Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

Making verbal interventions is the observable medium of the consultant's work.  Interventions, which are termed either consultations or interpretations, are devised to meet needs to speak to a wide and chameleonic spectrum of processes and interferences.  Interventions are indicated for long-standing or recurrent group dysfunction, defined as inability to address the primary task, and for sustained movement away from the group's primary task.  Without molding the group's course and without biasing its denouement, interventions must identify and clarify the principal supervening issues and forward learning about them.  A basic but noteworthy function of interventions is to guarantee the continuation of members' presence in the study group so that available opportunities for learning may be utilized.

The consultant's task in relation to the members' behaviors is substantially hermeneutic.  An interpretive framework vitalizes the group's task performance by rousing members' appetite for creative thought.  The value of the consultant's interventions depends on factors of awareness regarding the motivation behind them and of choice regarding their timing and content.  Amid the disorganizing effects of members' awkward encounters with primitive group processes, thoughtful interpretations commend synthesis and integration. Through the careful use of language, the consultant can liberate work on underlying concerns and reinforce members' experiments in learning from experience.

Deftly indicating how the group relates to the consultant as a representative of its primary task is an example of an intervention or series of interventions that can loosen the confines of the group's attention.  Initially, group members may attach persecutory intent to interventions that in actuality lay the foundations for a collaboration between consultant and members.  The ensuing fears may be evidenced in a defensive retention of data, the absence or unavailability of which dilutes the consultant's instrumentality in the learning process.  In response, the consultant must seek to connect whatever data are at hand in reparative interventions, for in the last instance the work of interpretation is collaborative.  The consultant must welcome unlimited informational input; ideas and interpretations pried from a broad base of data can be lusty, farsighted, and mutative.

When interpretation is regarded as a negotiated enterprise (Shapiro, 1987), both members and consultant can legitimately contribute to the process.  Negotiated interpretation calls for the communication of both individual and common experience.  By becoming social activity, interpretation avoids the flaws of solipsism.  Because competition enlivens the negotiation process and because the consultant's role and knowledge can provide a position from which to abuse the power to interpret, each consultant must remain alert to the potential political use of non-negotiated interpretation.  The power to interpret is the prerogative to define the acceptable boundaries of attention and awareness. To exercise jurisdiction over the concourse and expansion of knowledge is to manage a hegemonic control. Because all group participants have the power and the authorization to look at the group's behavior, the study group experience is properly the rare one of knowing things together with other people, not the iterative one of intellectual imperialism.  Rights to locate, to excerpt, and ultimately to name aspects of group life are best shared and concerted privilege.

Non-negotiated interpretations minister to functions foreign to the consultant's task: suppression, direction, and ridicule, among others.  Self-seeking or self-indulgent interventions, advanced to allege or maintain power, understandably lead to members' feeling manipulated and persecuted.  Guileless and definitive interpretations are like accidents in the group's silence, drawing attention to members' negotiated but specious amentia.  The silence is generally figurative, and the accidental quality of the interpretation connotes nothing more pejorative than unexpectedness.  Insofar as the members tender the recipe and ingredients for interpretation, all interpretations are negotiated, although mediation appears to begin only after interpretations are delivered.

All along, the consultant contains and reworks, on an often visceral inner level, the group's anxieties and impulses, about which it prefers silence.  Public acknowledgment or synthesis of the group's impulses, defenses, and procedural resistances, in an interpretive hypothesis, invites or renders necessary, from the standpoint of members' composure, further negotiation about the thrust of the group's actual realities.  But, because interpretation can alter the purport of a group, the consultant must, in the light of equitable assessment of work group needs, adjust intervention to a conservative expression of the interpretive task.  Forcing change for the sake of change is unwholesome.

Negotiated interpretations pare defensiveness and install patterns of logic outlasting the conference. But all interpretations entail judgments, which are susceptible to individual and collective projections. For this reason, interventions must have a reflective function, serving both to interpose reflection and to endorse self-consultation.  Abstruse, figurative, or symbolic speech can elaborate distance from strongly emotive experience.  Interpretations employing evocative, provocative, or taboo language tend to eliminate reflection and distance from subjective sensation.  Oracular interpretations, along with interventions consisting of nonverbal behavior by the consultant, due to their exceptionable transparency, enlist members' reason and reflection; they also deflect primary attention from personal feeling to consultant behavior and motivation.  Reference to expulsive and incorporative bodily functions and to their associated primitive impulses and strivings increases emotionality and regression.

The idiom of intervention is incontrovertibly important.  De-skilling, a regressive phenomenon intervenient in relations to authority and leadership, can cause mundane rhetoric using simple syntax to be misheard as Delphic aphorism.  The task of consultancy is to assist group members through a nimble and measured command of interpretive tools to orient themselves to the task of learning via experience.

