The underwater world.

by Claudia Ravaldi


Since 2007 I have been actively involved in helping and self-help relationships, both in online groups and in face-to-face groups, in which support is offered to people affected by perinatal bereavement or to the operators of the maternal and child area involved in assistance.

“Metacognition indicates a type of self-reflection on the cognitive phenomenon, achievable thanks to the possibility of distancing oneself, self-observing and reflecting on one’s mental states.”
Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my own direct experience.
Carl Rogers

Conditions and prejudices that hinder the helping relationship and the facilitator

My training as a psychotherapist previously interested in situations of acute trauma, crisis and the promotion of resilience has allowed me to approach the world of self-help and facilitation with a baggage that is certainly very bulky and full of tools: sometimes not very appropriate , because they are too clinical, at times extremely useful and even necessary in the relational context of help.

In the long training path, first as a self-taught person and then as a learner at various courses and congresses on self-help, I was able to use in particular two tools that as a psychotherapist I already possessed: the ability to listen, the other and at the same time myself and what arises in me from the words and gestures of others, and that of carefully observing the relational dynamics and the functioning of relationships in the context of a face-to-face interview and a self-help group, both between facilitator and user and between facilitator and group.

The possibility of observing the relational becoming within a privileged and protected space such as that of a self-help group for mourners and that of being able to reflect in a non-judgmental and non-stereotyped way on the dynamics that presented themselves from time to time to my eyes have been a great advantage over the years: monitoring the relationship between two individuals, or between an individual and a group, and seeing the impact of communication, verbal and non-verbal on relationships, in the short, medium and long term allowed me to to structure a very precise idea of what are the traps in which facilitators and cofacilitators fall, sometimes unknowingly pushed by the users of the group themselves, often in total autonomy.

Who risks falling into the trap?

There is no facilitator (as there is no therapist) immune from error.

Far from passing the message of an alleged infallibility of the facilitator, I would like to emphasize instead the importance of a competent facilitator with respect to himself and his psycho-emotional functioning (what I think, how I feel, how I act), to his painful path first, as a facilitator, then, to his role in the group and his personal traps, often pre-existing to mourning and facilitating the group.

The facilitator has among his few duties to be aware of where he is in his mourning path, to understand how it works from a relational point of view, and in this case in the helping relationship, and to understand why he wants to facilitate and which is his project for the group.

There is a tendency to promote the idea that total control of the dynamics of the group prevents the facilitator from making mistakes, forgetting that each group has a dynamic and a story of its own, because it is made up of different people in different moments of their existence; it is also believed that the facilitator – leader, endowed with great charisma or great persuasive skills, is a guarantee of the group’s functioning, just as we tend to think that the real facilitator is the one who, keeping at a safe distance, offers advice and reflections to the participants, without being involved in the stories, from the top of an ideal dimension reached after the “mess” in the group.

Around the figure of the facilitator, as it is easy to notice, many naive theories have been born, none of which, however, protects the facilitator from his traps and protects the group from implosion.

To avoid falling into the traps, we must first of all learn to recognize them even from a distance, and then, eventually, know how to fall into them “with style”, maintaining an open, alert and aware approach to the problem, its origins and also to possible solutions.

I have noticed during these years that the risk of falling into the traps is higher for facilitators with insufficient preparation on relational dynamics and communication, with poor empathy and / or with deep and rooted prejudices about life, values, grief, on this. which is right and what is not. In general, a person who is too rigid with himself or with others, or tending to “sympathy” cannot maintain a meta-cognitive vision of the group and of the user, because they are clouded by their beliefs / values and / or their emotions personal.

Another risk group are those who do not participate in good intervisions or group supervision: these people, often health professionals with little or no training in the above topics, or new facilitators with a recent past as group users, are more frequently victim of gross conditioning.

Most of them, above all, practice facilitation from within a very solid, rigid and as such distancing cognitive superstructure. The most cumbersome superstructures are that of the “operator”, who does not take off the clothes as a caregiver even when he is wearing the clothes of the facilitator, and of the “bereaved survivor”, who believes he has a privileged experiential position with respect to those who are in that moment in the spiers of the mourning condition and assumes the role of Dante’s conductor / helmsman rather than facilitator.

How can I spot my traps?

