What are Encounter Groups? History and Common Objections


What does encounter group mean? What happens in encounter groups? Encounter groups history and common objections.

Encounter Groups

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ENCOUNTER GROUPS are experiences in what purports to be group psychotherapy offered to the public at large or to occupational groups, such as businessmen, or to groups with special problems, such as drug addicts. Encounter groups became a familiar part of the cultural scene in the late 1960’s, especially in the United States.

Encounters are ostensibly designed to help participants to relate to others more honestly and openly. The groups may be designated “T-groups,” “sensory awareness sessions,” or “human relations workshops” and may offer such things as “sensitivity training” or “laboratory experiences.” There are many shades of difference between the types, often relating to the proportion of verbal to physical interaction. The groups may include from about ten to several hundred participants. They may meet only once, or they may assemble regularly, for periods ranging from a few hours to several weeks.

In general, the leaders of such groups are not trained mental-health professionals, although the principal appeal of the groups is to those seeking some sort of psychological change. The advertisements of the group organizations (often called “growth centers”) appear to offer the promise of something like instant psychotherapy.


The movement is, in part, an out-growth of earlier scientific work in which groups studied their own ways of making decisions, communicating, and interacting. This approach was applied, with varying success, to organizational interaction problems, usually in business. In the 1960’s the Esalen Institute in California received attention for its efforts to “expand human awareness” by intensifying interpersonal and sensory experiences.

As the encounter movement developed, its leaders made a point of trying to integrate elements of Eastern cultures (especially Zen Buddhism) and radical therapy systems (such as Geştalt psychotherapy). Despite this heterodoxy, certain common values and themes emerged. Encounter groups tended to emphasize candor and bodily awareness. Proponents developed a series of “games” that generate extremes of emotion through the simulation of ordinary human experiences such as aggression, affection, dependency, and trust. Encounterers tended to avoid intellectuality, personal history, extemal events, or anything that was not regarded as being part of the “here and now.”

Common Objections.

Several serious criticisms of encounter have been raised, even when trained professional therapists serve as leaders. Speeifically, in many instances, (1) there is little or no screening of participants—hence persons with severe emotional problems, who run a high risk of adverse reaction, may join; (2) no individualized planning, evaluation, or goal setting is made available—hence encounter experiences tend not to be connected with real life problems; (3) no follow-up is made to protect individuals in whom profound emotional change has been set in motion; and (4) groups often become coercive, encourage conformity to rituals of emotional expression, and place a premium on brief intimacy without responsibility.

While many cathartic emotional experiences do occur, there is little or no objeetive evidence to support claims that the lives of vast numbers of people have been dramatically improved by experiences in these groups. Indeed, much evidence suggests that a significant percentage of participants run the risk of coming away emotionally or physically damaged.

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