When Randy Flood, Joe Kohley, and Ken Porter sit down to record this Revealing Men podcast, it’s evident that they’ve been friends and colleagues for some time. More than that, they’ve been confidantes and challengers; truth-tellers and counselors for one another through their nearly 20-year participation as the original members in a leaderless men’s group where members come and go over the years. Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan pulls in his friends (both therapists) to talk about their journey, their experience in the group, and the powerful, enriching, and long-lasting effect it has had on them to remain committed to regularly engage in real and honest conversation with one another. It’s a continuous practice and emotional workout they believe is integral to developing a more balanced and wholehearted masculinity. The men hope to inspire other men to join or form similar leaderless men’s groups, not instead of traditional male group activities, but as a complement to those. You can read their conversation below (edited for length and clarity) or listen to it anytime on popular podcast platforms including Spotify and Stitcher.
Establishing a Long-running Men’s Group
Flood: We’ve been participating in what’s called a “Leaderless Men’s Group” for how long guys? Since 2000? 2001?
Porter: No, 2004, maybe?
Flood: So, about 2004. [Porter: “Anyways.”]
Kohley: A long time.
Flood: Here we are in 2021. It has evolved, but we are the core group, core members.
We decided to get together and talk about the value of that that we each experience as a way of maybe inspiring other men who are listening today to consider. Whether it’s in your faith community, your neighborhood, or whether it’s the guys you gather with to play poker, you could have [an] alternative group. I think guys are used to doing shoulder to shoulder activities together, but this is more intentional knee to knee.
We’re going to talk about what the hell we do every other Wednesday for a couple of hours in the morning. Ken and Joe why don’t you guys say a little bit about what value it brings to your life and why do you continue to do it.
Developing a Balanced Masculinity
Porter: It’s a huge value for me, just to be able to have a place where I know that I can be real, I can be authentic, I can be vulnerable with other men. Just given the conditioning that we all started off with about masculinity and what that means. You know, more of the John Wayne model. It’s really refreshing and really healing to know that I can continue to re-do some of that conditioning and keep my heart open. I find it very healing. I find it very grounding. I find it very centering.
Flood: What about for you, Joe?
Kohley: The bottom line for me, it’s a safe place where I can be an insecure father. It’s a safe place where I can be an insecure husband. It’s a safe place where I can be a mess. I never had a men’s group like this. The value that comes out of that is tremendous. It doesn’t mean I want to bring my crap every time to this group. There are plenty of times where I’m like, “ahh I’m not even sure I want to go today.”
But even if I don’t want to bring my own stuff to the group, to be able to be there for either of you is just so important that I’ve learned how to be there for other men, and hold space for whoever is a mess that day or whoever needs to deal with whatever they are dealing with. And then, I come away and I’m always like “yeah, I’m glad I went again.” And that experience is invaluable.
Flood: I resonate with both of what you guys say about the value of the group. I like it because it’s unique and distinct in my life. I gather with men in various ways. I played softball with men, I’ve biked with men, I’ve sat around fires and tell jokes with men, and all of that is fun and great and I want to continue. But this is special and rich and unique. It gives me a safe space to know where I can come in and just be honest about what’s going on in my life and talk about it on a deeper level, with this intention to learn about what’s going on inside of me.
The Value of an Emotional Workout
Flood: I sometimes think I have it all figured out and then I come here and talk to you guys. And you know me really well and you challenge me and ask very probing questions and notice that I’m having emotion that I maybe don’t wanna acknowledge, and you stop me and I end up having to feel feelings that are hard to feel.
I love that it’s a workout. It’s an emotional workout to come here. And sometimes I don’t want to come here. I know I’ve got to talk about shit I don’t want to talk about, stuff that’s going on in my life that’s causing me a lot of anxiety and insecurity. And so, then I come here and I gotta kinda get naked with you guys and reveal myself and feel that vulnerability. And I want to turn away from it but I know it’s good for me and that’s why I continue to do it.
Kohley: You’re not the perfect man who runs the Men’s Resource Center?
Flood: Hey! I am the great powerful Oz! [All: Laugh.] You may not come behind the curtain. No, that’s a great metaphor. This is the place where I can pull back the curtain and reveal a little old man who works the levers of the great, powerful Oz. [All: Laugh.]
