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As small group instructors, how, how often, and when do we intervene in our groups? What kinds of interventions do we make? How can we be sure that we will intervene at just the right point when a process intervention will be most effective? The appropriate moment for a particular intervention might easily come and go without realizing it.

Although we can call all interventions merely "process interventions," we can put them into three distinct and separate classes: conceptual-input, coaching, and process-observation interventions. Consider each type in terms of (a) the objective that it can facilitate; (b) what it might look or sound like when we make it; (c) when we can make it; and (d) the form or style it might take.

Conceptual-Input Interventions


A conceptual-input type of process intervention provides group members with an organizing principle that has the power to help them clearly see distinctions between typical (but not optimal) behavior and less traditional (but more effective) behavior. Group members tend to remember conceptual inputs easily. Therefore, we can refer to them in the future. When an instructor intervenes in this way, he or she is providing the group members with a new, explicit vocabulary and conceptual system understood by all group members. Thus, we minimize confusion and misunderstandings since group members are more likely to remember, understand, and make use of the kinds of behaviors to which the new language refers.


We can use the conceptual-input type of intervention at any time. For maximum effectiveness and impact, the intervention should come immediately after a transaction between or among members that clearly illustrates the undesirable consequences of their nonproductive behavior. This is the point at which the intervention will make immediate sense to the group members. When an intervention makes sense, people are most likely to make use of it.

Form or Style

A conceptual-input is brief and succinct. Use words and phrases that are understandable to the group members. It does not help to make the appropriate intervention at the right time if the instructor uses complex terms the group members do not understand. Such a style could result in the group members regarding the instructor as an irrelevant, ivory-tower type and, therefore, not accept the intervention.

Coaching Interventions


Coaching interventions should assist members of a group to get in the habit of using new experimental behaviors that they have said they want to practice. They should help group members acquire desirable, functional habits of interacting.


We can most effectively make coaching interventions either (a) during the early, standard-setting phases of the group process (to shape the kinds and sequence of interpersonal communications at an early point) or (b) just after a conceptual-input has been made that provides a justifiable theoretical framework for the coaching efforts. In either instance, we should discontinue coaching interventions as soon as the group members demonstrate that they can employ the new behaviors without assistance or when some members begin systematically to perform the coaching function for other members.

Form or Style

Coaching interventions should use up very little of the group's "air time." They should be suggestions rather than demands or reprimands, and they should be precise and understandable. No one should have to guess what the group leader is aiming at.

Process-Observation Interventions


A process-observation intervention may have numerous objectives including:


A process-observation intervention is likely to be most effective during the early phase of the group process. When the group leader has modeled any process-observation, he or she should refrain from making further such interventions. This gives group members more opportunities to experiment with and to practice performing these facilitative functions. To the extent that they do this, they acquire increased self-sufficiency. This tends to preclude their becoming dependent on the group leader, the expert, to perform such functions.

If the group members do not assume responsibility for performing these functions after the leader has modeled them once or twice, the leader might keep track of the implications and consequences of this failure. Then, during a stop action or some other designed process session, these data could be fed back to the group along with a question: "What, if anything, do we want to do about this situation?" This explicitly invites the group to negotiate a contract among themselves (a) to ensure that needed functions are used when they would be most relevant and (b) to avoid the unnecessary, undesired consequences that have been observed to follow nonperformance of the functions.

Form or Style

In style, process-observations should be personalized and not punitive. But, almost by definition, this class of intervention usually takes a bit longer than others. The instructor is attempting to draw a verbal portrait of dynamic, constantly shifting group processes in order to help the group members see what is happening right now and also to model behavior that the members themselves might attempt at some future time. To get this double message across adequately, sufficient care and time must be taken.


Saul Alinsky's "iron rule" - "Don't ever do anything for people that they can do for themselves" - comes to mind. If one or more group members have the skills and knowledge to act in a functional and objective manner, the instructor should let them do it. If they do not possess such resources, they may require assistance in acquiring them. However, excessive assistance on the part of the instructor - whether process, theory, structured skill-practice exercises, or simulations - leads to stultification, dependency, and indifference or apathy. In order to be as effective as possible, the group leader must learn the line between not enough help and too much help.


