Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

The study group is an aggregate of human beings.  To disdain the human quality of the system is to jeopardize the tenuous but indispensable interdependence between consultant and group members.  Without exceeding the limits of the role, the consultant must work to kindle a collaborative alliance. Because the province of consultant functioning is circumscribed by group members, whose contributions are more intimate and arouse more apprehension, the consultant must proffer the view that the benefits of personal involvement are worth its costs.  Success in stimulating a gainful mingling of consultant's and group members’ devotion to the task relies heavily on the former’s attitudes and nonverbal behaviors.

An adequate collegial alliance is manifested in the group's collaboration with the consultant; it is unconsciously felt as a mutually sympathetic affinity between consultant and group members. This sentient constituent of collaboration must not be minimized, for a sizable amount of emotional approximation of group members to consultant must intervene between task performance and learning.  The nature and scope of this affective confluence are not clearly schematized, but its tone need not be entirely positive.  Neither officious over-solicitousness nor maximally depersonalized interventions that hide the consultant's distinctive character are appropriate or effective in establishing this necessary alliance, but the consultant's style is germane.  Forthright delivery of interventions dictated by the demands of reality and mediated by the consultant's personality is most serviceable.

That organizational diagnosis, "the process of publicly entering a human system, collecting valid data about human experiences with that system, and feeding that information back to the system to promote increased understanding of the system by its members"  (Alderfer, 1976, pp. 110-111), so dynamically akin to the consultant's task, is not considered a change strategy per se, but only a precursor to innovation, is a recognition of the vital significance of variables of a personal or human nature intervening between the essence and completion of an act, on the one hand, and the fulfillment of its intention, on the other.

Consultants' recourse to the courage of their own stupidity (Balint, 1957) depicts for group members an apropos level of personal involvement and risk-taking.  Such intrepid courage enables the consultant to participate without embarrassment or inhibition in the adventure of the study group.  Duhl (1969) presented a cluster of additional attributes that bode well for the worth of the consultant's pains: (a) a belief in the possibility of change, (b) the provision of hope, (c) adherence to a theoretical model of the widest possible range, (d) a focus at the interface or boundary between systems, (e) sensitivity and receptivity to all communications, (f) ability to find and communicate underlying coherence in disparate messages, (g) utilization of the language of impact to ease reception of interventions, (h) respect for others’ frames of reference and viewpoints, (i) tolerance of anxiety in self and others, (j) awareness of the dimension of time, (k) goal-direction, and (1) openness to changing view-points when new information becomes available.

Obviously, persons possessed of such open-minded maturity would rarely be of one accord in their views.  Though the consultant's task remains relatively constant from one study group to another, each person in the consultant role elects to discharge the task in line with her or his own talents, philosophy, and understanding of the assignment.  Both a benefit and a strain inherent in the task stem from its solitary performance. The nature of the role stipulates that consultants work on their own initiative, with plenary responsibility and the corresponding authority for decisions of when and how to intervene.

To counterpoise this stress, the consultant must count on a lifetime of social education.  In terms of the quasi-ideal, the consultant should

know something of the great currents of historical, literary, and artistic tradition; [should]...have, indeed, as broad a culture in the humanities as possible.  This culture affords the only access to great stores of facts with which we cannot dispense.  It also affords a perspective of the development of social interpretation.  Most of the generalizations now being defined, explored, tested, and developed into systematic knowledge were foreshadowed by penetrating minds of the past.  (Cooley, 1926,
p. 77)
A liberal cultural education is emphasized not because through it prestige, venerability, or attribution of authoritative wisdom accrue to the consultant, but because it directly improves the caliber of the work.  Insistence on and assistance in the elaboration of a comprehensive appraisal of experience is a self-evident portrayal of commitment to quality.  An individual may be able to conceive of a high, unmistakable quality of consultancy.   But the actual personal (i.e., social, educational, and professional) background and the breadth of previous life experience demarcate the individual's ability to infuse that quality into the work.

