Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

Conference staffs' Spartan method need not betoken a lack of solicitude.  But the consultant's unexpectedly abrupt detachment from the role of attentive caregiver exacerbates primal anxieties, for "among the earliest and most sobering lessons of limitation are the experiences of falling, of sudden loss of support, of suddenness generally" (G. S. Klein, 1972, p. 197).  The "social anxiety connected with the sudden loss of attentive care" (Erikson, 1963, p.409) has its roots in the infant's startle responses to and instinctive fears of loss of physical support.  Perhaps because of its unconscious associations with maternal images (Scheidlinger, 1976), the group entity revives remnants of these haunting childhood traumas.  Falling in love and falling out of grace with the group, together with falling apart and falling on one's face are topics of primordial concern, which the group studiously evades because of the overdetermined dangers that they bespeak.

The rational activity carried on in groups to surmount trepidation about interpersonal dependence and independence is analogous to the child's attempts to build up constructs dependable as guidelines for prediction and control.  Both the general fear of loss of support and the especial aversion to falling, in its myriad connotations, are reactions to unanticipated threats to personal survival.  In a roundabout way, these reactions spur interest in learning.  A "sensibility to limitation and finiteness, and the distaste for it, whets the appetite for order; experiences of limitation hint at and offer an inducement of a principle of order to be learned" (G. S. Klein, 1972, p. 197).  Subjected to exciting trials in the study group, this principle of order may form a central factor in the motivation to practice the consultant's craft.

Efforts to synthesize the group's expressions and intentions and thereby to imbue them with less diaphanous significance are manifestations of the energies affined to the principle of order.  For both consultant and members, "the anxiety aroused by having to depend for success upon the coherence and availability of unconscious mental life" (Jaques, 1960, p. 357) acts to motivate efforts at synthesis.  Dispelling this anxiety through conscious discovery of an aboriginal unconscious order gives rise to pleasurable relief.  The pleasure concomitantly found in attempts at synthesis is reassuring and almost indefatigably rewarding; it functions as a stimulus to endeavors to descry the order behind the social cosmos.  The attendant pleasure in synthesis issues from "a sensibility for order, for operations of making order, for correction of error, for perceiving order emerging from disorder, distinguishing match from mismatch" (G. S. Klein, 1972, p. 196).

The attending to, lingering over, and delighted contemplation of both restored and discovered order (G. S. Klein, 1972) offer eminent sources for the pleasure in synthesis.  The final meetings of a study group are often replete with indications that the desire for synthesis, in both individuals and groups, "reaches its those twilight years when irreversible finitude is finally to be faced, and the effort to bring together past, present, and a shrinking future into a self-justifying meaning has become especially poignant and difficult" (G. S. Klein, 1972, p 197).

The contagious haste to unify and synopsize loose ends may prod the consultant to become actively didactic.  But, as throughout the group's existence, the consultant must resist pressure for counterfeit certainty and instead side with an attitude of curiosity.  Staff's preserving an input boundary open to present and past time frames, extant and absent conflicts, and conscious and unconscious rhythms facilitates members' laying aside the fanciful idea that learning and experience are ever finished.

Truly, death and separation are universal and familiar termini, whose intrapsychic influence is awesome and incessant.  The matter of death is forcefully interspersed in the chronology of the study group, no less than in life itself.  No less regularly, it is the ineffable subaudition that the consultant must weave into members' already conscious shackles.  Reactions to the menace of death may, from the group's beginning, precipitate a defensive hopefulness, traceable to capitulation and dependence, which can dispose members to wait and to assay little on their own initiative throughout an entire conference.

The consultant can glimpse the members' less refracted preoccupations with the daunting topic of death in the semblance of their responses to silence, emptiness, exclusion, disorganization, and decay. Even the risk of romance may be shaken from dormancy as the group libidinizes interactions in a headlong flight from the implications of entropy, difference, and atrophy.  When the study group nears termination, the realities of death's least distant cousins, separation and disintegration, influence the members' defensive patterns.  Members and consultant then have clear-cut opportunities to study the impact of anxieties about death and associated experiences on organizational structure and process.

Learning opportunities abound in the study group.  To profit fully from them, consultants must be fluent in abstract, symbolic thought and retain something of a child's capacity to hear with the heart, the mind, and the ear.  Past traumas, unresolved complexes, and unconscious defenses impose limits on perspicacity and abbreviate the range of one's agency.  Accordingly, consultants must glean from experience a composite picture of the type of group that they induce and the emotions that they unfailingly bar, curtail, or compound.

The partnership between consultant and group members admits of educational dividends all around.  The group's responses relay information not only about its unconscious fundamentals, but also about which feelings and attitudes the consultant, alone or in union with the remainder of the staff, is extruding from awareness. Astute consideration of these cues can be useful in unraveling the knotted text of the group's work, in smoothing the explanation and lifting of impasses, and in prefiguring at least the nuclei of the consultant's limitations.

From within and from without, the consultant becomes liable to abiding pressures to abdicate commitment to the task and to indulge personal, self-serving impulses or the group's immature wishes.  Both the allures of being a group member, unhindered by the burdensome responsibilities of the consultant role, and the "wish to be clever, witty, and lovable must be renounced in favor of continued dedication to the...task" (Newton, 1971, p. 397).  The tension inherent in the task of safeguarding the empathic bonds to the group members and their behaviors without incurring the deterioration of objectivity fuels anxiety.  Presiding over the numerous internal divisions of loyalty and their sentient corollaries tries the consultant's forbearance and tolerance of anxiety.

All staff members

have to be able to differentiate between person and role, between task and personal needs, and to recognize when their personal feelings are affecting their role performance.  They have also to be able to accept that they will never be paragons, and will inevitably be proved fallible; that making mistakes, as they will, is less important than the ability to recover from them.  (Rice, 1965, p.49)
The ability to rally from errors and to continue with the task despite acarpous digressions may represent one outward measure of the consultant's competence.  Such displays of competence console group members.  But when consultants deal with mistakes internally by dispassionately pondering their genesis and profile and by impartially accommodating the information distilled, the impact of their competence on learning is more considerable and more durable, for this attitude draws attention to the inner dialectics brought to bear on learning that endures.


Chapter Twelve

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