Interpersonal learning occurs when individuals, through their interactions with others, acquire self-insight and learn new interpersonal skills. Interpersonal learning is facilitated through processes such as self-observation, self-reflection, feedback from others, and experimenting with new behaviors in an interpersonal context. Related therapeutic processes often occur in individual therapy (e.g., insight work, counselor feedback to the client, working through transference); however, within the counseling field, the term interpersonal learning is typically used to denote one of the major therapeutic factors associated with small counseling/therapy groups. A key mechanism through which interpersonal learning occurs in the group setting is interpersonal feedback, in which members share their reactions to, and perceptions of, each other’s behaviors.
Interpersonal Learning in Group Counseling
In 1955, Raymond J. Corsini and Bina Rosenberg were the first to present a comprehensive classification of group therapeutic factors. William F. Hill and others presented their own models within the next few years. These classifications included elements of interpersonal learning; however, the term interpersonal learning was first proposed by Irvin D. Yalom in his 1970 landmark classification of group curative factors.
Yalom’s development of interpersonal learning dimensions had a major influence on later group curative factor classifications. For example, in 1985, Sidney Bloch and Eric C. Crouch presented a model of group therapeutic factors that included “learning from interpersonal action” and “insight (self-understanding).” Together, these two factors closely resemble Yalom’s interpersonal learning dimension.
In comparative studies of group therapeutic factors, research findings from the 1970s to the present have consistently ranked interpersonal learning among the most helpful elements in the group process.
Therapeutic Factors in Group Counseling
Therapeutic factors refer to those forces in counseling groups that flow from the interactions among group members (including the group leader or coleaders). These forces promote and support group members’ efforts to gain self-insight, pursue goals, and make productive changes in their lives. Some examples of group therapeutic (or curative) factors include cohesiveness, universality (the realization that one’s problems are not unique and that others face similar challenges), instillation of hope, and interpersonal learning.
Interpersonal learning is often cited as one of the most important therapeutic factors. Interpersonal learning is particularly important in groups oriented toward member self-insight and the development of social interaction skills (e.g., personal growth groups, encounter groups, and interpersonal groups). Because psychological disturbances are often the result of underlying problematic interpersonal relationships, interpersonal learning serves as a valuable means of directly addressing such issues.
The Interpersonal Learning Process
As members of a counseling group interact among themselves and the group leader, they tend to engage in the habitual patterns of behavior that are characteristic of their interactions in social situations outside of the group setting. Both effective and ineffective social behaviors are on display for other members of the group to observe. In effect, a social microcosm is created whereby members get to see each other as they really are. This provides an ideal environment for the interpersonal learning process.
In his formulation of interpersonal learning, Yalom included both input (gaining insight from others’ feedback) and output (trying out new behaviors in the group) dimensions. He also emphasized certain elements that mediate the therapeutic effects of interpersonal learning. The social microcosm of the group must provide a safe and supportive environment for members to be themselves and express here-and-now feelings. Also it must at the same time foster honest feedback and the opportunity for reality testing (e.g., for members to compare their perceptions to the perceptions of others). Members must be able to experience intense emotional awareness of the effects of their interpersonal behavior, both in terms of their feelings about themselves and in terms of others’ reactions. In essence, a given group member undergoes a corrective emotional experience whereby the individual is re-exposed, within the supportive group environment, to emotional situations that could not be effectively handled in the past. Through such emotional awareness the member can be motivated to develop cognitive understanding by examining and interpreting the experience with the help of other group members.