1.   To provide guidance.

2.   Intervene to provide positive reinforcement. Examples:

3.   Intervene to protect an individual student. Examples:

Intervention Pitfalls

1.   Intervening too often - this limits freedom and can lock the group into Phase 1.

2.   Intervening too infrequently - this prevents students from developing the skills to be self-directive.

3.   Interventions are too lengthy - stifles group development by creating dependency on group leader.

4.   Presenting only negative feedback - creates more frustration than necessary.


In this section we identify some behavioral patterns that group members occasionally manifest which cause difficulty for group leaders. We have labeled these patterns to help you identify them. In doing so, we provide clues and examples which will help you recognize people who may be difficult to deal with. Finally, we provide some suggestions about ways you might respond to minimize negative behavior. Some of the suggestions are more direct than others. We encourage you to choose the one that seems most comfortable to you. Even better, develop your own responses that will help reduce the negative behavior.

Keep in mind that we are describing patterns of behavior. One or two exhibitions of negative behavior do not constitute a pattern. In other words, it is not necessary or appropriate to intervene each time a group member manifests a disruptive behavior. Only when this behavior becomes repetitive, has a negative effect on the group, or becomes irritating to you does it become a pattern. At that point it is desirable to intervene to eliminate the behavior. Also, remember that people can and do change. If you must label someone's behavior, remember that the behavior is not the person. It is only one aspect of the person. When an individual is primarily showing a negative side, it is difficult to see the positive. You, as a leader, need to reinforce any positive behaviors and attempt to minimize the negative ones.

The Rescuer

People who exhibit this behavior tend to "make nice." They apologize, defend, interpret for others, and explain away their own and other people's feelings. They tend to get frustrated or frightened by conflict, and they protect others as a way of avoiding the conflict situation. They are easy to recognize because they preface statements with phrases like, "I think what she really meant was..." or "You shouldn't feel that way because..." or "You shouldn't say that to Sam because he may take it the wrong way."

Intervention Strategies: The Rescuer

The Projector

The projector attributes his or her own thoughts and feelings to other people. Often projectors are unaware that it is they who are experiencing the feeling, probably because it is so uncomfortable for them. Different feelings can be unpleasant for different individuals. Some people are afraid of anger, others are afraid of sadness, and still others are afraid of fear. The feelings we tend to project onto others are the ones with which we are most uncomfortable. Projectors, although they appear to be speaking for other people, are actually speaking for themselves. You can recognize them because they either talk in generalities or talk about other people. They rarely make statements for themselves.

Intervention Strategies: The Projector

The Passive Aggressor

This kind of behavior can be difficult to notice at first, as it is indirect rather than direct. Passive-aggressive people are hostile or angry, but they express their hostility in subtle and indirect ways. Often they attempt to mobilize group members to express the negative feelings they are experiencing. What usually occurs is that everyone begins to feel uncomfortable. Generally, passive-aggressive people project their anger or uncertainty onto the leader, and the leader may begin to feel defensive. Participants exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior tend to do the following: come a little late to meetings and be mildly disruptive when they arrive; initiate occasional side conversations when someone else (generally the leader) is speaking; and maintain a somewhat unpleasant or disinterested facial expression. They often make mildly hurtful statements to people in the group, particularly the leader. If someone confronts them about their intentions, they retreat and claim they did not mean anything negative by their remarks. They seem to have a knack for sensing the leader's "Achilles heel." A group leader often feels defensive around passive-aggressive people. These people tend to bait the leader, but they back off, act naive, and play victim when the leader attempts to deal with them directly. The leader is often left feeling foolish, and the behavior gets reinstated at a later point. In attempting to eliminate this kind of behavior, it is important that the leader does not get into an argument with the passive-aggressive person and does not make an attempt to confront the behavior directly.

Intervention Strategies: The Passive Aggressor

The Apologizer

Apologizers tend to preface their questions or statements with an apology. They often begin with the words, "Maybe I should not say this but..." or "Maybe you have already answered this question but..." or "I'm sorry for taking up so much time but..."Apologizers are not negative or unpleasant people. They can be draining, however, and they generally use up a lot of airtime in a group. Although they tend to speak a good deal, their apologies often reflect deep levels of insecurity.

Intervention Strategies: The Apologizer

The Fighter

Fighters are people who exhibit fighting behavior in a group, arguing or disagreeing with most things that are said. They give the impression they want to pick a fight by asking questions or making comments in a provocative way. Their questions are really statements. They often begin by saying, "Don't you think that...." They are easy to recognize as their tone of voice is often belligerent. They seem to be continually looking for an argument. Usually fighters are struggling for power or control. Their questions or disagreements with the leader are the means by which they attempt to assume control.

