Outside of getting an erection in my 10th grade English class I know of very few things that are less awkward than a classic "Men's Group." No seriously, in English class when that bell rang telling me it was time to exit the classroom, I waited ever so patiently for every person to leave while I supposedly "doodled" on the papers in my notebooks. No one ever warned me about these symptoms of puberty let alone told me what to do in these situations. Damn you sexually suppressed upbringing. Damn you....but I digress...
Now I will say as the years have unfolded and I have cringingly experienced these award-winning awkward men's groups, I have gained a bit of finesse in the ability to focus on the silver lining of these gatherings, which has helped immensely. Let's be honest, though, if you have ever experienced one of these gatherings, more often than not this term is code for "Most socially inept and insecure men on the face of the planet trying to interact with each other and then trying to impress the lone married lumberjack entrepreneur guy who helped start the group because he got sick of trying to mentor all the "lesser than" guys one on one."
Now likely is not the situation of every group, and I may be exaggerating a little, but in my experience finding a quality men's group is hard. Very hard. Almost as hard as my 10th-grade erection, but let's stay on topic....
Why is there this desire though to create these groups, organizations, and opportunities for men not only to interact with each other but to "grow" in their masculinity and maturity? What problems are these groups trying to fix? Are these scenarios where the blind are leading the blind or are their men out there who have life and masculinity figured out? Is there this innate desire in men to have mentors, fathers, and community to strengthen them through the turbulence of life? I have so many questions and very few answers. I guess more so what my goal is, is to share my observations.
At the core, this is what I have seen and believe about the reasons these so-called men's groups exist. Guys just desire authenticity, want to be around it, and are willing to look far and wide for authenticity. Now you might be thinking there is no way one sentence could answer such a vast topic, but I do. At the end of the day, I have yet to meet a man who does not desire to be considered authentic, have authentic relationships, be loved authentically, or to feel authentically like a man.
I think the core motive of trying to find authenticity and connect authentically is a beautiful thing. I just utterly abhor the current execution of this in modern western culture that I have personally experienced. There have been few groups I have been apart of in the past that I found respectable. I have even attempted starting groups years ago myself and failed. So, I wanted to lay out for you the principles that I have observed and experienced in my journey of participating in a diverse array of men's groups.
The following points are things to do and not to do to create an authentic community of men in my humble outsopoken observation.
Challenge the fuck out of the men.
Now, this has to be done tactfully, but men love a good physical and mental challenge. Whether it is through a team building group exercises, seeing who can drink a beer the fastest, or merely confronting a man that is bullshitting you in a moment when transparency is essential, men love a good challenge. Those who say they do not, are out of touch with themselves. Men's primitive nature comes out when a new challenge arises, and they want to prove themselves to the rest of the clan. The tricky thing about this is, though, only creating physical challenges is fucking lame, it has its place but if all you do is pushup and situp challenges you are wasting everyone's time. If you want to empower the egotistical type-A-gym-goer be my guest, but in my opinion, focusing on the mental challenges will have a much longer-term positive effect on those involved. Also, this levels the playing field for men of all shapes and sizes. Make sure to create individual and group challenges as well.
Take time to think out how to do this. Now I am not suggesting torture, abuse, or insanity. What I am suggesting is maybe asking a man what a recent fear is that is holding him back in life and then ask him if he is willing to confront it in front of the group at that moment. In the past, my respect for other men grew a thousand times when I saw them overcome their own mental barriers rather than showing off their muscles. Now don't get me wrong I still massively respect muscular dudes, so do not get hung up on that, I just think the diversification of challenges set before the participants of a group is essential for the development of the community.
I guess what I am trying to say is put some fucking deep intentional though into the exercises that are going on in these groups. Helping a man learn his limits tangibly will last much longer than another fucking sermon or lecture. Talking and doing are two very different things. I would rather dig a trench with my friends than sit through another egotistical, narcissistic speech from some man who thinks he has his shit together. I guess the adage fits well here "Actions speak louder than words."
I believe it is important also to note the there is a significant power in group recognition of a man overcoming a challenge. This can be one of the most empowering things that occurs in a man's life. Acknowledging and communicating respect when obstacles and challenges are faced, confronted, and overcome will solidify a long lasting impression upon the men. This will strengthen and enrichen the community and bonds that are being developed between the men as well.
Lastly, seeing that one man can overcome a challenge not only builds respect, courage, and depth in the participant's life. It also prods other men to face their own shit. It shows them that "Hey if that guy can do it so can I." This is a critical tool in group dynamics.
Creating a safe container.
Now I am not saying I want you to create a place for the snowflake bubble wrapped award-winning millennials to attend. No, what I am talking about is if you desire for men's lives to be impacted for the better, creating a culture of authenticity is quintessential and is needed to create a place where men feel safe to share shit with each other that therapists rarely hear.
Building a safe container for different group sizes will need to be considered. There are many ways to do this, but in my personal experience and observation, the following points are the foundation to building a suitable container for smaller groups of say 5-7 men. If you want to create a safe repository for larger groups of men some of these attributes may apply but think carefully before doing so.