A Safe Space for Introspection and Vulnerability
Ken, you talked about resocialization and you run men’s groups with me here at the Men’s Resource Center and that’s a lot of what we do. We’re kinda resocializing guys and saying “okay, let’s see if you’re tough enough and courageous enough to sit down in a circle with other guys and be real.” And so, that is a form of rewiring our brains and developing maybe parts of our brain that went into atrophy from the socialization process that says “man up, suck it up, make it on your own,” and we’re trying to do something different.
Wondering if you guys can talk a little bit about this rewiring or resocialization process that you think is happening?
Porter: I’ll pick up with what you were saying earlier about being real and letting yourself be vulnerable and exposed and go to the places you don’t want to go. To me, that’s a big part of the resocialization or the rewiring. I think regardless of if it’s a men’s group or a women’s group or a mixed group there’s value in allowing yourself to be seen in such a vulnerable way to be real because I think a big thing most of us missed in our socialization was adequate mirroring.
And when it comes to masculinity a lot of that lack of mirroring was we didn’t get the sensitive parts of ourselves mirrored to us. We didn’t get the things that were not considered the John Wayne male mirrored to us. We either had to hide that or bury that or try to shut it off. To be able to be vulnerable in a group of men like you, it does rewire the brain. It does take me to places, it takes all of us to places, where it’s like yeah, it was scary to open up to this, it was scary to confront this edge, but once I do it and I’m met with compassion and understanding, it’s so powerfully healing.
Flood: That’s a great point; that when you don’t get it mirrored then as a young boy you tell yourself that this is an unacceptable part of me that I need to figure out how to get rid of or I need to hide it. Otherwise, I’m not going to get the love and affection from the manpack we call it, or the acceptance that I’m a real man and so you hide those parts of yourself. And then, what we know about the brain is that you use it or lose it. So that emotional intelligence doesn’t get developed.
Kohley: Correct. And developmentally, I think, when I look at how our group has grown, we’ve experienced that. Because in the beginning, the mirroring was scary, it was uncomfortable. I don’t want to bring my stuff into this group. I knew both of you (more Ken), [Flood: Laughs.] would mirror it back to me in a way that would scare the bejeebers out of me. But that was part of it. But now, I can come every Wednesday and we do some silence and we drop and I can just speak out whatever insecurities I’m resonating with in that moment. I think we’ve gone through real growth with that.
Growing in Emotional Intelligence Isn’t Easy
Flood: I think it’s interesting you say you’re not as fearful of it. And I think of, again, guys are attuned to what it takes to perform physically. I remember when my friend first asked me, “hey you want to run the River Bank with me?” And I had never run more than three miles before. I’m like, “hell no. There’s no way I can run that! [All: Laugh.] Are you kidding me?” “Oh! You can do it,” [he says]. Anyway, I ran 10 or 15 of them before my knees gave out.
And I think that emotional intelligence is similar, in that when you first start being vulnerable and feeling feelings for the first time and having other people mirror and be there, it’s really difficult and scary and seems like this is not something I want to do or can do. Now I can come and say, “oh stuff might come up for me,” but I have some trust in myself that I am going to handle what emerges or what comes up for you. I feel I can hold space for you without getting overwhelmed or scared. Not that it’s easy, but you develop a strength in it, an emotional intelligence or something.
Porter: And we need each other to rewire.
Flood: No… I am a rugged individualist. Come on, Ken. [Porter: Laughs.]
Porter: We need each other to wire in the first place. We need each other to develop into a person. We need that mirroring and then if the mirroring isn’t there and we go askew, then we need each other to bring ourselves back into some kind of internal harmony or integration.
Flood: We have relationships outside this group. We have relationships with each other, but we have intimate partners, some of us are parents, we have great friends, and stuff happens in those relationships that are emotionally laden where we get triggered with all kinds of feelings that reenact old wounds or whatever. This becomes a place to get more in touch with what’s going on for us. We think we know what’s going on, and then I come here and start talking about it and you’re like “you sure you’re not doing this again, Randy?”
Personal Growth and Fitness is a Practice, not a Destination
Flood: I think that that work we do here goes out into the world. I’m wondering if you guys can talk about some of your personal experiences about the benefits of being a better version of yourself out there by doing the inner work here.