We can notice the conditionings that make our position as GAMA facilitator difficult, starting by asking ourselves why we have chosen to undertake the training path and then facilitate a group.

I make it easier because I want to make what the group gave me “, “I make it easier because there is a need in my area and nobody does it“, These are certainly two noble reasons which in themselves do not however represent the nucleus of a project that is sufficiently articulated and sustainable in the long term as a GAMA should be thought of (which can be open or closed for a limited duration or not, but still provides for continuity of encounters with people struggling with their mourning process).

The self-help group project for bereaved people is an ambitious project: it welcomes people affected by bereavement and eager to take care of their pain and transform it into something different, more tolerable, less impetuous, more vital; often those who ask to participate in an AMA group are in the worst phase of mourning, that of vivid helplessness: they are suffering the effects of the loss, and risk getting lost in the maze of mourning, they want to go on, but do not know where to go, at stake there they are his former identity and the reconstruction of an identity that will be. It is understandable that these people need to listen, but listening may not be enough in itself if these people are not actively helped to unravel their inner tangles. A good AMA group is such when it is the users themselves who unravel each other’s skeins: often very young or very old AMA groups enter into an impasse due to the objective difficulty in “unraveling the skeins” of users. In these cases the role of the facilitator is decisive, because through constant monitoring of the group and its movements he can help the group to “see himself” in his words and therefore to promote change.

However, unraveling may not be enough if the one who unravels (in this case the facilitator, I would say more extensively the well-facilitated group) does not know how to handle the thread, pulls too much (facilitator leader / counselor), or too little (phantom facilitator), let the thread pile up in disorder (delegating facilitator) and let the knots form (indifferent facilitator). To unravel something more than a gentle listening, a few chairs in a circle and a group of peers are needed: the self-help group must be perceived as a space in motion, from the abyss to the mainland, it is necessary to try to get there, to the mainland, to have clear if the crew is traveling all in the same direction, albeit with different energy and strength and tools.

The monitoring of the group and its movements is the responsibility of the facilitator and co-facilitator, who should be able to do this and little else during the meetings. Good monitoring is what allows facilitators, during the space of a meeting or in subsequent meetings, to pick up ideas from what has been observed and re-propose them as an attempt to share attention and to “realign” the participants to the sense of the group and its path.

An over-responsible facilitator with the role of “carer” (in my group by the fourth / fifth meeting everyone is better ) or “on the defensive” with respect to difficult emotions (in my group, people who cry learn to limit themselves and react ) cannot monitor the situation with sufficient awareness, because he is too focused on what he thinks should be the path of the group, the reaction of the crew, the final destination, life itself (what does he do to the group that doesn’t change anything ?).

Each group is a group in its own right, it is impossible to have two identical groups with overlapping dynamics. The role of the facilitator, from time to time, is to tune in to the characteristics, dynamics and needs of that specific group, sharing with the group, the project and the responsibilities to achieve it: the group lives not thanks to the facilitator, but through the ability of the facilitator to grasp the ideas, whether evolutionary or critical, and send them back to the group, with lively curiosity and intention. Thinking of oneself as an “expert” and following a stereotyped pattern of an “AMA group”, far from the subjective experience of that group and those users, is another trap of the facilitator.

I make it easier because I understand how mourning works and I want to help others“: Also in this case the purpose is noble, but the road paved with pitfalls: as Rogers and others argue with him, no two experiences are the same and overlapping, identical and exactly reproducible (the type of mourning can be similar, but not reactions to it). The same goes for the mourning process, which cannot be said to be the same for two individuals, even when the two individuals mourn the same joint.

Easy because there was a need for a facilitator and they told me that I am good“: This type of facilitator, invested with a role that would be closer to management than to facilitation as such, often find themselves, unbeknownst to them, involved in relational dynamics of dependence or abandonment, which can be anything but facilitating.

