Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Men’s Groups
Meet Jeff Howard, a “jack of all trades.” Musician, writer, somatic psychotherapist, and…men’s group facilitator.
What exactly is a men’s group and what actually happens in these mysterious meetings? Jeff started leading men’s groups as a way of encouraging men to take risks and embrace vulnerability in an intentional, open space.
Because I was so fascinated to hear more about this brotherhood of men supporting men, I asked Jeff if I could pick his brain about his work. I also interviewed Jeff on our Wellness 3.0 podcast if you’re craving more information on how to start your own social group. I promise it’s not as scary as it sounds so, without further ado, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about Men’s Groups.
Jeff’s Personal Story and Background
Amy: What experiences in your life led you to seek the support of men’s groups and get involved in supporting similar programs?
Jeff: My path has been unique in that I sought support from men’s groups by starting a men’s group of my own before having ever participated in one. That group, which started with friends and friends-of-friends, is still going today (in my native Washington State). Mostly, what led me to start a men’s group was feeling a lack of intimacy in my relationships with men.
Amy: What were your expectations going into it?
Jeff: Going in to men’s groups, my expectations were high around what was possible. I wanted us to get more honest, more raw, and more vulnerable around the things we struggle with as men, while also having a place to feel and offer support around these struggles, goal-set, be accountable, celebrate, and witness growth.
Amy: What is the single biggest benefit you’ve gotten from participating in groups?
Jeff: It’s tough to boil it down to just one benefit, but I’d say the lived experience of “I am not alone” and “we are in this together”. I previously felt I was on an island by myself when it came to challenges I faced as a man.
Amy: What is the single biggest benefit you’ve gotten from leading groups?
Jeff: The growth that I have experienced as a man, as a human, as a leader, and someone who is continually learning to create a container to cultivate a safe-enough environment for vulnerability and risk-taking has shaped who I am as a man, father, lover, partner, friend and human. I am grateful most days about this consistent opportunity to grow and connect with other men who care so much about their lives and their families.
Listen on Wellness 3.0: Men’s Groups | Jeff Howard
Podcast: Lean Into Discomfort & Other Lessons From Men’s Groups
On this Wellness 3.0 episode, somatic psychotherapist Jeff Howard demystifies men’s groups, shares how to start your own social group, and encourages us to lean into discomfort.
How Men’s Groups Work and What to Expect
Amy: What can men expect when they join a men’s group?
Jeff: Certainly, it depends on the group and the explicit focus of that group. If men join one of the groups that I lead, they can expect to learn how to better communicate, how to better listen, how to offer useful feedback and reflection to others while not making it about themselves, how to receive said feedback and reflection, how to be more honest with themselves and others, how to love themselves and others more, how to be more attuned to their own (and other’s) needs, how to show up more fully across many different contexts (especially their hardest ones), how to take risks, how to let your heart lead, and how to be a man who knows himself, his purpose, his value and offers his gifts to his growing community.
Amy: Are there any common assumptions about men’s groups that you want to debunk?
Jeff: I didn’t know what to think about groups when I first started one. The most common assumption that I want to debunk is that men lack the capacity to feel and express that feeling. In the groups that I have led, men come to the table so powerfully and beautifully ready to feel, to witness others in their emotions, and to learn how to express even more of what they feel in any given context.
Amy: How long does a typical group last? Tell us about the logistics.
Jeff: For my groups, a typical session lasts nine weeks. I have tried both eight weeks and ten weeks and nine is what I’ve settled on as the most natural arc of the group process. My groups are 2 ½ hours, except the first and last group. The first group is 2 ¾ hours so I can talk logistics, protocol, and my expectations for the level and type of participation, and the last group is 3 hours for final appreciations, reflections, and closings.
Amy: Are groups invite only? Is there a process of applying and being accepted? Vetting? Initiation rituals? Do you let people “drop in” or try it out ever?
Jeff: I vet each man prior to them joining one of my groups. This is twofold in that I want them to get a feel for me and what I’m like, and for me to get a feel on if they would be a good enough fit. I don’t have men just drop in to groups as they are all closed. I do, however, offer monthly Men’s Community Dinners where any man may come to meet me and other men that have been in other men’s groups to learn more about happens in them. I may offer a more drop-in type group in the future, but we shall see.