Kohley: Well, first of all, I want to say I hope it doesn’t scare people off that here we are still doing this work. [All: Laugh.] We’re really still recirculating some of the old woundedness. [Laughs.]
Flood: Well, say something about that. Isn’t it a practice?
Kohley: It is. It’s a practice. It’s a lifetime practice because we carry these into different stages of our life. So, there’s truth in it. Some men are out there saying, “I don’t want to go into some therapy group for 15 years. What the heck?!” [Flood: Laughs.] [Flood: “Right.”] But it’s been quite the journey and even in 15 years we still get triggered. And to have a safe place to bring our stuff to is amazing.
Flood: We don’t do that any other place, right? We don’t say I don’t want to exercise for x amount of years. I want to exercise for five years and then I want to sit on the couch for the rest of my life. I want to go to my faith community for 5-10 years and then I am going to be a spiritual giant, then I can sit on my couch. But, for some reason, we have this myth or this delusion that we don’t need to do this work or if we do it, it fixes the problem and then be done type of thing.
Kohley: Right, right. And now it’s more of just like we’ve entered this nondual space where we can look at our joys and our affirmations and our strengths, and we can address our shadow sides. Whatever we need to do. And that’s the dance I hope we’re doing better compared to say 15 years ago. I think I am. Do you agree? Do you agree? [All: Laugh.] Are my insecurities coming out again?
Porter: Well, I guess.
Flood: You do regress sometimes, but mostly you’re kinda the arch. There’s always progression.
Kohley: We’ll bring that up at the next session, Randy. [All: Laugh.]
The Courage to Trust and be Vulnerable
Porter: I’ll say, too, I feel like I am more courageous as a result of being in this group for 15 years. In my life outside of here, it’s a whole lot easier to be real with people when something comes up that I feel insecure about, I feel scared to say something. It’s like, the courage has just gotten reinforced. Week after week of meeting in this group. There are other factors that are building my courage, too, but this is a huge one.
Flood: Yeah. So, courage. For guys, I think we are socialized to think of physical courage. Like what do we do that risks physical injury? But this kind of courage you’re talking about, Ken, is not necessarily recognized as something that men do. The courage to be seen, the courage to share your heart, and potentially not receive all the love and care and validation you think you deserve. Maybe you’re distorting or it’s something you need to be challenged on. But, it’s this vulnerability and the courage to pull back that curtain. And you’re saying this has helped build that courage? By being here, and then you’re more courageous out there?
Porter: Yeah. That’s definitely a different level of courage. Whenever there’s courage, obviously there’s fear. I think the fear is rejection. If I’m real, you’re going to reject me, you’re not going to like me anymore, you’re not going to love me anymore.
And I think what you’re speaking to about our typical male socialization is that we gain or we try to gain our acceptance and our approval by being tough, by being strong, or being invisible. The better we are at doing that, or even conveying that, the more we get the sense of external approval.
I think the bottom line, regardless, is that there is a fear of not having that approval. And so, you have a couple of choices. One choice is to just keep hammering away at being the baddest, toughest version of yourself you can be, and the other option is to say, well what if I allow myself to be open and vulnerable? And then, expose myself? And what if the other person still accepts me? Wow. That’s a risk worth taking.
Flood: Yeah. For sure. I think some think doing this work is a form of weakness or being emasculated. You’re going to drown in a puddle. You become diminished when you reveal yourself. Something that I have found empowering is realizing that that’s not true. That when I work on my inner life and when I work on being more vulnerable it doesn’t negate my masculinity. I can still compete and I can still do all the typical masculine things and I still enjoy bike riding. I still enjoy all of those things. It’s not this dualism where you think that if you’re working on one, it’s gonna negate the other, like a zero-sum game.
Kohley: Right. But speaking to the courage, I definitely want to affirm that. Ken, I have seen you just become such a much more courageous person in the last 15-16 years, and we’ve known each other a lot farther back. [Laughs.] But that is the power of vulnerability, which is so terrifying for many of us men.
I remember one time in this room when we had our circle. I don’t even remember what I was upset about or vulnerable about or scared about. I don’t remember that, but what I remember is that I ended up on my knees hugging a pillow, kind of bent over almost, like in a kneeling position of proneness. And the two of you came over and put your hands on my back and kind of cradled me. And I just remember that because afterward, I felt this incredible support. I mean it’s like in a weird way you guys were creating a womb space for me. Holding me and letting me go through whatever I was going through in the moment.
