Ch.11 Common Ground

David Greenwood (President 2009 – 2011) has been credited with terming Common Ground as a flagship program of Mens Wellbeing.

Beginnings

The newly amalgamated Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (Qld) expressed its aims, in part, in Mentor of November 1998 as follows:

The Association supports and encourages men and boys at difficult times in their lives to choose appropriate options for meeting the challenges they face in today’s rapidly changing society.

In support of this aim, MHWA(Q) was very active over the ensuing years in establishing and promoting men’s support groups throughout the wider SEQ region. Such groups became an alternative way to “help” men apart from the two major weekend gatherings.

Over a weekend in late 2000, three men, Gary Simpson, Ross Thompson and Hilton Barr, wrote a format for a course based on Steve Biddulph’s Seven Steps to Manhood as espoused in his book Manhood supplemented by other themes that had been evident at various gatherings. The intention of this course was to introduce men to the concept of a men’s group and to encourage them to continue in a group on completion of the course. These themes are still current today and have been built on. It was Hilton who suggested the name Common Ground which has continued.

“Common Ground runs for nine evenings – lasts a lifetime!

Thus, there came into being an 8-week facilitated course (later expanded to 9 weeks)  that offered a powerful way for men to explore, in a group setting, their challenges and have conversations that they need to have – in a supported and non-judgemental way.

Getting under way – Facilitators

Facilitators were required in order to conduct this new course which resulted in several good and experienced men coming forward to undergo a group facilitation training with Yaro Starak. 

Among the participants at the Coorparoo training from December 2000 to February 2001 were Oliver Bergel, Ross Thompson, Gary Simpson, Alen Mackiewicz, Dean Olafsen, Paul Byrne, Simon Waller (aka Wolfgang Wildgrace), Barry Masterton, Max Witsen (Witsenhuysen), Steve Harrop, Bruce Lanham, Peter Blomfield, Lars Anderson, Hilton Barr, Owen Kessels and Gary Cox. 

These sixteen men were the trailblazers for the new initiative. Yaro subsequently conducted a further 4 trainings.

Getting under way – Courses

There was no real “launch” of Common Ground. 

When the time was right, men were gathered and the first course took place on the Gold Coast in April/May 2001 with Gary Simpson and Steve McInnes as facilitators. The first Brisbane group was run from July to September 2001 at the Brisbane Gestalt Institute in Bardon facilitated by Gary Cox and Hilton Barr with 11 participants.

From the outset the course was designed to function with a minimum of 8 participants and a maximum of 12 so as to be able to most effectively present the content and for the men to gain the most benefit. 

More Courses

In time, Common Ground courses grew and spread. They took place in various parts of Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. Gary Cox recalls that in the early days Brisbane groups ranged from 8 to 17 in number with an average of 12-14. Hence there was a great sense of encouragement and a willingness to progress with the program.

A program conducted in 2005 specifically for gay men was facilitated by Tony Groom, Trevor Cohen and Stephen Halsall. While significant in itself at the time, there has not been another such program.

Facilitators, Training, Manuals

In the next few years following the launch, facilitator training was conducted on an informal basis with new men learning on the job while being supported and mentored by the trailblazers. When they had developed sufficient confidence and practiced experience they were added to the expanding pool. 

Over time the facilitators developed a variety of exercises to make the groups experiential and continued to look for ways to deepen the work, make them more powerful in the hope that participants would start their own support groups, improve their relationships with their families and themselves.

Supervision was organised to help improve the quality and depth and experience of the facilitators.

Common Ground Facilitators are men from the Mens Wellbeing community with extensive experience in men’s work. They have all attended Common Ground programs themselves, so they know what it’s like to be in the program and are trained to deliver the program.

Common Ground Facilitators are not experts, just blokes. They have their own families, stuff to work on and life challenges – and they have a well-worn grasp on tools that help them be the best men they can be in their lives, families and communities. Promotional advertisement in Mentor May 2013

Alan Millett’s appraisal of Facilitator Training appeared in Mentor of Winter 2007:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for the rest of his life. Teach a man to teach others to fish and you assist in a chain reaction of self-sufficiency.

