Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

Social situations produce stress.  In the study group, the stress pervading the context of being and working with other people is increased because the verbal expression of intractable feelings is sanctioned.  Because learning too takes place in the context of connections to others, the consultant must minister to the interactive collaboration through which unblinded definition of reality emerges.  These efforts bear on one aim of education: to create a community to contain knowledge too excessive or too harrowing for a single person, group, or institution (Rioch, 1987).

Members and consultant apply one and the same educational technique: by turns allowing themselves to be drawn into the group's dynamics and then withdrawing from that involvement in seminal ways.  The disadvantages of the technique are the difficulty of talking about experience while being immersed in it and the ease of neglecting the group's process for its drama.  A focus on dramatic details is enchanting, but more efficacious is the advocacy of thought about their dynamic significance within the group process.  Because the process component of group life binds people together in heartier collaboration than content alone can, the consultant must incline to note trends toward analysis and away from synthesis; "interventions that interpret content separate from 'process' ...alienate members from awareness of ways in which the interactive process is operating...and...establish the [consultant] the 'authority,' the object of false self dependency" (Goldbart & Cooper, 1976, p. 243).  Disregarding process for drama is a group defense against conceding that the collective world is largely invisible and inconcrete and against respecting that as much can be learned from what does not happen as from what does occur.

Although conference learning is an individual contingency, the study group is a communal experience in which members and consultant can expect to affect others and to be affected by them in the course of collaborating.  Working together is as a rule fruitful, motivating reality-based productions freed of the irrationality attributable to isolation and rendering the want of human perfection more bearable.

Yet the nature of group work precludes equal and equivalent participation by every member.  Moreover, consultant and members must battle with their feeling of enmity toward those who think with genius beyond them.  Wounded narcissism and feelings of mortification can incite intransigence and retreat from the interpersonal dimensions of the task.

Resistance to the group task can be realized through nominal collaboration twisted to collusion by members' seduction or consultant's dereliction.  Resistances to the pairing necessary for fertile collaboration have a social cast.  The suspicion of a homosexual drift in creative work with persons of the same gender may interrupt collaboration.  The pervasive sentiment that not knowing, inexperience, and learning are all disgraceful may predispose group participants to feel humiliation in working on their task in public or with others of unequal station.  Inescapable ambivalence toward social intercourse may endue invitations to collaboration with the specter of violence.  Inter-generational closeness may unleash fears of ambition, insurgence, and conquest.  Participants may be intimidated by the grip of their own passions and prejudices.  Members' projections of idealized and omniscient imagoes may deter the consultant from admitting errors openly or owning ignorance without reservation.  The myth that information is of itself potentially dangerous or explosive may foster reserve and inhibition in both consultant and members.

To alleviate tension, group members may resort to myths that ward off alarming incertitude.  Related to the consultant's role behaviors is the myth that knowledge confers invulnerability and immunity to torment.  A bulwark against the terror released by recognition of the unknown, this myth underlies fantasies that what one verbalizes is truly known and that both edification and dissipation of anxiety follow from the mere encounter with a correct word or analytic slant.  Because the recognition and exploration of the previously concealed and unknown are essential to insight, the consultant can cultivate learning by articulating the content and motivational dynamics of the group mythology.

When ascendant themes are discernible by the consultant but by few, if any, group members, reasons exist.  The reasons comprise sundry conscious and unconscious resistances to perception: repression, denial, suppression, among others.  Resistances are themselves processes with priority for interpretive attention, inasmuch as they check work-directed conation and thwart learning.  They retard the rational advance of the group.  Dissolution of process resistances frees members to direct their efforts more profitably to the primary learning task; attention to details of the content put forward by the group is a less emancipatory technique.  The aim of interventions that extricate resistances from their sealed, unconscious environment is to distinguish between the group's activities and its tasks (Dill, 1958).

Unless covert or bothersome minutiae of the group animus are canvassed, the consultant waives an impressive index of the nature of the resistances afloat in the group.  Resistances allude to areas of intense, emergent conscious or unconscious emotion and imagined weakness in the face of a real or phantom interpersonal transaction.  The resisted content may be fancied as a shameful, best unacknowledged token of deficiency or disability.  Retreat, superfluous in that group members furnished painstaking consultations are with few exceptions indeed equipped to confront the covert issues productively, reinforces the notion of impairment and unwellness and thus diminishes the group's competence.  The folly of shunning mirrored images of internal strictures and blight provides meager relief but reinforces self-deception.

