Therapists Can Coach Virtual Groups
by Ben Dean, Ph.D.,
Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach
Context. In previous issues
I have described virtual coaching, its many advantages, and how to develop
a virtual coaching practice (Dean, 1998, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d, 1999e).
In this article, I share my ideas and experience on the little differences
that make virtual groups (v-groups) successful.
- "Face-To-Face" Versus "Virtual" Communication. When
you communicate with individuals or groups in your office, you are
working "face-to-face." When you communicate with individuals
or groups at a distance (for example, by telephone or phone teleconferences,
FAX, E-mail, and, in time, videoconferencing), you are working "virtually."
- "Virtual" Coaching. Virtual
coaching is coaching delivered at a distance. Most virtual coaching
relationships are not transacted on the Internet. They are transacted
by telephone. Though there may be between-session communication by
E-mail, fax, and surface mail, it is the live, interactive relationship
of the telephone that is essential. In time, telephone coaching will
be supplanted by low-cost videophones and videoconferencing.
- "Virtual" Groups. For
our purposes, a virtual group (or v-group) is a group of geographically
dispersed people who are united as a "virtual" group via
a live, interactive audio (or phone) teleconference. Each member of
the group can hear and be heard by every other member. Groups can also
be united in live, real-time (or near-real-time) interaction by videoconferencing
or E-mail chat rooms.
of a V-Group. An
example. Imagine coaching a group of ten ice cream storeowners. (This
v-group example could as easily be comprised of stockbrokers, writers,
clinicians interested in forensic psychology, etc.) Imagine these
ten individuals live in ten states and meet with you for an hour
by telephone on the second and fourth Tuesday morning of the month
at 10:00 a.m., Eastern Time. The group is open-ended, not time-limited.
Members come and go over time; though, as in a therapy group, they
bond with you and with each other and tend to stay in the group.
Each is guaranteed there will be no local competitor in the group.
The agenda could be coaching group members around all the issues
of running their businesses. You are providing them with peer supervision,
your own growing expertise, and a 24/7 between-session group list
server. You are offering this to them with great efficiency-no travel,
no dressing for success. They simply close their door, pick up the
phone, and they're in your v-group.
you bill this v-group of ice cream storeowners at $150 per month,
you generate $75 per hour per client. Ten clients generate $750 per
hour. Fourteen clients generate more than $1000 per hour. Twenty
generate $1500 per hour. And so on.
varies with the v-group's purpose and with your own inclinations.
I have conducted v-groups for doctoral candidates that I limited
in size to three or four members because I wanted to give them individual
attention in each session. I have a client who has successfully conducted
12-week training v-groups of 80 to 90 members (receiving high evaluations
from the participants). For theme-oriented v-groups, a good size
is often 15 to 25 members.
of V-Groups. V-Groups
can be created around almost any coaching need. I know of coaching
v-groups comprised of stock brokers, dentists, psychologists, parents
of ADHD children, doctoral candidates, therapists, attorneys, academicians,
small business owners by niche, midlife women making transitions,
students seeking clinical internships, high school students attempting
to get into Ivy League colleges, retirees, career changers, etc.
teleconferencing (teleconferencing transacted by telephone) can be
distinguished from videoconferencing (teleconferencing transacted
by videophone or with a video component). It is now available inexpensively
(Dean, 1999e). For information on low-cost teleconference bridge
suppliers, see the Resources section.
Makes V-Groups Thrive
As I write
this, we have just completed a v-group that has been meeting for 18 months.
The v-group ended in order that we might form a new v-group at a new
time by merging with two other v-groups. During our final call, we processed
what it was like to be ending after so much time together. We had many
feelings as we said "goodbye" to this small, very safe group
of old friends. One member said that joining the larger group felt like
moving from the safety of grade school to be with the new, strange kids
in seventh grade. Others remembered the times we had shared the triumphs
and stubbed toes. One member, sharing something personal, began to cry-the
first tears in our group since we began. I felt enormously touched and
close to her as, I believe, did others.
the v-group underlined for me what I know in my bones-v-groups can be
powerful, engaging instruments of shared support and change. I believe
a key element in creating effective v-groups-much like face-to-face groups-is
creating a space of safety and closeness where real learning can take
group is almost always more powerful than a v-group using the telephone.
But a face-to-face vs. v-group comparison is usually not a valid comparison.
V-groups allow communication between members spread throughout the world.
And they allow much, much more efficient communication because they don't
require travel to a single location. Thus the true comparison is not
virtual versus face-to-face. It's virtual versus nothing. If the group
had to meet live and in person, it would not exist. Instead, a virtual
community is created which can be extraordinarily productive and rewarding.
v-group members often report additional benefits of their virtual experiences.