At this point there was no formal manual either for use by facilitators or for their training. In his letter from the President in Mentor of Winter 2008, Chris Johnson noted that Alan Blackburn (our Kiwi brother) had developed a standard Manual for Common Ground and was working on a Facilitators Manual and a Resource Manual. While the fate of these manuals is unclear, no doubt the material was utilised in the first official Common Ground facilitator training which took place in March 2008 and was conducted by Gary Cox, Andy Roy and Alan Blackburn.

Over time, various Presidents have espoused the activity and achievements of Common Ground programs in their regular Presidential Letters in Mentor. One such letter was from Chris Johnson in Mentor of Summer 2007:

The potential of Common Ground is almost limitless. I know how much pent-up demand there is for these programs just by the phone enquiries we get from government departments and community-based organisations.

In 2011 David Greenwood focussed on Common Ground facilitator training, playing a major role in creating a manual so the training could maintain its integrity, no matter who was facilitating, and could be built upon each year. David facilitated two trainings to enable this process. The manuals involved a manual for participants, a guide and resource manual for facilitators and a Training Manual for facilitator training. These manuals became the backbone of the program and a great marketing tool for its expansion.

Mentor of March 2012 contains mention of Common Ground groups and facilitator trainings being held further afield in regions such as Cairns.

In 2013 there was a joint training for the Common Ground facilitators and the Women’s Wellbeing program facilitators with Caitlin Roy and Dianne Ryan from Women’s Wellbeing as part of the training team. There was mixed feedback around having women in the training program.

Following a 2014 request from Bill MacDonald of Tasmen for the program to be taken to Tasmania, consideration was given, in 2015, by Mens Wellbeing as to how this could be achieved. This led to David Murray, in collaboration with Gavin Daly, Peter Kroll, Bill MacDonald and Tony Dean developing a Common Ground Framework. It set out the various types of Common Ground programs offered by Mens Wellbeing and how training, supervision and legal aspects were to be handled. Upon adoption by the Mens Wellbeing Executive Committee that year, the framework became the controlling document for Common Ground.

Subsequent to the framework’s adoption, David Murray revised the Facilitator Manual which was out of date and inadequate for intestate program facilitators. Following the investment of countless hours by David and Gavin Daly, the completion of an updated manual for facilitators and a detailed training and development process for new and emerging facilitators was reported by Alex Robey in Mentor of Spring 2017. 

Updated manual has 5 distinct resource sections: 

1. An introduction to the program and how to use the manual
2.Program details
3. Process descriptions
4. Facilitator resources 
5.Run sheets.

Hence no more need for photocopied pages handed down from previous programs. 

The manual serves both as a training resource and facilitator resource for men facilitating Common Ground. What remains constant is what each facilitator brings to the program and serving the men based on what they need. The resources therefore provide a guide and a structure for the program so that there are consistent elements to every Common Ground while at the same time offering flexibility to the facilitators to guide the program based on what is needed.

In Queensland the apprenticeship model of training is employed, ie, Lead Facilitator, Co-Facilitator, Trainee. A man is monitored throughout the process as an ongoing appraisal of his capability and readiness.  

While many men undertake the facilitator training, it is estimated that around 25% do not progress to facilitating courses.

In his role as Common Ground Manager, Gavin Daly has organised “facilitator development days” during the year where the facilitators can network and participate in further training.

After Manshine 2016 an introduction night had resulted in too many men wishing to do the program which meant that another program and facilitation team was organised hence two groups starting same night. Some credit for this response went to Matty Cutler, a new addition to the team who actively canvassed on the phone, talking to men to get them along.

Over time attendance at the two major gatherings, Manshine and Manhood, grew in numbers partly due to Common Ground programs generating candidates. Additionally, Common Ground facilitators became Tribal Group Leaders at those gatherings.

Marketing/Promotion

When in the role of Common Ground Manager, Gavin Daly found that Common Ground marketing and promotion has been a hard nut to crack.  