I opened this group because only we can understand and help each other

It is a typical trap of web groups, and in the last three-four years with the spread of social networks the suggestive temptation to “skip ahead” has exploded: mourning is uncomfortable, for those who live it and for those called to offer support . Being in one’s grief requires a form of resistance and availability that is culturally out of the ordinary, and often for the mourner, the transition to “helper or facilitator” ideally represents the coveted end point of the elaboration. Sometimes, the haste to arrive is so burning that we get to convince ourselves that “the most has been done”; and that this is enough to ease other sufferers. The temptation to mourn quickly, obeying social dogma, or more simply by spending time waiting for it to pass, alone, as the seasons pass by themselves, whether we want it or not, reduces self-help to a mere group of vent in which there is usually a self-proclaimed group leader / conductor / administrator in order to “help others”, even though he himself needs to be first aided and protected from the traps inherent in facilitation.

Another trap to keep in mind is what I call the “Jefferson Laundries effect” (The Jeffersons are an old American sit-com the protagonist of which he bragged about having managed to open seven laundries in the same district, “always one near you” ). This trap does not seem such (indeed, initially it seems an indicator of success!) Until the groups begin to implode, to close, to have effects on the participants far from the self-help project for mourning. Opening as many groups as possible, welcoming as many people as possible, promoting the culture of GAMA as much as possible and by any means is often not aimed at offering a group of good quality and with a solid and well-established project, but precisely to fill territorial gaps ; this leads to the flowering of many groups, at least on paper, united by welcoming people in mourning, but distinguished by completely different projects, and often antithetical to each other. The opening of a new AMA group in a new territory must be eco-sustainable: the territory must actually be discovered by a service of that type, there must be a network around which is activated for the birth of the group and believes in the benefit of the group, in order to promote it among the users, there must be two facilitators (or a facilitator and a co-facilitator) of experience, trained, and able to do a good monitoring of the territory and the participants.

Opening (and then facilitating) an AMA group means exposing oneself to the pain of others, which reactivates personal pains, even very different and / or ancient ones, and stimulates numerous reflections and numerous emotions; opening a group pushed by the “need” for a structure, without having a clear personal experience of the meaning of the path of mourning or the variety of possible paths is undoubtedly a great trap.

No one should ever push a person, operator or former user, into a trap as deep and convoluted as this one. Our group model, tested in these eight years of training experience, of openings in different Italian geographical areas of long projects with facilitators and institutions leads us to say that it is better to have one less group than many self-managed groups by people who are not very aware. .

I make it easier because I wanted to do some volunteering, and I chose to do this“Of all, this is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge because it is furthest away from the” self-help “project: given that the facilitator is a role that by historical definition does not receive remuneration, it is equally not a” neutral “role, neither for those who do so nor for those who “suffer” it, because it connects people and their most painful and most exposed parts. This type of volunteering does not therefore ask us to invest only “time” or “a little personal money”: it asks us to invest our resources to donate them to other people, and at the same time facilitate a change of group and in the group. The facilitator who wishes to donate his time and experience to others also wishes to be part of the experience of others, also wishes to do it for himself. It is very important that facilitators reflect on what leads them to choose this task, what is the purpose and what are the critical aspects. Organizing a charity dinner does not have the same emotional resource commitment as facilitating a bereavement self-help group, and facilitators should be able to measure themselves in the field, as co-facilitators, for a long enough period of time before choosing to open their own personal group.


The reasons why a helping relationship can fall ill and a facilitator fall into a trap are therefore manifold. The risk, for the facilitator, is to fail in his role, ending up living the group as an unsustainable burden and the users as “enemies” or “obstacles” to the good performance of the group.

Self-help, which is a precious tool for promoting resilience and well-being in users, is still a niche concept: few know its actual function, there is no unanimous agreement on which project is underlying a group , often more are opened than can be properly supported, and often the timing of the engagement of users is very hasty and little thought out. The group is seen by many as an immediate response to an urgent need: they are a well-known reality and often actively promoted by the territory where other types of territorial services are lacking or insufficient (in our case, consultative or outpatient services to support perinatal bereavement. ).

It is mistakenly believed that the will to help others is enough to engage in a helping relationship.

It is believed that having learned some simple notions on the theoretical aspects of the helping relationship, they are in themselves sufficient to engage in the helping relationship.

Basically, it is believed that the helping relationship can only go well and successfully, being based on the magnanimous voluntariness of the facilitator who gives his time to others.

Each facilitator should consider himself as such only after having defined his competences, adherence to the GAMA project and after a sufficient period of co-facilitation.

Haste is not a good counselor; it is not for personal grieving, it is not when we want to facilitate the grieving of others.

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