No two study groups proceed in identical fashion with identical material.  This fact, coupled with the coexisting duty to heed whatever content and process are paramount, can signal for the consultant both anxiety and enticing challenge.  In accepting the role, the individual's obligation is to bring forward an extensive reach and depth of preparation.  Nihil humanum alienum mihi est must be both goal and steadfast motive.

The need to continuously re-define the most apt and enlightening route through which to implement the task vitiates any rendering of an ideal or perfect way of effecting the consultant role.  The manner and mood of presentation of task-directed interventions vary from the first to the last meetings of the study group.  This variability, as indeed a pronounced heterogeneity within the study group, is normal and advantageous.  The rewards of diversity are a more catholic array of intellectual talents, more stringent barriers to provincialism, and representation of a multiplicity of emotional and social standpoints.

The consultant's task is partly artistic and partly technological; the two angles are not antithetical nor mutually exclusive. The philosophical bases, implications, and ramifications of any praxis with human beings require timely critique.  Detailed scrutiny of the incidental and volitive meta-communications found in the consultant's role behavior reduces the chance that the supposedly rational formulations conveyed to group members are in fact misleading.

The roles of consultant and of leader are dissimilar and ad literam incompatible.  But they are not irrelative.  "The consultant is not simply a commentator, since he is an active participant in the group process.  He exercises leadership, in the sense that by his words and behaviour he defines a task, adheres to it, and demonstrates how to go about it" (B. W. M. Palmer, 1979, p. 56).  Such putative leadership emanates from the consultant's role and task and is distinct from an independent plan to lead or direct.  To the extent that the role typifies an executive style, the consultant "aims to provide experience of leadership which is reflective about...the leader's feelings and fantasies as valuable evidence of the state of the working group of which he is a part, which must be understood before it is acted upon" (B. Palmer, 1978, p.92).

The consultant best performs the task by being present as a unique type of articulate "listener and witness" (Edelson, 1975, p. 19).  In this capacity, the consultant communicates trust in the group's fundamental qualifications to superintend, entertain, understand, and learn from the system of behaviors, sentiments, and values that it creates. To  substantiate this trust, the consultant must measure and express words with precision, speaking audibly, trenchantly, and without lagniappe.  Artificial simplicity, however, must not replace or obscure the natural complexity of mentation and of group process. To simplify, by emotionally subsidizing a narrowed purview or by encompassing in interventions only what the consultant fully understands, is an affront to group members' latent abilities.  The consultant's behavior must communicate unambiguously, for it "is as important for learning as what he says; perhaps more so, since the words he uses to describe his feelings are symbols, of greater or less abstraction, of the behaviour they represent" (Rice, 1965, p. 27).

Both the consultant's actions and verbal interventions serve instructional purposes, intimating "that in confusion, even if others are insisting that all must be equally confused, it remains possible to reflect, to question, to work, and to try to behave responsibly to self and others" (Astrachan, 1975, p. 338).

An attitude of attentive expectation on the part of the consultant enables group members to accumulate awareness, through first-hand experiences, of the group's covert goals and intrinsic lines of development. In point of group members’ decoding their strivings, "the task of a consultant is a maieutic one in that he is helping members to realize their interpretations of the situation; in short, to exercise their authority to test realities" (Lawrence, 1979, p.6).

The consultant must be yet available to group members, an attitude of non-intrusive, expectant attendance notwithstanding.  While not accountable for the group's cohesion or dispersion, felicity or suffering, the consultant must work diligently to secure the conditions favorable to espousal of the primary learning task.  To posit that the mere provision of opportunities for learning is sufficient and constitutes a job well done is to retain a limited grasp of the phrase dedication to task.  On the other hand, such behavioral disclosures of the consultant's concern for learning as exhortation and guidance are unacceptable.  A genuine keenness that group members learn from the opportunities at their disposal is patent on an internal plane: the consultant's intentional, hopeful pursuit of the task.


 Chapter Five

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