Presenting valid, efficient interventions is inarguably an art.  Focusing on the overt and unconscious processes in the group; identifying and bringing pellucidity to issues that the group is momentarily or chronically unable to penetrate; and, personifying an observant, laissez-faire stance except when the safety of the group is at stake seem to be artless mandates.  But the involute factors of timing, wording, and frequency generate the necessity for a more circumspect investigation of the interpretive task.

A basic tool for the attainment of experiential knowledge is the utilization of evidence or data.  Subjective experiences and meanings make up the raw data; the strength or weakness of the data's affective relevance to the group entity allows a refinement of the basic information.  Data drawn from the group's evolution attest to the nature and substance of its cardinal preoccupations, converge to lend or detract support for hypotheses, and suggest conclusions.  Disregard of these data yields an academic group atmosphere and perfunctory transactions.

The consultant must model reliance on the data by entering them into interventions, whether demonstrative, explicative, or reconstructive.  This style of intervention is esteemed in the Tavistock model and, peculiarly, is exceptional in many other fields of inquiry, in which attention to experiential interpersonal and intergroup data is either maligned or judged irrelevant.  The exports of any system co-vary with the availability, sufficiency, and quality of imports and with the adequacy of the conversion process. Valid interpretations start with valid information.  In most cases, optimal viability of the consultant's interventions results when the evidence utilized is plain and available to all group members.

Interventions made by the consultant, including those simply offering data for scrutiny, presume an intact capacity for sane deliberation in all participants.  To promote exercise of this presumed capacity, the consultant offers data to supplement hypotheses or tentative conclusions or as themes for discussion, not as final verdicts.  Ideally, all interventions point to behavior worthy of notice, examination, and synthesis; they are not intended to restrict attention exclusively to particulate features of group behavior, but rather to highlight the global picture.  Worthwhile interventions are devices to amplify learning; they are not means of punishing or of stressing the consultant's displeasure, disagreement, or discomfort.

One aim of verbally intervening in the group is to adduce evidence that augments awareness of the existence of wishes, feelings, and trends that, while not consciously communicated, appertain to and often form the axis of the group's psychological state.  Reliance on data, the actual shareable, recollectable group experience, together with a staff-mediated dedication to conceptualizing group and conference events within group-as-a-whole and systems perspectives, set the Tavistock model of study apart from more emotionally based methods.  The consultant must not subvert this distinction.

Experience with the model, in the role of study group member, concretizes this distinction by fittingly imparting an idea of how and to what ends individual and group emotion is handled in the Tavistock paradigm.  From this garner of previous experience, the consultant can passably deduce the proper treatment of the emotions unfolding in the group.  Affect plays a predominantly accessory role in improving rationally formulated approximations to ontological realities.  In more emotionally based group methods, reason tends to be relegated to secondary standing.  The consultant must circumvent this inversion of priorities.  The learning about groups advocated by the consultant must rest on an inspection of the emotional and behavioral data, not on intuited, suspected, or hypothetical factors.

The consultant has an obligation to work with whatever material group members overtly or covertly offer.  Personal issues and anxieties must not be overlaid on group members' productions.   The work of consultancy is loaded with leeway for exhibitionism.  Overly epideictic interventions within the study group and overly dramatic, hysterical, or mocking presentations of study group behavior in reports to the conference staff suggest that the consultant's valency for such display is unchecked or that the group's use for the consultant's narcissism has not been bared. The willingness and ability to place task considerations above self-interest are indicators of the consultant's authority and competence.

At times, the consultant is summoned to take group members' behavior to its logical conclusions, illuminating the unforeseen sequelae and limitations of a group predilection or rule of conduct.  This turn of the task may seem to be a frank infraction of the rule that the consultant deal invariably with presented material.  But

rules are the implementation of principles; i.e., the forms of their specific application, and no rule is very significant except as it represents the general practice of a desirable principle.  In addition, there is no rule which may not have to be modified. (Greenacre, 1954, pp. 676-677)
The precept admissible here accentuates the consultant's method of supporting exploration of the specific manifest or latent opportunities for learning that originate in group meetings.

In practice, the elaboration or logical expansion of the group's assumptions, inhibitions, and fantasies can increase awareness of basic fears and primitive anxieties that, partly because they are unconscious, are antipathetic to the maturation of the group and the accomplishment of its task.  These irrational sources of social stress are never altogether absent. They denote certain vectors operating upon the members of groups and organizations.  As such, they are pre-eminent subject matter for the study group.