- It is critical to set clear expectations.
Let the men in the group know what is and what is not appropriate. Give examples. Communicate what you are doing and why you are doing it. Emphasize why a container is needed. Get the men on your side. Create a culture where everyone is responsible for creating this enviroment, not just the leader. Set boundaries for simple things such as when it is okay and not okay to involve humor. At its core establishing necessary emotional intelligence skills are what will provide a good foundation.
An example of this would be saying "Men, the five of us over the next six months are here to dive in once a week for two hours and help each other out, I may be the quote on quote leader of this group, but all of our lives are on the line. We need to fight together to create a safe space for each other. When you are here for the next hour, let's all agree only to use our phones for emergencies, do our best to be present, and engage in eye contact with each other. I want all of us to hold each other to this standard. I am not here to babysit you nor or are you here to be treated like a child. We are all here for different reasons, but I know all of you want to be heard, if that is going to happen we all need to work together to do so." This is just a small example of a simple statement that can help the process of building a container.
In small groups having every person verbally declare and look the other men in the eyes that what is spoken in the collective stays in the group is a great place to start. Now, do not just quickly pass over this. Maybe even take a couple hours to emphasize this. Without trust men will rarely take the chance of opening up or being vulnerable. DO NOT DO "TRUST FALLS"! Fuck those played out exercises. If you are going to do trust exercises put some serious effort into it because without the foundation of trust the men's group you are in or are trying to run will just be worthless.
Another route you can take is having the leaders be openly vulnerable about current issues in their life. One group, I was apart of called this "getting naked." I could not tell you the amount of respect and trust that was established by the leaders in this group through setting the standard by authentically opening up and exposing their struggles. Trust can be built quicker than you expect if vulnerability is being practiced, recognized, and respected.
Make sure not to expect trust to be established in a five-minute orientation conversation. Trust takes time. It is a plant the needs to be nurtured. Respect the process.
Creating a mutual commitment in the group is a great way to create a safe container. Have men commit to three months, six months, nine months, or a whole year of being present once a week for an hour or so. If they cannot make it to the meeting, they need to communicate this clearly to the leader of the group and have a legitimate reason such as family issues, an emergency, or other reasonable things. Create a standard and expectation that everyone commits too, and make this commitment public. The fine line here is this. If the commitment is too much and a man cannot keep it, he loses self-power so walk this line carefully and make sure men are not going to make promises they cannot follow through with.
Although the commitment needs to be realistic, it also needs to be difficult. If a man fails to comply he needs to realize the consequences and head them face on, and this can be a great moment to teach self-ownership and walk the man through the decisions he made as to why he did not follow through with what he promised.
How commitment helps create a container is if everyone in the group is committed to the same level creates stability. Think of this as being similar to a relationship. Long-term relationships that are healthy have a good amount of intention and commitment, one night stands on the other hand are just selfish and whimsical with no depth.
If passivity is accepted as a normality in a group, then the participants are worse off than when they joined that community. Being assertive and straightforward is CRITICAL for the leadership and community to help all the men involved build an authentic effective culture. Even though men resort to passivity as their natural go too, they crave and respect assertiveness. Create a culture that not only recognizes but highlights and respects men when they are proactive and assertive. This is a slow process, but once you create this standard, the benefits are glorious.
Fighting passivity in the men's life may look like picking out the quietest guy in the group and asking him to share his thoughts, have weekly homework that each man self-assigns that is specific, has clear deadlines, and if needed volunteered accountability.
Assertiveness is a muscle. It needs attention, nourishment, and consistent exercise. If you are able to cultivate a group and individual culture that values assertiveness I honestly do not know if you will be able to quantify the outcome.
It might even be worth chanting FUCK PASSIVITY until everyone is on board.
All I know is that if you want a group that is creating better men to impact the earth fighting passivity needs to be on the top of your list.
If having fun is not included in anything you are doing then shut everything the fuck down and re-evaluate your life, the curriculum, and your idea of masculinity. Hanging out with other men and growing together is hard so it is essential for fun activities to be involved otherwise the community and camaraderie will struggle to be produced and maintain health.
Have the men throw axes, host a Halo 2 LAN party, do a poker tournament, go camping, or simply just tell jokes. Having fun together builds rapport and relieves tension. Plus who doesn't love having a good time? Seriously, though, longterm friendships and great communities are formed with a cocktail of interpersonal exercise, having fun, and emotional connection. You will have to figure out what works best for you and your fellowship but I can guarantee that this is worth the effort.
If you can create a balance between fun and earnest, the two will coincide and become synonymous with each other. Having fun is the fertilizer that friendship and community are in dire need of.
A prominent downfall I have seen in this area though is what you could call the "youth group pastor syndrome." This is where everything needs to be fun, but serious issues are never addressed. Do NOT make having fun the only priority of your group this is a common downfall.
Well, I hope I did not bore you too much with my opinions. I do expect and desire that in the future more men's groups will take hold of these principles and create a safe place for men to grow together through life.