Chinese Group Psychotherapy Volume 10, No. 1, p. 31-45. 2004


The Experiential Dream Group Process

by William R. Stimson


Figure A1 is a diagram of Montague Ullman's experiential dream group process.   The description that follows details, step by step, exactly how we conduct the group.  

The skills necessary in the Experiential Dream Group.

There are two skills involved:

1. Listening:   The main challenge for most people is to put all of their own brilliant ideas to one side, disregard them utterly, and listen purely and simply to what the dreamer is saying.   This is not easy for people in general and it is not easy for people who have been trained in the helping professions.   Frequent mistakes beginners make include

(a) cutting a dreamer off when she is speaking to introduce an idea of their own.   It is hard for people to realize their own ideas don't matter and that nothing is more important than what the dreamer herself has to say.  

(b) offering supposedly helpful suggestions when a dreamer struggles to find a way to express herself.   Putting words in the dreamer's mouth isn't helpful.   When the dreamer opens her mouth and is silent, what we want to hear isn't what someone else in the group supposes she is about to say next.   We want to hear the words that come when the dreamer finally does find a way to express herself.   In the experiential dream group we put up with silence for longer, sometimes, than many people are comfortable with.   It's the same with tears and laughter.   More often than not they signal that something has gone right - not wrong.   We don't try to rush forward and comfort the dreamer unless we are invited to do so.   The group functions instead to open the dreamer up to self-expression and to allow that expression.

(c) disregarding what the dreamer says because they feel they know better than the dreamer what the dream is about.   Usually the dreamer knows much more than she realizes she knows.   The highest skill is to listen to what the dreamer says but does not hear herself say and then share with her what you have heard.   In other words, each of us in the group is called upon to listen to the dreamer even more closely than she listens to herself.   This is a tall order.   Most people simply can't get away from their own brilliant ideas long enough to really hear what the dreamer is saying.

  2. Knowing how to ask a question:   In this kind of dream group we do not allow any group member to take control away from the dreamer.   The dreamer alone determines the extent to which she wishes to open up to the group, what information she is willing to offer to the group, and in what direction she chooses to take the process.   Consequently:

(a) No information demanding questions are allowed .   "What were your feelings when your parents died?" is an "information-demanding question" - a question that demands the dreamer provide an answer.   This kind of question intrudes into the dreamer's private domain and is not permitted.   Instead, we ask "information-eliciting questions" .   "Is there anything more you would care to say about how you felt during this period?" is a proper question.   It demands nothing of the dreamer but is an invitation for her to say anything else that comes to mind.   Thus, it functions t o elicit information.   An open-ended question like this gives the dreamer the freedom to follow her own inner promptings.   She stays in control and leads the process.

(b) No "leading questions" are allowed .   "Don't you think that little old lady in the dream was your mother?" is a leading question.   A leading question is a hypothesis introduced under the guise of a question.   It takes control of the process away from the dreamer and subjects the inquiry into the dream to the preconceptions of a group member.   Such questions will be stopped immediately.

(c) No questions are allowed about areas of her life not already introduced by the dreamer .   The dreamer may have a boyfriend but she said nothing about him at all.   No one may ask about the boyfriend or any other piece of information unless the dreamer introduces it first.   The very crux of this process is that the dreamer alone controls the level of sharing.   Of course if she shares almost nothing at all, she will get very little of value out of the process.   It is in the nature of the group work that there is an inevitable tradeoff between the safety factor and the discovery factor .   A dreamer who makes herself completely safe might discover very little.   On the other hand a dreamer who discovers a lot might not feel entirely safe.   Only the dreamer can decide what balance to strike.

The Stages of the Process

The creative process, whether it be the opening of a flower, the growth of a child or the writing of a novel, happens in discrete stages.   At each stage something needs to happen in order for the next stage to kick in successfully.   The Experiential Dream Group is a succession of very different stages that serve to keep the dream and the dreamer opening more and more fully to each other throughout the entire process.   The group has no other agenda.

Obtaining a dream:   No one in the group is obliged to offer a dream.   The group leader invites anyone who wishes to share their dream with the group to come forward.   If two or three people volunteer, then the leader sits back while those individuals decide among themselves which one feels a more pressing need to do their dream.   In the case where more than one individual wants to do their dream, a coin is tossed.  

"When did you have this dream?" the leader asks before the dreamer tells her dream.   To know when the dream occurred is necessary for a future stage in the process.

Stage I: The dreamer tells the dream slowly as members of the group write it down.   Members of the group may then ask clarifying questions.   Common questions are "What were the feelings in the dream?"   "Were there any colors in the dream?"   "Were you your present age?"   "Were any of the people in the dream real people?"   The questioning should not go on too long.   It is important that the group have an accurate picture of the dream in their minds.   But to try to get too precise is a waste of time.   Dreams, by their very nature, are vague and hard to pin down exactly.

Stage II: The leader invites the dreamer to sit back, listen and take notes.   He instructs the group to ignore the dreamer, not to make eye contact or speak to her.   The group starts playing "the game."   Each member pretends the dream is her own.  

There are two parts to this stage: feelings and metaphor.

  (1) Feelings:   Any member of the group who wishes to, speaks up and expresses the feeling that she has during a certain scene in the dream or because of a particular image.   "The dark cloud makes me afraid," one group member may say.   Another might follow, "The dark cloud makes me laugh because it looks so stupid."   A third member might say, "The dark cloud makes me angry."   These are all only projections.   Nobody but the dreamer can know what the dark cloud ultimately means.  

