

To be an effective and relevant group worker in today's world, a counselor needs to first develop basic knowledge and skills in group work, as outlined above. Most counselor education programs should be providing this training as a matter of course. In addition, specializing in a certain type of group work, such as group counseling or psychoeducation group leadership, requires the practitioner to obtain training and supervision that build upon the core competencies. Many counselor education programs are able to provide such training presently, or are gearing up to do so. However, it also is important for the counseling practitioner who is interested in group work to seek additional training and supervision through appropriate continuing education services, such as group work offerings sponsored by the American Counseling Association or the Association for Specialists in Group Work.


Training in group work is beginning to catch up with its practice in the field and with demands from consumers for both more groups and a wider variety of them. The revised ASGW professional training standards are intended to assist in this effort. Counselors are becoming better prepared to offer and lead a comprehensive range of personal change and task groups. This evolution should lead to group work being used effectively in a wider array of human settings. The effects of these changes should be positive.


Association for Specialists in Group Work. (1990). Professional standards for the training of group workers. Alexandria, VA: ASGW.

Conyne, R. (1989). How personal growth and task groups work. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Gazda, G., & Pistole, C. (1985). Life skills training: A model. Counseling and Human Development, 19, 1-7.

Gladding, S. (1995). Group work: A counseling specialty.(2nd. ed). New York: Prentice Hall.

Klein, E. (1985). Group work: 1985 and 2001. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 10, 108-111.

Reddy, B. (1994). Intervention skills: Process consultation for small groups and teams. San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer. Trotzer, J. (1989). The counselor and the group. Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development.

Yalom, I. (1985). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Dr. Robert K. Conyne is professor of counseling at the University of Cincinnati. He chaired the ASGW Professional Standards Committee that created the standards discussed in this article. Dr. Conyne served as ASGW President during 1995-96 and is a Fellow of the Association.

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