Amy: What characteristics are you looking for in members of a group?
Jeff: The central characteristics that I look for are willingness (to share, to learn, to challenge, to be challenged, to stretch), intelligence, and heart. Can the man show up, be humbled, own his value, learn how best to engage, and be relational in and around charged material?
Amy: Do you support someone through a transition to another group that would be a good fit?
Jeff: Absolutely. I recently had a waitlist, and when one man couldn’t join my group I referred him to a colleague’s groups where he found a spot. Likewise, if a man doesn’t feel ready to me then I direct him to what makes the most sense.
Amy: What rules or agreements are in place for a men’s group to be a safe space for personal exploration and development?
Jeff: The basic rules I use are, 1. Take care of yourself (stretch, take a break, pass, etc), 2. Confidentiality, and 3. Participate (take risks, show up, share the things that feel edgy). These, coupled with the weekly email shares, work powerfully to create cohesion and safety to go to (and past) our edges as men and as a group.
Amy: How does confidentiality work? And what happens if it’s breached?
Jeff: The way I work with confidentiality comes from my psychotherapy practice. The basic rule is, what happens in group stays in group unless it is your own experience or your experience of another man so long as you don’t name names or identifying details about that man (or men). If it is breached, then we move into how best to repair the breach. We do this by gathering the men involved and finding ways to clean up the mess. Ultimately, we move it to the larger group to process what transpired, which helps us all to learn how to navigate conflict.
Amy: Do you have a tried and true format for facilitation in these groups?
Jeff: I do and, for me, less is more. I have tried different exercises and activities and, while those have been valuable according to the men, I have found over and over that the simpler the better. I work to create (and we always are co-creating in group) a structured-enough environment that involves each man sharing multiple times while we all hear them and reflect back our experience, impacts, and the like. This format allows all of us the room to speak and be heard.
Amy: Does physical touch (like hugging or cuddling) have a place in these groups?
Jeff: While I haven’t done much in the way of more formally introducing touch, the men often hug one another upon greeting, after dyadic exercises, at the end of group, etc.
Amy: Is it a requirement that these groups meet in-person, or can they be conducted via digital channels?
Jeff: I am still contemplating what I want to do here. For me, thus far, these groups have been all about meeting in person and the power of sitting in circle in close proximity to other men. I may expand into the digital realm, where I already see many clients one-on-one. Time will tell.
Amy: Are there alternative facilitation models that are known to work? If so, can you give some examples?
Jeff: I know of a handful and I am no expert on what all is out there in the world. The Mankind Project (MKP) has its New Warrior Training which works with ferocity, anger, challenge. The Authentic Man Program (AMP) has things like the back off drill which has some similarities to MKP. Other men’s programs I’ve participated in do more active, direct work with emotional content that seems to be good for some men.
Fabriq: Communal by Nature | Vulnerability
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How to Start Your Own Men’s Group
Amy: What steps did you take to start your own?
Jeff: I started my first peer-to-peer men’s group back in Washington State, and it was as simple as me being dissatisfied with my friendships with males. I called together around ten men who were curious about men’s work. We had a little shuffle of members over the first year, but that group is still going some four years later.
Amy: What were the biggest successes and pitfalls of starting your own?
Jeff: For me, the successes have come in the form of every group I have offered has been met with enthusiasm and filled up (9 and counting). More significant than that is that men have shared how deeply impacted they have been, how much richer their lives have become, and what they’ve gone on to do (start their own groups, follow a passion) through being in a men’s group. In terms of pitfalls, early on I offered a group and then realized that I couldn’t run it, so I called it off. I didn’t have enough clarity to know what I was truly offering nor how I would offer it. I went and took a colleague’s 8-week group, and got a lot of great ideas for how to run a group both in terms of what I liked and what I thought was missing.
Amy: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve experienced in your groups?
