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The Disturber

Trish Blain December 27, 2020

The Disturber

By Carol Jud

From the Shalom Process Guide Book

In our personal lives, the Disturber is the one who ushers in the new at the same time that it destroys the old. The Disturber may come in the form of body symptoms or illness, through dreams, by a difficult relationship, or a traumatic event. Sometimes it can even be a happy event such as falling in love or having a baby. In whatever form it arrives however when the Disturber enters our lives we are thrown out of balance. We may respond to the disturbance with direct confrontation, denial, or subtle manipulation, but we must make some response. Much of the time our response is grounded in fear and we do not trust that we will be able to survive the disruption. When the Disturber comes, the old rules no longer work and new relationships with the self and with others must be worked out. Often this results in loss, pain, confusion, and anger. Most of us tend to hide from these negative feelings if we possibly can. However, in most cases, there comes a time when denial no longer works and we are forced to attend to the pain, As the discomfort heightens, most of us look for ways of getting rid of the feelings by getting rid of the Disturber. By silencing the Disturber’s message, however, we do not silence the need for exploring necessary but perhaps frightening changes, we merely re-embrace the familiar.

It is important therefore to address the phenomenon of this disruptive energy in a group setting because it regularly presents itself. In the context of deep group work we have an opportunity to learn to recognize and acknowledge that, although it can bring discomfort, the Disturber has an essential part to play in accelerating our growth. For this work to take place, the participants must feel that they are in a safe arena. In order to create this safe container, a facilitator must have an understanding of how to manage the Disturber.

Groups almost always have one or two Disturbers and most group leaders and group members put a lot of energy into keeping the group peaceful and the disturbers quiet. There is no doubt that a runaway Disturber can destroy a group but what is not so apparent is that a banished Disturber can be equally dangerous. Ultimately the unacceptable feelings and ideas that the Disturber brings cannot be buried and they will continue to find new ways of expression. Although by its nature, the Disturber brings instability and conflict to a group, when a group has the awareness and courage to engage with it, the Disturber can bring important gifts and new ideas. ┬áIt is the job of the leader to provide a safe container that allows expression of disturbing new ideas without losing sight of the purpose, values and time frame that define the group. The actual amount of time given over to working with the Disturber energy obviously varies from group to group depending on the time available. This delicate balance requires that the leader have the awareness to recognize the value of the Disturber’s energy and the skill to channel this energy for the growth of the group rather than its destruction. If the leader can trust that fluctuations from the status quo are not only a healthy but necessary aspect of a group, then the Disturber’s contribution can be welcomed instead of feared.

The following examples describe some of the ways in which the Disturber appears in group process.

The Disturber may be the one who introduces ideas which everyone shares but which most people may be reluctant to express. At the beginning of a group process, most people have some fear because the rules of the group are not yet clear. Even though there are always some people who look like they are more in control than others, we all have issues related to belonging, being different, knowing, and not knowing. In a new group, all of the behaviors related to these issues must be tested to create the safety required of a vital group. Usually, there is at least one person in a new group who is especially sensitive and/ or vocal about these issues and their anxiety disturbs the relatively happy harmony of the rest of the group. The tendency is for the group leader to concentrate on the comfortable people, in the belief that the positive energy will banish the fears of the Disturber. What often happens, however, is that the fear level of the Disturber rises in direct proportion to the comfort level of the majority. The group norm now appears to be that everyone “should” feel like they belong and not have any fears. As a result, the fear of not belonging for everyone in the group becomes greater because the feeling has not been allowed to express itself and be normalized.

As a group facilitator, it is important to watch for signs of these basic feelings of “not belonging” or being different or unacceptable which the Disturber might bring. These signs may be evident in body posture or expression, withdrawal, hostility, or fear. Sometimes people are able to give verbal expression to these feelings and sometimes the facilitator must tease them out. (This may be as simple as asking the group for a show of hands in answer to the question, “How many of you are feeling some fear right now? Or, How many of you are feeling like you’re on the outside looking in?”) In either case, the Disturber needs the space to speak. As he or she explores issues around belonging, other members often feel their own issues being triggered. As the facilitator opens up the issue to the whole group, belonging becomes a universal issue rather than a minority issue. Space is made for members to share their own vulnerability about being an outsider and this is often the beginning of the safety and trust which creates the sense of belonging in the group.

By bringing conflict into the open, the Disturber calls the group to normalize conflict and build skills around conflict negotiation. Conflict is always frightening to a group, especially in the group’s beginning stages. As children, conflict threatened our sense of safety and few of us learned that there are productive ways of moving through conflict into a better relationship. When a group facilitator avoids dealing with conflicting ideas or people who are in conflict, the message is that conflict is very, very dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. As a result, the fear of being different or speaking one’s truth also becomes dangerous and a group can take on an “as if” quality where everyone acts “nice” and behaves the way that they think they are “supposed” to act. This often creates a group that looks very peaceful and harmonious, but it is not likely that this group will ever be able to explore deep places or reach real intimacy.

