How to Deal with Overly Needy People in a Small Group

An excessively needy person who dominates discussion yet never seems satisfies with the love and nurture offered by a small group can wreck group dynamics. To guard the group's integrity, recognize and deal with this personality type before members exit the group and the concept of small groups forever.

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An excessively needy person who dominates discussion yet never seems satisfies with the love and nurture offered by a small group can wreck group dynamics. To guard the group’s integrity, recognize and deal with this personality type before members exit the group and the concept of small groups forever.

Recognize the Overly Needy Person

Most people will express a need at some point in the life of the group. In fact, unexpressed needs indicate an unhealthy small group.

But there are people with a long list of dire needs, which are persistently unmet in regard to physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and relationship health. Their problems are never resolved, leading to a downward spiral of disappointment and distress, ever increasing demands, and a sense of hopelessness as the group isn’t able to fully support this member.

In Making Small Groups Work, authors and psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe the destructively needy person in this way:

  • dominates group discussion time
  • experiences and talks about crises constantly
  • carries emotional dependency that the group can’t satisfy
  • refuses to take actions suggested by group members to deal with problems
  • views the group as unable to comfort or not enough to handle their needs

In I Thought It Was Just Me, Brené Brown introduces sympathy seekers who similarly dominate group discussion and focus on their needs. These folks may not be mired in perpetual crisis but behave like they are. They believe they’re in uniquely difficult situations that group members just can’t understand. Brown describes the dilemma that the sympathy seeker places on the group in this way: “You are telling us that no one can understand, yet you’re asking us to understand. What should we do? We want to connect, but you’re telling us it’s impossible.”

The purpose of the group is to offer connection, understanding, support, and encouragement, but the sympathy seeker and overly needy reject these or find they’re not enough. As a result, the small group gets stuck in trying to support certain group members in a way that’s neither productive nor healthy.

Deal with the Needy Person

Very often, the best thing you can do for the needy person is to recruit outside help. You’re (probably) not a professional counselor or social worker so you may not know precisely what services this person should pursue. But you can direct them to small groups ministry leader, pastor, or counselor who can determine next steps and find resources to deal with their concerns, particularly if they face serious financial and emotional problems.

Brown suggests  confronting the sympathy seeker with the no-win situation of seemingly appealing for help while pushing people away. Asking for sympathy (or extending it as a group member) creates a “me against the world” or “us vs. them” dynamic that’s impossible for the small group to address.

The cries for help can be met with compassion and patience, while requiring the needy, attention-seeking person to take ownership of her situation. You’ll want to be careful not to ignore serious concerns that require love and attention. But it’s also important to watch for those who dominate group sessions and resources over a long period of time.

Many groups are plagued by the ultra-needy, impossible-to-please person while others rarely encounter those with insurmountable problems. You definitely want to be there for people but you also need to know your capabilities and limits. Keep an eye on group dynamics to make sure everyone’s needs are met, not just one person’s.

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