Flood: I think you lost a tennis match. [All: Laugh.] I think it was a little bit more profound than that.
Kohley: I hope so. [All: Laugh.] Either that or I still have a lot of competition issues to work through.
Flood: I think we all have had those moments in here. And it’s interesting. We think it’s all about the content in our life, right?
Kohley: And these insights.
Flood: We’ve got to get these insights? And then we carry this insight. Insights are great, we like those little nuggets in life. But sometimes, it’s just to be able to feel the depths of those emotions and to be honest about it and then have this level of support and mirroring. This rewiring, it helped you have this confidence and you carry that inside of you. You don’t have to remember exactly what the subject was. [Kohley: “Exactly.”] Or the content.
Leaderless Men’s Groups Combat a Public Health Issue for Men—The Experience of Loneliness and Isolation
Flood: The Surgeon General [Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy] wants to take on a public health issue that’s new. And so, he’s done a lot of studying and research accumulatively in looking at loneliness in America. It’s a huge problem and they’re saying that that’s the new smoking. That it’s taken like ten years off our life, this sense of isolation and loneliness. Women have issues with loneliness in unique ways and in similar ways as men, but I think of that John Wayne ethos that there’s so much pressure on men to make it alone and if you don’t, that there’s maybe something wrong with you, that you need others. That only weak men or men who aren’t John Wayne-ish are the ones who need these circles or need these connections.
And I just think that that’s a fallacy and a myth. That goes against how we were created as pack animals, as people who lived in tribes. And if you look back as far as you can look back, we’re always together in communities. That’s one thing that I appreciate is that I’m less lonely when I am with you guys.
Porter: Me, too.
Kohley: Me, three!
Porter: Yeah. And circling back to an earlier point. I’m less lonely outside of this group because I’m learning in this group how to be less lonely. I’m learning how to be more connected.
Flood: Do you experience, I think there’s this idea, and this is one of the things I had to reckon with, that it’s like why would men be lonely when they golf together, play softball together, and they do all these things together? They work together and stuff like that. I mean, I think when you experience deeper levels of connection and then you go out into the world and experience more of a superficial connection, and again, I am not dismissing some of those gatherings are wonderful and great. But, if that’s all you have, then being around people without feeling any intimacy almost radiates loneliness. Do you know what I’m saying?
Porter: That feeling of being alone in a crowd.
Flood: Yeah. Having all these, you hear sometimes that these men you know, with suicide and then all of their friends go well, why didn’t he say anything? He didn’t talk about it or whatever. It comes as a surprise. He seemed okay. [Porter: “Yeah.”] And I think of the tears of a clown, kind of a thing.
Kohley: Yeah. There was some AP study that said how few people have at least one person they can trust in their life right now. It speaks to that reality, that so many people, particularly men, not to say others can’t, but you know, don’t really have that person they can rely on. That they can trust and then, they develop this compulsive self-reliance. They can only rely on themself.
I had a little bit of that growing up. Because of my own family upbringing, I had to figure out how to take care of myself. And again, ya know, the culture saying “be independent, be strong.” And my wife definitely hammered me on my control issues early in the relationship. [All: Laugh.] [Flood: “You?”] Yes, yes. It still comes out every now and then. [Flood: “Sure.”] But again, that’s another piece of what this group has done: allowed me not to have to be that compulsively self-reliant person. That I can let go and then, what are the lessons to give that up?
The Value of Listening to the Inner Voice
Flood: I think one of the more traditional masculine things that the group provides is sometimes a lot of guys will get into these accountability groups. I think we also provide that for each other. I think that that’s another feature of gathering and holding each other accountable. And I’ve valued that.
Porter: Yeah. I think that’s valuable. We’ve talked about how there are different levels that we operate on in the group. That accountability level is one level and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. It’s important. And then other times it’s like, well it’s important to do a deep dive.