When a facilitator sees a conflict situation it is important first to name it, thereby bringing it into the consciousness of the group. Negotiation skills must be modeled and taught which help people speak “their own” truths in “I” statements and allow them to learn how to listen to another person’s differing opinions with some degree of openness. They must be taught to identify and express their needs in relation to the conflict, discerning whether their needs are realistic in the current situation, and then adjusting their expectations accordingly. And finally, there are some situations where they may need to learn to “agree to disagree” while being willing to stay in relationship. These are not easy lessons to learn but they must be practiced, and the presence of the Disturber in a group offers abundant opportunities. A group that learns to trust that conflict can be both faced and resolved, invites its members to interact with more honesty, courage, and vulnerability.

By expressing an alternate view to the status quo, the Disturber can call a group to its power and identity. In a new group, the members usually give over most of the power to the leader on the assumption that the leader’s role is to take care of them and to make sure that they get what they need. When the Disturber appears, especially if he or she tries to take up a lot of the group’s time, each individual starts to feel threatened and angry that they will not get what they need. The facilitator can take total charge and squash the conflictual energy, which may temporarily (and superficially) smooth over the situation. On the other hand, if some degree of positive feedback is given to the Disturber, then the individual group members are invited into a position where they may take a look at their own needs and explore ways of getting their needs met. As people get in touch with their own needs and are encouraged to express these needs, each person is empowered. The group then begins to take responsibility for its own well-being rather than totally giving over that responsibility to the leader. Group members also begin to experience and trust that expressing needs is not forbidden and that one does not have to give up one’s needs in order to be in relationship.

By bringing up uncomfortable issues, the Disturber pushes the edges of the group. Sometimes a group member’s behavior can trigger negative feelings in others, or a person might bring up subjects that feel shameful or scary or even taboo to the group. There are times when even positive feelings can feel like disturbers if they are out of synch with the prevailing energy of the group. It is tempting for the facilitator to respond to his or her own (or the group’s) resistance, and back off. However, the fear of even looking at our edges (let alone exploring them), can keep us rigid and limited in our thinking and behavior. Staying with the discomfort. moves us into unfamiliar territory and pushes us to look at issues or relationships from another perspective. Though initially uncomfortable, this ultimately provides us with more freedom of choice.

Often it is helpful for the facilitator to name the edge that the group is approaching and to allow space for people to talk about their fears in relation to that edge. In most groups, individuals offer varying degrees of positive or negative attitudes about most issues, and group members can be comforted that they are not alone in their fears or be encouraged by knowing that other people have found different ways of looking at the issue. Either way, when we are willing to show up at the edge we expand our consciousness and our possibilities.

When the Disturber enters the group, we become more acutely aware of the roles that people play in the group. A vital group benefits from all of the roles that each of us can play. The available roles in a group are numerous but most of us limit ourselves to a small number of behaviors and roles that define us. Some of these roles might include “the Fixer,” the “Rule Follower,” the “Outspoken One,” the “Quiet One,” the “Leader,” the “Scapegoat,” the “Child,” the “Disturber.” The Disturber continually reminds us that roles are not fixed in a group and that we do not need to exile parts of ourselves in order to belong. Often when a Disturber is given the attention to explore an issue, she moves out of the disturber role and into the teacher role. The “Quiet One” may be inspired by the “Disturber” to speak out and he becomes the “Truth Teller.” The “Fixer” may be inspired by the “Disturber” to finally look at her own needs and become the “Vulnerable One.” As we experiment with new roles we become more alive and more expressive of our true potential. The facilitator can support this process by naming roles as they appear and by inviting interaction and dialogue between the various roles.

By expressing his or her own needs, the Disturber may be representing an unexpressed need of the group. Most members of groups tend to be willing to follow the rules and support the leader. We have been trained to respect leadership and we want to believe that the leader is competent to take the group where it needs to go. The Disturber sometimes emerges as a secondary process that expresses itself unconsciously through the body. Perhaps someone will yawn, or begin to move restlessly or even groan or giggle. Rather than resisting or ignoring these cues, a facilitator might amplify them on the assumption that other people may be feeling the same energy. When a group can’t seem to settle down before yoga, it is often useful to invite them to move first into wild energy. The energy is then expressed rather than stuffed and the disturbance can be used to benefit the process. Sometimes a group’s energy seems dark and heavy. By inviting the members to take a few minutes putting all their energy into whining and complaining, the energy can be released and the process begins to move again. At other times one person may become really silly. By following this energy, a group may find that a certain lightness or spontaneity of spirit has been lost, and steps can be made to reclaim it. A facilitator needs to be aware of these energetic currents in a group and by following them, rather than ignoring them, a group’s energy can shift very quickly from resistance into readiness.

The Disturber is a challenge for every leader and for every group. There are no simple rules that assure successful outcomes. Each meeting with the Disturber calls the facilitator into awareness, balance, and trust. The facilitator must be aware of the energies and polarities in the field that the Disturber enters. The facilitator must also continually make decisions about how to balance the time allowed for the exploration of Disturber energies against the time needed to accomplish the agreed-upon tasks of the group. Finally, the facilitator must hold the “trust in the process” for the group as it works with the edges and conflicts that the Disturber brings. With awareness, balance, and trust, a facilitator can model for group members powerful and practical ways of meeting and integrating the Disturber. From this place, a group can begin moving into true transformation.