For the group, as for individuals, every dysfunction, "every illness, however slight, always means acquiescing in the renunciation of part of one 's...freedom and pleasures" (Balint, 1957, p. 240).  Each decrement in the degree of freedom with which individuals approach the realm of their own conscious and unconscious processes checks their competence, both by abridging its exercise and by intercepting cognizance of its true reach.

Acumen in judging dysfunction in groups is coextensive with a sensitive familiarity with prevailing cultural values, patterns, and constraints, verbal as well as nonverbal.  Consultants' grasp of these societal norms, quite apart from a given group 's neoteric rules, must be so ingrained that the group's infractions and disregard of them are almost instantly noticed.   Like group members' fantasies and projections, their parapraxes and contraventions of social custom illustrate elusive conflicts and preoccupations.  Being conversant with these subtle, polymorphous expressions, consultants are able to broaden the basis of learning.

Intragroup and intergroup variation is common.  At times the modal activity is mature and effectual; at other times, puerile and inconsequential patterns of behavior usher in languor and self-defeat.  All behaviors are seen as having communicative motives and as framing information for the consultant.  The group's passive tone invites consultations depicting paths of advance.  Palpable consternation and want of confidence signal that the focal care of members is their individual survival.

Each group is sui generis and reveals its own blending of immediate and idiosyncratic conflicts with the standard crosscurrents of organizational life.  Some groups can apprise the consultant of the presence and tenor of "unconscious planning" (Gustafson & Cooper, 1979, p. 1042) to eradicate a prominent blockage or reach a developmental goal.  Study group tone and direction shift rapidly and widely, both within and between group meetings.  Periods of role-associated verbal inactivity allow the singular stamp of each group to register upon the consultant's psyche.  The organic totality of the group recommends pathways that suitable interventions may follow.  The directions are to consult to the group as it exists, not as the consultant imagines or hopes it to be.

In response to the exacting task of consultancy, the ingenuous but defensive fiction that sometimes materializes is that, meeting with specified circumstances, every experienced consultant adopts congeneric behaviors and interventions.  The fantasy's defensiveness consists in its debasement of the full responsibility that each individual bears in what are always unrepeated conditions.  The impropriety of this way of thinking lies in the fact that the group members often employ a parallel fantasy to depreciate the disquieting possibility that, each person being responsible for her or his own conduct, there is no single, right behavior.  Manners of thinking that discredit complexity in the service of comfort erode the pleasures found in intellectual work free of subterfuge.  To the extent that such maneuvers succeed, work is reckoned and felt as a depletion rather than a fulfillment.

Conference participants encounter in their roles scant refuge from the feeling that it

is exceedingly accept that...[one] has really and irrevocably grown up, and that, though there remain still a few people in the world with superior knowledge in this field or in that to whom...[one] can turn for limited advice, more often than not it is impossible to escape the full weight of responsibility.  (Balint, 1957, p. 100)
By word, deed, and empathy, the consultant enacts a nuclear role in reflecting on opportunities for learning about "the general latent craving for an omnipotent parent...a craving of such primitive power that it can produce the profound physiologic alterations of hypnosis, or bring into abeyance an individual's own perceptual capacities or capacities for rational inference" (Stone, 1961, pp. 70-71).

Theoretically, the consultant tries to remark upon the group process without foisting directionality, effecting alterations, or swaying volition.  But, insofar as calling attention to unrecognized behaviors is both a paramount mandate for the consultant and also a forerunner of change in the group situation, a paradox becomes clear.  A part of the behavior defined for the consultant role stands for an ideal, an intellectual pursuit not workable without modification.  Maximal approximation to the ideal nevertheless remains the ideal.  Thus, the Tavistock model withholds approbation from any effort to lead the study group.  The consultant must detect and appraise the authenticity of any hints from the group that staff interventions and agenda are trespassing on group members' rights to self-determination.

"Inevitably, when the diagnosticians behave as effective listeners, respondents become more motivated to provide accurate information" (Alderfer, 1976, p. 128).  The consultant must rely on this disposition to barter intrasystemic feedback and on task-oriented competence and collaboration to lower the incidence of imposition of change or direction onto the group process and to heighten awareness of this error when it occurs.