The consultant's task is to warrant experience of these primitive forces, to elucidate them, to submit them to group members, and to foster verbalization of them. The psychotic constitution of these latent anxieties and the diverse defenses invoked to allay them are active stimuli impelling both group behavior and investigation thereof.  The more unmitigably and indelibly they are experienced and the more unconditionally this experience is engraved in awareness, the more easily task achievement is advanced. The consultant, in other words,

lets happen what will happen but also probes to see what can happen; i.e. he is sensitive to the interactive possibilities of the occasion and tries to help them to be realized when they can illustrate a particular or a universal problem in relating, in communication, or in group action.  (Lakin & Constanzo, 1975, p. 215)
Both extending a line of group thought and tackling veiled primitive tendencies with working hypotheses ask courageous intellectual and emotional participation in group process.  Intervention to uncover concealed group dynamics contrasts markedly with the group's willingness and recurrent eagerness to exclude awareness of the selfsame processes.  This uncovering behavior may be at odds with social dictates or conventions; it regularly differs from the usual, the expected.  In addressing the unacknowledged and the presumed unacknowledgeable, the consultant offers the group unexcelled verification of commitment to the task.  Not all initiatives meet with success; but explicitly dealing with troublesome feelings and frightening conflicts, even inchoately, effects less damage and more learning than reflexly shunning the issues.  The consultant must be an "expert only in one general respect: how to face anxiety whenever it comes up, how to help in the formulation of the problem underlying the anxiety, and how not to avoid the issue" (Grotjahn, 1950, p. 64).

Each instance of a lack of courage in adumbrating the existential realities of the group, particularly when only justified by and based on ignorance, insidiously erodes the legitimate bases of the consultant's authority, which issues from multiple rational and irrational sources.  A quantity of authority originates in the contractual agreement granting authorization to exercise the consultant role; all conference participants are consenting parties to this contract.  Consultants' definition of the task, as well as their competence in the performance of the role, contribute to their authority.  Additional authority derives from attending unflinchingly to the assigned task, although this authority "is independent of the consent of the group and [the consultant]...has no real power to coerce others to attend to the task" (Astrachan & Redlich, 1969, p. 489).  Finally, a measure of authority is based on the intent and accuracy of interventions; competence, for better or for worse, is displayed in them.

The ceaseless interplay of rational and irrational processes makes delusional any belief in pure rationality.  Similarly, the perception that taking the consultant role is a purely rational experience is false.  Irrational forces, manifest in episodic basic assumption behavior (Bion, 1961; Rioch, 1970), are estimable fonts of energy for the group's work.  The consultant's dual task is to differentiate group from individual irrationality and to take no part in branding all irrationality as undesirable.  Close companionship with group irrationality, an imperative feature of conference experience, briefly aggravates ambivalence.  But occasional rendezvous with the irrational after all bolster rationality, which then is in a better position to supplant ambivalence with autonomy.

In a serious, almost businesslike manner and in a prudent dosage, the consultant works with unconscious group phenomena, above all when they thwart attention to the task, by presenting hypotheses concerning them.  But the consultant must not make short shrift of conscious forces.  The two sets of forces are interdependent insofar as neither can be subjected to examination or alteration without setting up corresponding changes in the other.  Granting an unrestricted audience to both conscious and unconscious qualities of experience and attempting to recognize their mutual interaction and influence are hallmarks of the Tavistock method.  Exposition of both facets of group behavior and motivation brings about a rich learning environment, linking the familiar to the unaccustomed. Conscious behavior frequently shows a disguised mutation of hidden wishes and strivings. While remembering that consciousness enjoys an exhibitionistic relationship to the unconscious, the consultant stresses the camouflaged or disowned unconscious elements in response to group members' avoidance of them.

Irrationality and rationality are not always dichotomous.  Irrationality, not exclusively resident in unconscious processes, can permeate conscious thought.  Transmitting understanding of irrational forces is destined to reinforce conscious measures to pursue the task rationally.  Attention to irrational components of group life, perpetual resistances to operating on a rational basis, creates an inducement to clarify reality.  Juxtaposition of data from both rational and irrational systems begets surprise and disturbs comfort with mental complacency.  The resulting unbalance in standard procedures or habitual modes of analysis furnishes conditions appropriate to learning about social systems and self in them.

In an oblique translation of basic assumption dependence, members and consultant can collude to shelter themselves from anxiety by arranging for the latter to create a tutorial medium, which appears vibrant because of the gloss of novelty but which gainsays essential issues of group life.  The consultant creates a temporary culture, and the members willingly consume it.  Members are divested of the responsibility for officiating as authors at the inception of the group culture.  The consultant is relieved of the task of empowering the member culture and the staff culture to introduce themselves to each other.  This protective restructuring of the conference task entitles the consultant to intervene to restrict the bounds of group processes instead of to comment on them.  Coincidently, it softens the radical starkness of and the sheer focus on transactions at the bi-cultural interface, which hold out opportunities for far-ranging learning.

Chapter Six

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