The idea of the encounter group primarily springs from the writing and work of humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers, and early examples of group therapy can be found in Roger’s work Client-Centered Therapy, published in the mid-20th century. The basic premise of Rogers and other humanists was that people had an innate ability to self-heal, and in disclosing their thoughts and feelings in a group setting, this potentiality could emerge. A group might head itself, but usually includes a therapist whose job it is to mirror the comments, thoughts, and feelings of each participant; group participants serve as mirrors too. Other types of encounter groups are formed from different perspectives on the therapist’s role and the goals or orientation of the whole group, but the generic type was a means of increasing self-awareness by talking about self within the group and addressing issues that tend to create problems in life.
Early types of the encounter group involved people sitting comfortably in a circle, and people might sit in chairs or on comfortable cushions sharing thoughts and feelings with each other. In Rogers’ model, the therapist is mostly there to facilitate the communication between group members, possibly repeating or rephrasing the comments of individuals when there are pauses or when such repetition mirrors valuable thoughts and feelings. Some group leaders take a more interpretive or analytic role and might explain, elucidate, or compare individual’s feelings. Groups can evolve from relatively passive sitting and speaking to dynamic adventures where things like acting out or movement are encouraged.
There are other forms of the encounter group that are organized around a specific purpose. Some are religious in nature, and people can find encounter groups or retreats where some of the time will be spent in an encounter group fashion. Focus might be on speaking about religious convictions and coming closer to a perfect understanding with God.
Another encounter group type may occur in Marriage Encounter, a program first developed by the Roman Catholic Church that has a weekend retreat. This may feature group discussions and other activities in the hopes of improving marriages and communication between spouses. Generally, facilitators of these weekends are not professional therapists.
Quite different from models used by Rogers and others are encounter groups based on attacking one participant of the group. One of these, the Synanon Encounter, has been most often used in programs that treat addiction. A similar model may be used for family interventions to address a number of destructive behaviors. This model is potentially dangerous without guidance by a therapist or skilled interventionist, since the person being attacked isn’t a willing participant.
The heyday of the encounter group was when humanist psychology was in flower. Especially in the 1960s-1970s, these groups were popular and could be found in many locations. Though less popular today, it’s still possible to find groups. There are also many unrelated types of group therapy, which don’t take the initial form suggested by Rogers and others.