Jeff: I would say the overwhelming response to the groups and the deep hunger the men have shown for community, accountability, shared purpose, and connection to self and others. This consistently impresses me. And while it surprises me less and less, I am still so heartened by the way the men keep coming, keep showing up, and continue to take risks to be better versions of themselves.
Amy: How can these groups help men to strengthen their support network so they don’t rely on just a handful of people in their life (or none) for the support they need?
Jeff: Part of what I have the men do each group is meet with one another man one-on-one between sessions. That way, every man gets a lived experience of meeting with conscious men who care about them and care about more than just women, sports, cars and money. I also offer Men’s Group Alumni Parties for men and their families and friends, as well as offering Men’s Community Dinners on a monthly basis. Also, many men repeat my groups (some have done as many as 5 and 6 sessions).
Amy: What are some ways you’ve learned to help men open up more?
Jeff: Here, I also lean on my skills as a therapist and encourage men to lean in when I sense there is something happening under the surface. It could be something as simple as asking if there is more they want to share, or commenting that “it seems like there is some emotion around this for you.” I also work to share more myself as a way to both model sharing while also giving men implicit permission to open up more.
“And while it surprises me less and less, I am still so heartened by the way the men keep coming, keep showing up, and continue to take risks to be better versions of themselves. ”
Advice for Other Men Looking for Groups
Amy: From the experience of leading groups like these, what is the most important thing that men can gain from them?
Jeff: A sense of worth when it comes to their lives, experiences, feelings and the value that is inherent in them. Many men come feeling like they have little to offer only to walk away with the new experience of being heard by many men, honored, acknowledged, validated, and cared for in the ways that only men can care for other men.
Amy: What to look for and what to avoid in finding the men’s group that’s right for you. Any other advice?
Jeff: How does it feel to you? Do the men in the group match your values closely enough? Is the aim of the group aligned with what you’re looking for? I also recommend giving yourself and the group a trial period of, say, 3 months to see if it’s a fit for all. I strongly encourage men to ask for what they want and, if they don’t get it, find another group or start your own.
Amy: For the average man who doesn’t live in Boulder, CO, where can they find men’s groups? Any resources or ideas you can offer?
Jeff: There are, fortunately, men’s groups around the country more and more. The Men’s Leadership Alliance (MLA), ManKind Project, The Evolving Man (TEM), and Evryman. Some great resources are the Men’s Group Manual and Jayson Gaddis.
Amy: How have men’s groups and facilitation of these groups changed your life and the way you engage in relationships (new and existing)?
Jeff: I have been consistently humbled by leading these groups. That humility has transferred to other areas of my life such as my relationships, personal practice, and private practice. I have also realized more and more my capacity to lead and what kind of leader feels good to me: one that is inclusive, empowering for others, and that provides enough structure without choking the aliveness of the group. As for how they’ve changed my life, I now know that if I am passionate about something, believe deeply in it, and also feel that it can bring value to others I am so much more empowered to offer that to the world. I am becoming much more resilient around taking risks and being able to be with the consequences, whatever they may be. The same holds true for me in my existing and new relationships in that, because of my time participating in and leading men’s groups, I am far more able to ask for what I need, care for myself and others, and function far more independently in all of my connections with others.
Whether you’re dissatisfied with your current friendships, looking to explore a passion with other people, or just hoping to gain a sense of community with other folks, remember that groups function with intentionality. Like Jeff said, groups enhance the human experience and sometimes, they can even be a life jacket in the rip current of life.
Starting a social group doesn’t have to feel like joining an elite club or signing a daunting contract. It’s as simple as you make it.
About Jeff Howard
Jeff Howard is a somatic psychotherapist based out of Boulder Colorado with his own practice, Three Leaves Counseling. Somatic therapy is a body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses a combination of talk and physical therapy for holistic healing. In addition, Jeff is a men’s group facilitator, writer, musician, and father, who values honesty, humility, and growth.
He is fascinated by people and the reasons that we behave the way we do and it is that fascination that inspires and challenges him to work in counseling, soul-guiding, leading men’s groups, and taking continual risks to be more vulnerable and alive while actively working to find ways for more of himself to be in the world.
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