Neither rational nor irrational derivations of group activity ought to be dissociated from private and public formulations of the group process.  Traditionally, the two forces are kept segregate and regarded as antithetical.  This separation precludes evaluation and appreciation of the whole gamut of group members' personal reserves, whereas the consultant's tolerance, inquisitive posture, and productive utilization of both rational and irrational aspects of experience underscore individuals' capacities for inventive prowess in the midst of stress and debate.  Fluctuations in the group process readily disclose the enhanced individual vitality and organizational returns referable to the summation of rational and irrational data.

The consultant must scrupulously abide by the boundaries of time, territory, task, and role.  Ironically, the conspicuous observance of boundaries is unsettling.  Displacing the responsibility for tight management of boundary matters from group members to the consultant promotes regression by making the group's task more formless and ambiguous.  Psychological regression is a desirable concomitant of study group involvement; its management is a sophisticated aspect of the consultant's task.  How much regression is to be permitted and how much maturity is to be expected are questions of import.  The moments at which a regressive or progressive process is more helpful, as well as the optimal duration of each trend, are difficult to promulgate.  A constant flux between the processes betters the learning experience.  The nature of the consultant's verbal interventions and social comportment, identifiably the depriving vein of the role, are initially the chief regulators of these processes.  Judiciously administered, these behaviors disencumber both the group's forward motility and its regressive tendencies.

Consultants must also oversee and comprehend the proper application of the material brought to notice by their own regression.  The proper use is in the service of the learning task.  The facility with which group members draw learning from their encounters with regressive sources of information is tied to the consultant's knack for venturing into "the shared fantasy world of the group with which he is working, to experience his own responses as a person to that world, and then to bring into focus and articulate its core assumptions and images" (B. Palmer, 1979, pp. 187-188).

Such a venture has risks.  As internal conflicts are portrayed in external versions and rampant ambivalence toward and distrust of the consultant counter the politic ascent of mutual respect and recognition, an adversative positioning of the consultant versus group members must be sidestepped.  Unmasked aggressive drives, the derogation of social graces, and the uncivilized mien of regressed conduct constitute unruly subject matter.  Even when the consultant anticipates the copious regressions and foresees the ordeals likely to exert strain, flight from the task, the role, or the territory may be tempting.

The alliance with the group members is a wellspring of spurious rewards and punishments, usually only intimated, intended to beguile the consultant into behavior inappropriate for the role.  Corruptibility, in matters of task or of role, mars the consultant's usefulness to the members.  Even petty corruption, such as straightaway answering individual members' questions as if they registered only individual inquisitiveness, tarnishes the consultant's authority.  Corruptibility may worsen fears of violence and psychological decompensation; it may forecast deviousness, indolence, and laxity, which redound prejudicially upon members' and consultant's bids for bona fide understanding.  Consultants must learn not only to withstand enticements and admonitions, but also to exploit their own responses to temptations and threats of sanctions in order to fathom the group's largely unconscious motivations.  "The consultant has to tolerate anxieties about rejection and isolation, as well as about intimacy and exposure.  If he cannot tolerate separation and hostility, he abandons his working role and accepts a role in the group's shared dream" (B. Palmer, 1978, p. 92).

Learning incorporates the surrender of lies and illusions, the exercise of the belief that the truth of evidence is more important than its agreeableness, and the conviction, reached through considered experience, that because the work of learning is not sooner or later dispatched, no closure or final summary exists.  The consultant is subject to acute pressures to forsake these basic tenets.  Patience and a mind to postpone solutions until the problems have been described and diagnosed are repugnant to groups, which find thought more disturbing than action.

Group members are troubled that learning itself has no defined boundaries of time, territory, or content.  Correspondingly, for the consultant, a key frustration accompanying learning is grounded in working with a model that can only inadequately enunciate the study group's anatomy, task, and environment.  The press of far-reaching forces tests inner resolve to ply the task rationally, regardless of the collateral insults to narcissism and injuries to hubris.  In any case and whatever the respective crosses of consultant and group members, what the latter study and learn is certainly connected to the former's behaviors.

Chapter Ten

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