And to me, a deep dive means like really slowing things down, really quieting things down, and just listening inside, internally, listening for what really wants to emerge. And that’s something that I hugely value about this group. That we do that for each other. That we create that safe space for that quietness to happen. And that’s not easy to find. Ya know? It’s just not easy to find in our culture. I think our culture tends to be like, “okay, let’s get to the solution. Let’s figure this out.”
Kohley: You’re so right about that. It’s catalytic. I remember it was a month or so ago in the group where I was just lamenting and frustrated and amped up about the speed of life has like resumed now with everything opening up again.
As much as I have such a heart for all the people who were so impacted by the pandemic and the grief and all that, one of the good lessons was it allowed me to slow down and have some of that space. And it feels like I’ve let some of that space go again. A month ago, I was just like “ugh.” You guys held me accountable to take some time after the group and I did it. And then I chose to email the group that I did it and how it was valuable to me. I even wrote some prose and I sent it out. I haven’t done that in a long time! [Flood: “It was good!] That was really, really helpful. That’s a good sign. That’s one of the lessons from our group. It is catalytic; it’s not just what we do in that moment with each other.
Flood: I think we get stuck in our old patterns, in our comfortable patterns of wanting to talk about it. And sometimes we do. [We offer] very practical advice about some things or sometimes we request that from each other, “I just need, can you give me your thoughts on how I should handle something?” But there’s times— I remember you guys stopping me, or we stopped someone else—where we say, you look like you’re feeling something. It would probably be good to just take some time to stop talking. Because there’s intelligence in your body. There’s messages in your body you might need to listen to as well. I like that we try to do that with each other.
Porter: There’s a good acronym called, WAIT. Why Am I Talking? [All: Laugh]
Kohley: I like that one. You’ve never shared that one before. I’m gonna steal that one!
Porter: Steal it!
Initiating a Leaderless Men’s Group or Circle
Flood: If you guys wanna offer words of encouragement for someone who maybe is lonely or is kinda hearing this and interested or intrigued by it. Just what would you want to say to someone out there listening, saying “boy, this resonates with me and I like to get started with something or do something.” Just, what do you want to say to them?
Porter: It’s hard to address that because that’s such a broad spectrum of where people are on their journey. I think for someone who feels like they have no friendships where they would feel safe approaching a friend and saying, “Hey, I listened to this podcast and I really want to get a group of men together to do something like this” I think I’d say to someone like that the important thing is to get into therapy. To do some individual work and start to heal some patterns, because as you heal those individual patterns, you will impact your relationships. You will affect the people around you and you will also start to attract people who are more drawn to that openness and vulnerability.
But to men who do have relationships where they feel some kind of safety, I would encourage you to just take the risk and approach one person and say “hey, let me share this with you.” This is something that makes a lot of sense to me now that I’ve heard it? Can we start getting together and seeing what it’s like to be vulnerable and real with each other?
Kohley: I agree with everything that you said. I would just add that somebody is listening to this. That means you’re listening to an auditory, an auditory, what’s the word I’m looking for?
Kohley: Format. Information! Go get more! I have so many spiritual fathers in my life now that I wish I would’ve been more exposed to when I was younger. I did some reading. I think I did quite a bit of searching. But now I lift up to spiritual fathers like Matthew Fox for me or Father Richard Rohr and there’s even somebody local. You can go and get auditory books or podcasts. They’re out there! If you’re not ready yet to take that step into the group or into that connection, start reading more.
Flood: Yeah. There are many ways. One way of personal growth is getting in a men’s group. I appreciate you mentioning that. Gathering as men. We’ll continue to gather playing sports, and playing cards, and cutting down trees. Those are beautiful ways of gathering. But this is another way. I’ve thoroughly benefitted and enjoyed over the years of gathering with you guys. And I appreciate you guys being willing to come in here and talk about it with me.
Kohley: It’s been a great journey.
Finding Support Wherever You Are
Whether you listen to this Revealing Men segment or just read the transcript, you can access online men’s support groups through the Men’s Resource Center from wherever you are. We have witnessed many men benefit from this unique and rare counseling service. We also, as mentioned, provide in-person support groups. Both in-person and remote men’s support groups are professionally led by licensed counselors and can lay the foundation for participation in a leaderless men’s group.
If you’re looking for more information about our counseling, coaching, and consultative services please visit our counseling services page. Also, feel free to contact us on our website or call us at (616) 456-1178 if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.