I’m sitting in a circle with 11 young men and myself in a classroom in multicultural east London. They’re 16–17 years old and I’m 26. My mind imagines their judgments: “who’s this bloke with a bell making us sit in silence and what is the point of this ‘men’s group’”?
My paranoia rapidly evaporated as the first boy told us about the last time he cried. His voice quivered a little as he spoke: “The last time I cried was seeing my uncle pass away. It was really difficult to watch. He was foaming at the mouth. My cousins who’re only little were trying to poke him and make him wake up. They kept asking why wouldn’t he wake up. That really got me.”
I was left hanging wanting to know what happened next, but he only said she’d had a stroke and thankfully she made a full recovery.
At men’s groups, it’s not about recounting every detail of your story like you’re telling your mother the details of your day in school. Male language can get to the point beyond the details, and before you know it you’ve moved on…
For those that are new to the concept: a men’s group is a group of men talking and listening in a non-hierarchical and safe space. There is no agenda except for the men to empower themselves and each other to get more out of life. I learned how to facilitate my particular style of men’s groups with MenSpeak Men’s Groups.
Back to the group…
We had begun with two minutes of silence to get us present and leave our day at the door. It’s a small ritual that helps create space for something new and different from the same old busyness and distractions of daily life.
I felt a little more out of place than usual: the group was comprised of 99% Muslim students, and I grew up in a white, middle-class town in Kent. I hoped it would make no difference to the quality and depth of our men’s group — I hoped that the students would trust and accept me enough to speak openly and without restriction.
Ironically, after sitting in this group for a little while and hearing the students speak, I almost wanted to reel them back, to say “you don’t only have to share your deepest darkest secrets, you can also lighten up and have a laugh!” Some of them were treating it like a confessional and a men’s group doesn’t have to be like that — it can be light and friendly, it’s all up to what the men need in that moment.
As the group went round, I heard some very honest, real, raw hardships and challenges, and thankfully some students also shared heartwarming and hilarious anecdotes, giving some much-needed relief to counterbalance the heavy stories.
One young man said “The last time I cried was last summer. Me and my friends went for a walk in Wales and my friend found a leech in his shoe. I started crying from laughter.”
Many spoke of the pressure placed on them by their family and by school:
“My greatest fear is failing my A-levels.”
“My family keeps telling me ‘oh you’re so clever’ and ‘you’re gonna go far’ but inside I feel like I’m failing them.”
“I’m afraid that I can’t live up to the expectations of my parents. They expect me to get rich and provide for them and my siblings.”
By the time we’d finished the check-in round, I think we all felt much closer. Everyone had shared very honestly and openly about what they were feeling, about their experiences, good and bad.
“What would you like to talk about now?” I asked.
One guy piped up “I’ve got a question for the group: have you ever worn some clothes and felt gay?”
Where else but in a space like this will a young man ever feel comfortable to bring up a question like that?
After a bit of debate, one student said: “I don’t think it matters what you wear if you’re a guy or a girl, it’s your character that counts.”
This clearly got one of the guys thinking, because he changed track after being opposed to (or was it confused about?) men wearing women’s clothes: “I think you’re right — trans, gay, straight, we’re all human at the end of the day.”
I sat in a kind of awe-struck reverie — the power of these groups never stops to astound me. Ten minutes ago we were sitting with one young man as he shared probably one of the most vulnerable and sad moments of his life, the next we’re learning how to explore the complex world of gender, and it’s all non-hierarchical, organic, respectful, collaborative, and fun!
To bring our 90 minutes to a close, we do a round of closing comments:
“I feel like we’ve gone to a higher level of friendship.”
“I appreciate everyone’s honesty.”
“I think this is a really good thing.”
We end with two minutes of silence. I realize my insecurities have evaporated, and are replaced by gratitude, connection, and warmth towards these students who until quite recently were strangers.
I’ve never seen the MenSpeak format for running men’s groups fail at its aim (depth and authenticity) in my several years of attending men’s groups and my short time facilitating my own adult and young men’s groups.
The structure is designed to bring everyone on the same side, to transcend competitiveness, and to foster connection by encouraging sharing from one’s experience instead of abstract theories and guesses.
It’s clear that men need help — after all, suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 20–49.
The less boys are prepared for life after school and university — where friendships are typically at their strongest — the more likely they are to struggle when those friendships fall away.
Research suggests that many of the vulnerabilities men feel in midlife, when the risk of suicide is at its highest, are established in childhood and adolescence, and that the needs of boys and young men need attention to prevent difficulties in later years
Men’s groups are an affordable, easily-replicated and effective means of providing not only support but also community, connection and the tools to thrive, rather than just ‘cope’ with life.
The mission of MenSpeak is to spread men’s groups as far and wide as possible — to schools, universities, professional organizations, prisons, care homes etc.
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.
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