Intervention Strategies: The Fighter

The Flighter

This person seems to be in another world. He or she often "tunes out," misses directions, or just does not seem to grasp the material. Often flighters play dumb, rather than admit their attention is elsewhere. They are annoying in groups because they ask leaders to repeat directions or points everyone else understood. Their investment in the group seems low. When asked for an opinion, they often respond by saying, "I don't care" or "Whatever you want" or "It makes no difference to me." During the class, they often have blank expressions on their faces.

Intervention Strategies: The Flighter

The Questioner

The questioner can cause you difficulty because he or she is repeatedly stopping the flow of your presentation by asking questions. These questions may be about the content, the procedure, or about your style of leading the group. Questioners often ask a lot of "why" questions that you may begin to find difficult to answer and which can make you feel defensive. You will probably feel irritated by these persistent interruptions. Often questioners have trouble thinking by themselves. Rather than finding their own answer to a thought or question, they will ask you to figure out the answer for them.

Intervention Strategies: The Questioner

The Withdrawer

The withdrawer sits quietly in the group but looks miserable. He or she calls attention to himself or herself by looking pained, blank, or even disgusted. The group is generally aware of this person's feelings even though he or she is quiet. The withdrawer's facial expression clearly communicates displeasure, but the rest of the body gestures are quite still and withdrawn. Other members of the group generally feel awkward when they notice this person's quiet, but obvious discomfort.

Intervention Strategies: The Withdrawer

The Monopolizer

The monopolizer takes up a great amount of air time in a class. As a result, sometimes other group members begin to withdraw rather than fight for the right to speak. The monopolizer is generally a poor listener who usually manages to turn the conversation back to himself or herself. People exhibiting this behavior are often long-winded and tend to interrupt others to state a personal opinion or relate an experience. This person seems unaware that there are other people who might want to speak. Almost always when there is a pause in the conversation, he or she jumps right in, attempting to relate personally to the topic.

Intervention Strategies: The Monopolizer

The Know-It-All

The know-it-all is the person who is the expert on everything. Regardless of what you say, he or she either adds something or corrects what you have said. Know-it-alls have ideas about almost everything and are very quick to offer their opinions, whether someone solicits them or not. They want to feel important and show they are knowledgeable. Therefore, know-it-alls attempt to get recognition and power by taking the role of the resident expert.

Intervention Strategies: The Know-It-All

The Complainer

The complainer continually finds fault with all aspects of the class. His or her criticism can include everything from dissatisfaction with the environment to dissatisfaction with the material being presented or with the structure. Therefore, you are likely to hear complaints like the following, "this workshop is not what I expected" or "the seats are uncomfortable" or "I hate role-playing." Complainers begrudgingly participate while letting you and everyone else know how they feel. They do not always express their feelings orally; rather they tend to moan and groan and make grimaces.

Intervention Strategies: The Complainer

The Distractor

The distractor often asks questions or makes comments that have nothing to do with the material currently being discussed. Distractors change the topic by bringing up extraneous material, but they are usually unaware they are doing so. Their questions and comments divert attention from what is being discussed. These irrelevant comments often cause discomfort as well as annoyance to the leader and to the group members. Responding to the comments and questions means getting sidetracked. It is difficult not to respond, however, because distractors are usually enthusiastic participants who do not consciously intend to cause trouble.

Intervention Strategies: The Distractor

The Pollyanna

A Pollyanna can initially be a delight to have in a group. The individual is always smiling, and his or her attitude is that everything is always wonderful and satisfying. Pollyannas rarely, if ever, express a preference or make a critical comment. They almost always go along with what someone says or what the majority of the group wants. Nothing is ever a problem for them. A Pollyanna will avoid conflict or disharmony at any cost. He or she refuses to engage in any activity that might cause discomfort.

Intervention Strategies: The Pollyanna

The Intellectualizer

Intellectualizers tend to be quite verbose and provide a lot of explanations for why they think or feel a certain way. An intellectualizer attempts to make sense out of everything. When speaking, he or she uses many rationalizations and justifications for his or her beliefs. This person often becomes lost in his or her own theory. One way to recognize intellectualizers is by the way they often translate a very simple thought or idea into a complex theory. The more the intellectualizers talk, the more complicated the simple thought becomes.

Intervention Strategies: The Intellectualizer


12 "Types of Process Interventions," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1978 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1978.

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