Some members find a v-group experience to be a more intimate experience
than in-person groups. Part of this may be that there is something deeply
intimate about listening intently, perhaps with a cordless telephone
headset with each speaker's voice perfectly audible, coming almost from
inside your head. Part of this is the freedom-to stretch, to make tea,
to walk in circles, to move from your couch to your deck-while remaining
absorbed in the group's conversation. Part of this may be the I-can-be-in-my-jeans
factor. Members experience less concern about superficialities of appearance.
People are judged by their ideas rather than their physical attractiveness.
Some report that there is something about the anonymity of the medium
that helps them be more candid and, perhaps, more intimate. And, with
the v-groups with which I'm involved, many of the participants are extremely
bright, high-powered, successful people. Group members quickly realize
this. While they do not get physically dressed up, they mentally treat
each session as a special event
and are more excited about the meetings.
Indeed, some participants say that the enthusiasm and energy levels of
v-groups make face-to-face groups seem boring.
v-groups have a power and magic of their own that can more than compensate
for the loss of visual information.
In a recent MentorCoach Program, we brought together 37 clinicians from
throughout the US. To be precise, we had 30 psychologists and 7 clinicians,
sociologists, and ABDs (social workers, marriage and family therapists,
two clinical psychology ABDs, and one PhD consultant). Our live, virtual
meetings by audio teleconference took place with members located in 32
cities and 17 states ranging from Albany, NY to Sausalito, CA and Excelsior,
Minnesota to Sugarland, Texas. The virtual coaching gave them access
to a nationwide network of like-minded professionals wanting to form
a supportive learning community that would not be available just where
new at this. But I've now led around two to three hundred hours of v-groups.
Here are some of the observations I have so far on what works:
Live, Real-time Experience is Key to Virtual Coaching. A
national or international v-group would not work without regular,
live, real-time communication among group members. Each Wednesday
at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. Eastern Time, we come together in a virtual
classroom. This is not done on the Internet. It's done by telephone.
So whether class members are at home, at the office, on their sailboat
(which has happened) or traveling, they can pick up the phone for
an hour and join our group. If you would like to hear an example
of how this is done, see the Resources section at the end of this
Tape Backup Helps. We
tape every class. When members have inevitable conflicts and miss
class, they can still hear a tape and feel connected. While taping
increases the risk of breaching confidentiality, v-group members
take very seriously their pledge to keep all information shared on
the class or on tape confidential, just as they would in a therapy
group. Though we cannot guarantee confidentiality, any more than
one can guarantee it in a therapy group, we have so far had no violations.
Class List Server is a Lifeline. A
key in building ongoing communication within a class is a 24/7 list
server, quite similar to the Division 42 list server. Thus any E-mail
sent to a common address is immediately sent to all class members.
Members use this to ask questions, share resources, complain, share
all the usual forms of communication that exist in
any vibrant community.
E-mail Helps. Needless
to say, ongoing group members frequently carry on private E-mail
conversations, which deepen connections as well.
Members Need Support. Developing
a coaching practice is scary, out-of-your-comfort-zone work. Providing
support is vital to many of the group members. While some students
don't need this, many do. In each coaching program, I have two student-facilitated
virtual support groups that meet by audio teleconference. Every support
group has a core group of participants and reports that their virtual
meetings have been enormously valuable.
Gives the Group an Extra Benefit. Collaboration
between members is always encouraged. All class members are encouraged
to pair off with a virtual buddy. Many do. For example, psychologists
Bill Benninger of Columbus, OH and Alan Graham of Des Plaines, IL
are nationally recognized ADHD experts. They met in the larger v-group,
did a virtual pilot program together, and have joined forces to provide
virtual coaching for parents of children and teenagers with ADHD.
To see their growing collaborative work, visit www.ADDvisor.com/.
Private Web Site Fosters Connections. The
class has its own confidential website with photographs of class
members and their significant others and pets. When group members
meet "live" at a conference, they often take group photographs
and post them to the web site.
Meetings Help the Group Receive More Than Expected. Communities
grow in part as a function of frequency of contact. In addition to
our regularly scheduled classes, the class has bonus meetings in
which guest experts are brought in. In August, sitting on a dock
of a beautiful lake in upstate New York, I was part of a v-group
in which one of the top virtual coaches in the world (one who will
gross $700,000 this year) outlined the steps for building a successful
coaching practice. It brought community, inspiration, and new ideas
to our group.
Sharing of Drafts. One
of the most common uses of the list server is to ask for margin comments
on writing and to solicit advice in dealing with problems. The Division
42 list server is probably too large to do this. But with a class
membership of a few dozen, it is not overwhelming to have members
post entire drafts of promotional copy or proposed articles. Then
the group, as a whole, works to help members asking for help. And,
just as valuable, everyone gets to see the answers.
a One-For-All-and-All-For-One Atmosphere of Mutual Support. A
key that any experienced group facilitator understands is building
an atmosphere of safety and cooperation. This is especially critical
on the list server and on the actual v-groups. Key elements of this
are that no ad hominem criticism of fellow group members is allowed.