Experience has shown that Common Ground introduction nights usually have an 80% uptake which speaks to the importance of getting men to turn up to those sessions.

In current times promotion is carried out through social media (Facebook, Meetup), gatherings (Manhood, Manshine, MenConnect), Mens Wellbeing website, word of mouth, referrals (personal & professional), partners, OMGs – Open Men’s Groups, Mentor magazine (articles and advertisements). 

Payment/Course Cost

In its duration Common Ground has required payment by participants for the conduct of the course. One reason was to cover the costs of staging the program. Another was to give a participant an investment in his own personal growth through the program. The payment scheme has varied in that time while making allowing flexibility for those men whose means might present a challenge in meeting the cost.

In 2019 a new payment scheme was trialled with a self-assessed sliding scale structure. In a nutshell, those who have less would pay less based on an honour system. As a not-for-profit organisation the focus of Mens Wellbeing is on being of service to men rather than financial gain. In Mentor of July 2021, it was reported that the sliding scale payment system has proved successful and has been continued.

Expansion – Interstate

Over the years, there had been enquiries about the program from interested men around Australia including Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart. 

In 2014 things came to a head with a request from Bill MacDonald (President of Tasmen) for the program to be taken to Tasmania with their men as facilitators. As a consequence, Gavin Daly and David Murray ran a weekend Common Ground program that year in Hobart and recruited a team of eight interested men to become facilitators. 

Once a revised manual and training program were complete a facilitator training was conducted in Hobart for eight men. And then, in 2016, a Common Ground program ran in Hobart. Since then, the Tasmen program stalled and in 2018 had ceased conducting programs.

The Victorian arm of Mens Wellbeing showed interest in running the program so in 2016 Gavin Daly organised four weekend Common Ground programs facilitated by Gavin, David Murray and Oliver Bergel. This resulted in the recruitment of nine men for facilitator training which took place in early 2017. A program was run later that year with a second program early in 2018. Victorian facilitators are quite self-organised but are supervised and supported from the Queensland team of Gavin, David and Alex Robey.

 Expansion – International

In his Letter from the President in Mentor Spring 2006, Chris Johnson advised that Common Ground had been exported to New Zealand:

Our brother organisation in NZ, Man Alive, has adopted our Common Ground program and is now contracted to run anti-violence programs with the Justice Department which has allowed them to secure their own premises, employ staff and provide work for counsellors trained specifically in men’s work.

 Our Kiwi brother, Alan Blackburn, who has had over 20 years’ experience in men’s work, and was CEO of Man Alive in NZ for 5 years, was instrumental in bringing this venture to culmination. Over quite a number of years Alan has had periodic involvement with the Mens Wellbeing network in Australia including a significant role in the conduct and evolution of Common Ground.

Common Ground Guidelines

A significant outcome of Common Ground has been the development and emphasis of Common Ground Guidelines which by their very mention are identified by graduates of the program as a mode of conduct, not only within the course, in men’s groups, in Mens Wellbeing activities, but within their everyday lives. 

Beneficial outcomes

Through its more than twenty years of operation Common Ground experienced its ups and downs. At times some courses did not proceed, others needed a nudge to get off the ground, facilitators have waned. On other occasions there was a boom – as per post Manshine 2016 mentioned earlier.

Mens Wellbeing Annual Reports of 2020 and 2021 as well as Mentor magazines of those years attest to the continuation and expansion in SEQ as well as Victoria along with expressions of interest from Sydney and South Australia.

The intervention of Covid impacted on face-to-face activity for some months requiring some groups maintaining an on-line connection prior to resuming their programs. Facilitator training was reduced. 

In mid-2022, CG264 was promoted. While it is acknowledged that approximately 25% of numbered Common Ground programs do not proceed it is reasonable to conclude that in excess of 1500 men have attended and been assisted by Common Ground programs. This represents a testament to the value of the program, the persistence of its promoters, of benefits to the participants and the wider community.

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