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The “Back Story” Intervention: Would You Be Game?

An interesting thought experiment for getting at hidden group dynamics.

I have developed an idea for a kind of group intervention that might be genuinely useful, although it would certainly be very intense. It is a way of directly getting as the kind of hidden structural dynamics that greatly influence group dynamics, but that are very difficult to address. At the very least it makes for an interesting thought experiment.  

The intervention would be useful in contexts where small groups are intimately involved with one another, for example in work with a family or with a group that works intensely with one another and has a significant history. It requires a group discussion room and a video observation room. The intervention involves one person at a time, call them the target, going into the observation room while the others have a discussion about what they truly think about the person, as the target observes. Perhaps there would be a facilitator to keep the focus tuned on the target and the group would be given prompts, such as “What are your honest thoughts and feelings about X?”; “What have you said to others about X when s/he was not around?”; “What concerns have you had about X that you have been afraid to share?”, “What have you heard others say to you about X?”, “What are X’s strengths and weaknesses?” and so on. Hopefully, you get the point. The explicit intent of the exercise is to publically share what is normally filtered about that individual.

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The group rotates through, spending a certain amount of time on each person. Then the group comes together, and with this new perspective begins the process of reconstituting group dynamics based on this new information.

I call it the “back story” intervention for a couple reasons. In literature, a backstory refers to the narrative that leads up to the current situation or main plot. Sometimes, the term is employed by those in the media to get "the story behind the story" (see here). I mean it here in both those senses, namely that there inevitably are a lot of hidden facts and emotions that contribute to the current situation.

In addition, the name is a reference to the fact that people talk behind other people’s backs. One of the most basic features of human interaction that the unified approach brings into high relief is the process of private to public filtering, which refers to the way in which people shape what they share publicly with others relative to what they truly think and feel inside. People do this for a host of different reasons, generally having to do their interests. But the point here is that the fact that people filter and the nature of what and why they filter plays an enormous role in the function of group dynamics.  

As I am sure is true of virtually everyone, I have seen many group situations that were deeply hampered by hidden “back stories” that I thought might result in a breakthrough if folks participated in an intervention like the one described above. At the same time, the vulnerability of the target is enormously high, as they would be getting exposed to an angle that has been systematically filtered, likely for very good reasons. And, this vulnerability could turn into a seriously damaging event for the group, if not handled well.

I am curious if others have reactions to this. Would you be game to participate in a back story intervention like this? What are your thoughts about learning what others would say about you? Do you think it would do more harm than good? Does anyone know of therapies or social psychological research efforts that have attempted something similar to a process like this?

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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