         This stage functions to offer the dreamer a multitude of possibilities.   Often the dreamer will have no clue at all why the dark cloud was in her dream.   It may be something a group member says that's completely wrong that finally gives her the clue.   "No.   I was not afraid.   That's the thing.   I realize it now.   I felt in the dream the dark cloud wasn't real.   I didn't believe it."  

(2) Metaphors:   After the feelings in the dream have been sufficiently fleshed out the leader asks the group to shift gears and begin looking at the images of the dream as metaphors.   "I feel the dark cloud is a metaphor for camouflage, like a squid's ink," one group member may say.   "It's hiding something."   Another member may say, "I feel the dark cloud is a metaphor for me finally showing my feelings - revealing out in the open what was there all along."   These also, like the feelings, are only projections.   They're very useful because they open up the dreamer's own imagination.   The dreamer might decide, "The dark cloud that was blowing past was a powerful metaphor for everything in the situation that has nothing whatsoever to do with me.   I just stood there and it went right by.   I didn't need to get involved.   And that's the attitude I need to take with this impossible situation I've described at work."

Stage III:   When the dream images have been sufficiently fleshed out, the leader thanks the group for its help and invites the dreamer to come forward and comment on the dream in light of all the different possibilities that surfaced during the "game".   

(1) Dreamer's Response:   This is a time when the dreamer can say anything she wants about anything.   She can talk for as long as she wishes and can remain quiet and think for as long as she wants before starting to speak again.   The only thing she has to do is tell the group when she's finished, when she's said everything she has to say.

         The leader asks the dreamer, "Would you like to go on to the next stage?"   The dreamer is in control of the process and can stop it at any point if she feels threatened or unsafe.   If the dreamer does feel safe within this process then she will opt to go forward with the exploration of the dream.

(2) The Dialogue between the dreamer and the group :   At each previous stage of the process either the dreamer or the group has been active.   During the dialogue the group and the dreamer interact.

(a) Search for Context :   The group now questions the dreamer about the real-life events leading up to the dream (Open-ended questions only!   No leading questions!   No questions on material the dreamer has not already introduced!)   "Could you say anything about what was going through your mind as you were going to sleep that night?" is a good start.   From there the group stretches and timeframe slowly back to include the evening and then the entire day.   It is sometimes helpful to stretch the timeframe back further to include the past several days, the entire week, the month, or even "this general period of your life."  

(b) The Playback:   When enough of the context has been fleshed out, then the leader asks the dreamer if she wishes to continue with the work on the dream and go to the next stage.   If the dreamer says yes, then someone in the group reads the dream, scene by scene, back to the dreamer in the second person ("You saw a big black cloud on the horizon, etc.").   The dreamer is asked to relax and view each successive scene of the dream as if it were a film on a screen.   The purpose here is to put a distance between the dreamer and her dream so she can sit back and, in light of everything that has been said so far about the dream images and about her recent life, look at the dream in a fresh way.   The dreamer can interrupt at any moment to offer any new insights or connections that arise.   Also the group members can bring to the dreamer's attention any discrepancies between the waking feelings and the imagery of the dream.   Or, the dreamer may be invited to look deeper into the dream imagery or deeper into the events of the day.   The dreamer may simply be asked to notice some peculiarity of an image in the dream that comes to light now.   "You say the dark cloud in your dream was not black.   It was purple," some member of the group might say, holding the image up to the dreamer.   "Yes," the dreamer might suddenly say, "At work my boss always wears purple."  

         The playback is a powerful stage.   The imagery of the dream has been explored, the recent emotional experience of the dreamer has come to light.   In the playback these two come naturally together, like two tributaries, to make a mighty river.   The dreamer, the group, and the leader all play active roles in this stage.   This is the time when the dreamer and her dream often open to each other and connect.  

(c) The Orchestration:   The leader asks the dreamer if she wishes to continue working on the dream.   If she says yes, the leader invites any members of the group who wish to come forward now and offer the dreamer their view of what the dream is saying.   This affords each member of the group the only chance they'll have to tell the dreamer what they think the dream means.   Now they can say something like "I think your dream of the dark cloud means that your boss has made such a big stink over this situation that everybody in the company sees what she is now.   She's not going to stay in that position for long.   The dream suggests your best bet is not to do anything.   You are safe."  

         The "interpretations" the various group members come up with are called "orchestrating projections" because they attempt to "orchestrate" or bring together in a harmonious way all the disparate and discordant bits of information that have come forward during the process and because they are only projections.   Nobody can know what somebody else's dream means.   The dreamer, by this stage, often pretty well knows what her dream means, and so it might be useful to her to see what other people think.  

(d) The dreamer has the final word:   Symbolically and factually, it's important that in this process the dreamer has the final word.   The leader invites the dreamer to say anything more she cares to say.   Almost always the dreamer says something like, "I just want to thank all of you so much!" or "I never imagined that such a simple little dream could mean so much and be so important to me!"

         The real dream work doesn't actually go on in the group but in the dreamer's own privacy after she leaves the group.   The images, ideas and events raised in the group keep working together, like the ingredients in a cake that is slowly baking.   The insight as to the deepest import of the dream might spark in the shower the next morning, or on the way to work two days later.   And so, in an ongoing group, there is one final stage to the process.

(e) At the next group meeting, the dreamer is invited to share any further ideas or insights about the dream.   It sometimes comes out that the dream was about something completely different than everybody thought and that some little thing that happened later caused to dreamer to realize its true meaning.   This is an opportunity for the dreamer to share this with the group.