(I will "fire" someone from the group before I will allow
that to happen.) And everything possible is done to encourage support
rather than competition or criticism. The ways to do this are no
doubt familiar to you. This is particularly important in a group
where potentially, people could develop competitive national coaching
practices. One thing that helps is encouraging a norm on the list
server of responding briefly to each other's posts. As in "Jack,
your feedback on this is brilliant. Wow."
Face-to-Face When Possible. Again,
all things being equal, face-to-face meetings are richer and more
nuanced than virtual meetings. Whenever possible we encourage group
members to meet live. Six of us met for the first time in Boston
at APA for dinner on Saturday night. Inevitably there is a brief
shock when you put together the person's voice with their real-world
body. But it deepens connections and can, in turn, be shared with
others on the next v-group meeting.
Facilitation Skills Are Key. In
a later article, I will focus on how to lead the v-group itself.
This is, of course, a central piece in creating a powerful experience
for v-group members. It includes how the one-hour call is structured;
the importance of maximizing group participation on the calls; the
deadly impact of teacher-to-student lecturing; ways to make the members
themselves the teachers; ways to make individual members the "star" of
a given call; how to make your points "from the inside out," that
is, by eliciting the points from the shared life experience of group
members so they feel empowered, not lectured to; the importance of "pace" and "dead
air." This is the fun part of having a v-group practice. And
it is one to which all your face-to-face skills will easily transfer.
Changes in Virtual Coaching
is an area that
is going to explode
start to see group videoconferencing
in three or four years."
I have been
a Washington Redskins football fan for decades and have been with them
through the high times and, more recently, through the low. And yet I
have never attended a single football game. My relationship has been
entirely virtual, primarily mediated by television. I believe that connection
is a thousand times more intense than it would have been had I only had
access to that virtual relationship through radio. So much more can be
communicated when visual information is included.
While I know
that v-group and individual coaching is surprisingly powerful in its
current auditory form, I believe its power will be transformed with the
advent of low cost video conferencing. Reasonably low cost one-to-one
videoconferencing is already here. My colleague, psychologist Robert
Shapiro regularly works virtually with geographically distant clients
using one-to-one videoconferencing. How long until true low-cost group
videoconferencing is available? Microsoft, for one, is working on it
and Gates believes it is only three to four years away (Gates, 1999).
When it arrives, it will dramatically change the way personal services
can be delivered-on a global scale. Those of us who are developing and
providing virtual audio groups not only are helping our clients now-we
are also positioned to move quickly into the coming world of videoconferencing.
Experience. If you would like to be a fly on the wall during a
v-group (a tape recorded initial audio teleconference meeting of 12
clinicians discussing virtual coaching), call 212.796.6881 (24/7).
Audio Teleconference Suppliers. Audio teleconferencing is now low
cost and takes place on "meet-me" teleconference bridges.
The "bridge" is usually a piece of software in a telephone
company switching office. You are given a phone number. When one person
calls the bridge number, you hear the phone ringing. When two or more
people call that same number, a "bridge" is created and they
are connected. This type of audio teleconferencing-rather than operator
assisted teleconferencing-is what I recommend you use for your v-groups.
It is relatively inexpensive. For example, a weekly one-hour audio
teleconference call for 150 people in 150 locations throughout the
world can be had for $30 per hour or less on a 150-person teleconference
bridge. By contrast, the same conference call supplied with operator
assistance by AT&T might cost $6000 for each one-hour call. A 30-person
teleconference bridge may be rented for as little as $10 per hour (or
$900 unlimited use for a year). You pay for the teleconference bridge.
Each caller pays for a normal long-distance call into the bridge. There
are many suppliers offering teleconference bridge lines including Eagle
Hilton Johnson Productions www.mlmu.com or www.salesacademy.com;
and Telebridge Teleconferencing www.telebridge.com.
(1998). The psychologist as virtual coach. The Independent Practitioner,
18 (4), 188-189.
(1999a). The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. A free, monthly E-mail
newsletter available on the web at http://www.ecoach.com/.
(1999b). Building a coaching or consulting practice: Writing a reader-friendly
E-mail newsletter. The Independent Practitioner, 19 (4), 195-199.
(1999c). Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national scale. The
Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.
(1999d). Say goodbye to managed care: Personal and professional coaching
different arena, same skills. The Independent Practitioner,
19 (2), 59-62.
(1999e). The Therapist as Coach. A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available
on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com/ or
by calling 301.986.5688.
(July/August,1999). A view from the top: a Context interview. Context:
Business Strategies for the Digital Age. pp. 38-42.
Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, a Master Certified
Coach, and Founder & CEO of MentorCoach, a virtual university that
trains therapists to add virtual coaching as a practice specialty. He is
publisher of The Therapist as Coach, a free E-mail newsletter, and may
be reached at www.mentorcoach.com or 301.986.5688.