The interpersonal learning process is likely to follow a cycle that typically begins when a given group member displays a problematic behavior (e.g., constantly criticizing others, dominating the discussion, denying strong feelings, expressing distorted perceptions). The member then observes others’ reactions and/or receives feedback from others and engages in reality testing through consensual validation (confirming the validity of the feedback with multiple group members). With the help and support of other group members, the member may then reflect on and accept responsibility for the consequences of the problem behavior. As a result of such reflection, a decision may be reached by the member to work on changing the ineffective behavior. With the help of others in the group, the member can then work to develop new, more effective behaviors and practice them in the group. This sequence is then recycled as the member receives feedback concerning new behaviors. As more effective interpersonal behaviors are gradually developed, the individual receives increasingly positive feedback which leads to increased confidence and self-esteem as well as an increased willingness to experiment with other new behaviors. Throughout this process, the group leader seeks to facilitate each step and, ultimately, to facilitate the generalization of new, more effective behaviors to functioning outside the group setting.
Interpersonal Feedback as an Element of Interpersonal Learning
Interpersonal feedback represents one of the most direct means by which individuals can learn about themselves from others, and it is widely considered to be a key element in the interpersonal learning process. Interpersonal feedback can be described as sharing one’s reactions to another’s behavior, and perceptions of that behavior, with that person. This allows the receiver of the feedback to gauge the extent to which others perceived the behavior as it was intended.
The group counseling setting provides a particularly rich environment for the exchange of feedback. Most therapeutic groups are composed of a group leader (or coleaders) plus three to eight group members, providing each member with the opportunity to receive feedback from multiple sources. Strong consensual validation occurs when feedback from multiple sources is in agreement and the recipient cannot dismiss the feedback without careful consideration and self-reflection.
Positive and Corrective Feedback
Two basic types of helpful feedback exchanged among group members are positive and corrective (sometimes referred to as negative). Positive feedback is often given in the form of praise for behaviors that are considered effective and desirable. Corrective feedback usually takes the form of encouragement to become aware of and reflect on a behavior that seems ineffective or inappropriate from the feedback giver’s perspective. Positive feedback tends to be readily received by most group members. Corrective feedback, though considered essential for the process of modifying ineffective behaviors, may arouse anxiety and be difficult for the receiver to accept and utilize, especially during the early stages of group development.
The Effective Exchange of Feedback in Groups
Group leaders may follow (and encourage group members to follow) certain general guidelines in order to provide a group atmosphere where feedback (especially corrective feedback) can be used productively. For example, research findings have indicated that corrective feedback is usually more effective when delivered after group members have progressed beyond the early stages of group development and group cohesion is relatively high. Corrective feedback is also likely to be more readily accepted when it immediately follows positive feedback, a trusting relationship exists between the giver and receiver, the feedback focuses on specific and observable behaviors rather than being evaluative, and when the receiver has the opportunity to seek clarification and receive help in processing the feedback information.
Interpersonal learning will likely continue to be viewed as one of the most important therapeutic factors operating in counseling groups. Researchers are increasingly focusing on studies to clarify the relative importance of interpersonal learning and other therapeutic factors across the various developmental stages of groups as well as for differing client populations. Additionally, much work is being done to determine which therapeutic factors are most important for particular types of group experiences. Dennis M. Kivlighan, Jr., and Stacey E. Holmes, for example, presented findings of a 2004 meta-analytic study from which they formed a typology of groups based on their therapeutic mechanisms. They concluded that group members ranked interpersonal learning as highly important for groups focused on affective or cognitive insight, but as somewhat less important for groups focused on affective or cognitive support. It seems likely that future research studies will increasingly seek to clarify the unique contributions of interpersonal learning (and component elements such as interpersonal feedback) as well as the means by which group leaders can most effectively initiate and enhance its facilitative effects.
- Crouch, E. C., Bloch, S., & Wanlass, J. (1994). Therapeutic factors: Interpersonal and intrapersonal mechanisms. In A. Fuhriman & G. M. Burlingame (Eds.), Handbook of group psychotherapy (pp. 269-315). New York: Wiley.
- Kivlighan, D. M., Jr., & Holmes, S. E. (2004). The importance of therapeutic factors: A typology of therapeutic factors studies. In J. L. DeLucia-Waack, D. A. Gerrity, C. R. Kalodner, & M. T. Riva (Eds.), Handbook of group counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 23-36). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Yalom, I. D., with Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (5th ed.). New York: Basic Books.