The Action Manual - Techniques for Enlivening Group
Process and Individual Counselling

Sample Chapter

The Group Metaphor

Theory box
Moreno saw groups as consisting of people playing collections of roles and counter-roles in a fascinating interplay. He also believed in the wisdom that emerged from fantasy, dream and imagining. The group metaphor is an action technique that may reveal much of the group’s view of itself and uncover its stuck points and its potential for spontaneity.

Used at the beginning of a group, the metaphor will reveal patterns of being in a group that the participants bring from their life experience. Used in the middle of a group’s life, it may reveal the dynamics in the group, and may give indications of new roles desired by individuals, and some which could profitably be let go of. At the end of a group, it can serve to integrate the experience.

In a staff development situation, the group metaphor provides the consultant and the staff with a great deal of information about the staff dynamics. If it is followed by focusing on desired new roles in the staff team, it can be fun to invite the group to play the most outrageous form of the new role they want to try on. The spontaneity is a delight, and dissipates some of the fears of changing the sociometry of the staff.

The leader may refer to the metaphor in later sessions: “John, that’s great. You’re giving up that administrative function and risking leading an adolescent group! Perhaps this is what you had in mind when you were tired of being ringmaster and wanted to fly on the trapeze!” At other times, the metaphor may work its magic without analysis or reference.

This exercise is a good demonstration technique, as people can take part without too much exposure and can make of it whatever they wish.

The Technique
Group Members Place Themselves

The metaphor is most often constructed by the whole group, using one person’s idea or image. Each person chooses her or his place in the picture. This version may be done as a somewhat quick sketch, perhaps returned to later. It may also lead into a rich discussion about roles in families of origin and roles in this group. The director asks the group members to close their eyes and to complete the following sentence with a metaphor. “This group is like a . . . “-a three-ring circus, a family, a garden, a white water rafting trip. After a few moments, have each person share his/her image.

In choice in action, have all group members move, to stand by the person whose image most aptly describes the group at this moment in time. This may involve some shuffling, as people chosen may move toward others, trailing those who chose them. Eliminate the less chosen and have people choose again until there is a clear energy for one. Resist the temptation to combine two-a family on a white water trip!

Have everyone sit down. Explain that the person whose metaphor was chosen will begin the action and broadly set the scene. He will then take his place in it. After that, the metaphor belongs to the whole group, and each person will find his/her own role in it. One by one, group members take their positions as they identify their roles. They are free to stretch the scene. A metaphor can take the form of a person, an object or a part of nature-whatever the group member wishes. The first person may set a circus scene and take his place as the lion tamer. Others may be trapeze artists, refreshment vendors and audience members. One may be a raven on a tree surveying the circus. The director interviews each one as they come forward, deepening their identification of the role:

  • What is really important about what you contribute to this circus? How long have you been here? How do you feel in this circus? What are you wearing? Where exactly are you in relation to the others?

After each person has taken their position, the director says, “OK, roll it!” and the action starts, with the group members interacting in role, playing out their parts. Let the action continue for a few moments, encouraging people to interact in some way with most of the others. Then say, “Freeze!” and ask each person to say in one or two words how they feel in the role. After all have checked in, ask if there is anyone who would like to try out another role. If someone thought that the role of lion tamer was gone, reassure him or her that there is always room for two lion tamers; or the first lion tamer may choose another role. He may also play the role completely differently from the way she did. What would be the hardest role to play?

Have the players change roles. The director once again says, “OK, roll it!” and the action begins again. Repeat the request for a brief sharing of feelings.

Return to the group. If it is a large group, ask people to gather with two or three people close to them. Ask the group to reflect upon roles they chose for themselves. Questions may be handed out on a sheet for people to fill in and then a discussion might follow. Some suggestions for the questions follow.

  • Were you surprised as you placed yourself?
  • What are some of the characteristics of the role you took? Do they seem to fit you in this group? Is this role a new one? Is it a good one for you or is it an overdeveloped one?
  • Do you think others see you this way?
  • What do you observe about where you placed yourself in relation to others?
  • Are you satisfied with this position?
  • Are there ways in which you might change? How could you help yourself? How could others help you?
  • What do you observe about how others have taken their places? What does that indicate to you about the group?

One Group Member Places All

When a group has been together for a time and is ready for some self-awareness and feedback, the group metaphor may be directed with one person placing everyone. The group members should know at the beginning that the person whose metaphor they choose will be placing them where he or she sees them in the picture. Instruct them to choose someone whose observation they trust.

Introduce the group metaphor as above, but explain that one person will put their perception into action. As the creator, Harry, puts each person in place, he gives them several sentences about themselves in role, or takes the role to demonstrate it. “I see you on the canoe trip, Andrew, as the stoic who always carries a big pack and never complains.”

Set the metaphor into action for a short time.

Give group members the opportunity to comment on the position in which the creator placed them. Let each person speak fully without interruption.

Discussion Questions (in addition to those above):

  • Are you surprised where Harry placed you?
  • In what ways does it fit or not fit your perception of yourself?
  • Who is close by and who more distant? Does this seem to you to be accurate?
  • What feelings were evoked when Harry began to place people? To place you? Now?
  • Is there anything you would like to ask or say to Harry now?
  • Is there anything you would like the group to know about you?


The Action Manual by Liz WhiteThe Action Manual

Techniques for Enlivening Group
Process and Individual Counselling

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