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Leadership Skills and Strategies for Group Counseling

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The role of the leader in a group counseling session is to facilitate meaningful discussion between participants and effectively address and manage any conflicts that arise during a session. Strategies for guiding group discussions involve combining effective leadership skills with research-based approaches. Whether your sessions are comprised of students looking for career advice or recovering addicts, a working knowledge of leadership skills and strategies enables you to conduct meaningful sessions that positively impact your participants' lives.

Effective Group Leaders

The goal of a group counseling leader is to guide clients toward decisions that are safe, fulfilling and healthy without projecting your own personal moral values or judgments onto group members. Group counselors must strike a balance between asserting leadership and creating a safe, welcoming environment for group participants. Effective group leaders are clear, compassionate communicators who use active listening skills to interpret the needs and feelings of clients in the group. Though group counseling sessions are often deeply personal, as group leader, you must avoid becoming angry with clients, even if they seem disrespectful or combative. Group leaders should differentiate their strategies in response to the needs of a particular group.

Promoting Discussion

Group discussion is the cornerstone of group counseling, and group leaders are responsible for developing strategies to promote and guide meaningful discussion. The first step in promoting discussion is to establish a safe environment, so spend a portion of the first session establishing ground rules for acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Group leaders often have personal experience in the same types of issues facing clients; sharing portions of individual experience is one way to create an open atmosphere for group discussions. Use prompting questions to guide discussions toward meaningful ends. For example, an establishing statement might be, "Let's take an inventory of how we're feeling about group today. How would you like to feel after group and what can we do to help you get to that place?" Remind your clients of previous sessions as a way to continue a meaningful discussion. For example, you may open with, "Last session we discussed Joe's struggle to explain his emotions to his wife. How have our strategies worked for you since our last meeting?"

Organizational Strategies

Organization and management are necessary aspects of leading effective group counseling sessions. Spending too much time on a frivolous topic or a single member of the group may alienate other members and waste time. Employ strategies to direct members toward meaningful discussions. One approach is to establish a schedule prior to beginning a session so that clients know how much time is allotted for the session's topics. When the schedules become routine, clients feel prepared before the meeting even begins. Once you identify that the discussion is off-track, redirect the conversation without discouraging members from participating. One way to do so is to connect the existing conversation with a more meaningful topic. For example, you might say, "It's interesting to talk about our favorite movies because watching movies is often a way of managing the stress of recovery. Let's talk about other strategies that we like to use when we're feeling overwhelmed."

Intervention Strategies

Interventions occur when a leader recognizes that the group requires a change in its focus or approach in order to accomplish the clients' goals. Group sessions that are consistently argumentative, fail to touch on important issues or require constant redirection require interventions. Approach an intervention candidly in order to discern how the clients feel about the progress made during group meetings. You might pose a question like, "How have the discussions we've had in group positively affected your lives out of group, and what can we do to make more positive changes occur?" If the group is failing to communicate effectively, spend a session providing clients with strategies for communicating their feelings. For example, you might demonstrate a strategy like I-statements by saying, "I-statements help us express our feelings in a non-confrontational way. For example, I feel frustrated when group sessions end and people leave feeling like they've wasted their time."


Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.

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