Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

The quotidian formulation of the task of study group consultant is concise and ambiguous: to offer a working hypothesis about what is happening in the study group whenever the consultant believes that such an intervention, formalized on the basis of personal observation and experience, will facilitate the group members’ task of learning via personal experience about group and organizational processes.

Execution of the consultant's task is intended to contribute to the realization of the related but distinct overall objective of a Tavistock group relations conference: to provide opportunities (a) to experience and study the group and organizational processes occurring in the context of the interpersonal and intergroup relations obtaining within the conference institution and (b) to increase understanding of the effects of these processes on the ability to exercise authority and to work effectively on shared group and organizational tasks.  The term group and organizational processes refers to the conscious and unconscious emotions, impulses, wishes, images, fantasies, and myths that are stimulated by collective life.

These statements of task are exemplars of the austerity of purpose and terseness of speech esteemed in the Tavistock method of study.  They imply that the consultant, in addition to being competent, helpful, and useful, attempts to promote a synergistic alliance with the group members.  But the rationale and goals of the consultant's efforts are not delineated.  Neither the precise nature nor the timing of the methods of task implementation available is broadly defined.  As précis of the consultant's mission, these statements of task leave much to the imagination and creative skill of the persons assuming the role.  Their vagueness may create undue anxiety for the novice, who is called upon to embody the primary learning task and to exemplify it (Gosling & Turquet, 1964).

In what way to embody the task and with what specific behaviors to help group members to pursue their task are not immediately apparent; what conduct is consistent in intentions, emphasis, and detail with the consultant's task and what methods are manifestly inappropriate and therefore conventionally excluded from exercise of the consultant role remain nebulous.

Explicit behavior traditionally regarded as consonant with the task, as well as more idiosyncratic approaches to the work, have been learned through the application of intuition and inclination, through observation and emulation of other persons in the consultant role, and through apprenticeship.  Few structured didactic attempts to convey the essence and spirit of the task have been undertaken (Baxter & Heimburger, 1985; Rice, 1965; Rioch, 1985).  As a result, the role of the consultant can be conceived in varied ways.  The following statements are representative samples: 

 "to confront the group, without affronting its members; to draw attention to group behaviour and not to individual behaviour; to point out how the group uses individuals to express its own emotions, how it exploits some members so that others can absolve themselves from the responsibility for such expression"  (Rice, 1965, p. 65);

 to be active "in pointing out significant aspects of individual and group behavior that members appear to have overlooked" (Dunphy, 1968, p. 201);

 "to face and deal directly with the inherent resistances that exist in individuals and groups to genuine understanding and meaningful incorporation of psychological concepts" (Cadden, Flach, Blakeslee, & Charlton, 1969, p. 863);

 "to interpret events, not merely describing the group behaviour, but attempting to analyse the dynamic underlying it, that is, its motivation and purpose" (Turquet, 1975, p. 90);

 to "exercise a freely-floating attention both to what is being talked about, and to what is happening in the group" (Kelnar, 1947, p. 31);

 to identify themes and focal conflicts (Whitaker & Lieberman, 1964), frequently related to group members’ preoccupation with the consultant;

 "to facilitate learning about the interaction of the individual and his social surroundings" (Almond & Astrachan, 1969, p. 277);

 to foster "vivid and meaningful understanding of the preconscious and, to some degree, unconscious mental forces both in oneself and in others"  (Berman, 1953, p. 327);

 to "provide opportunities to appreciate experientially data which would otherwise be known only in the abstract" (Berman, cited in Applebaum, 1976, p. 185);

 to act as "management, which is the process of establishing an environment in which people work effectively towards organizational goals" (Lippitt, cited in Dolgoff, 1973, p. 233);

 "to develop in a group the forces that lead to smoothly running co-operative activity" (Bion, 1961, p. 11);

 "to try to clarify…rigorously and uncompromisingly…processes as they occur" (Miller, 1985a, p. 271);

 to "ask what a group is ‘doing’ when it is not ‘working’" (Coplin, 1964, p. 11).

These propositions do not significantly illuminate methods of task execution.  They turn attention to authentic but different constituents of the task, implementation of which plainly involves constant discrimination among its varied elements.  The consultant must set priorities for interventions according to which facet of the task is most pressing.  Setting priorities is itself a formidable matter, inasmuch as the area legitimately bounded by the consultant’s private and public survey is vast, extremely inclusive, and poorly mapped:  
"The object of study is what is happening at any given time; the aim is to match current feeling with contemporary experience.  All assumptions about behaviour and beliefs on which behaviour is based are open for investigation" (Rice, 1965, p. 32).
In undertaking this work, an individual  must recall that, although conference brochures and staff prominently disclaim any therapeutic intent for the study group, persons seeking membership in experiential or growth groups were found to be similar to those applying for formal psychotherapy with regard to goals, motivations for participation, psychological characteristics, process expectations, philosophical orientations, and attitudes toward change and authority (Lieberman & Gardner, 1976).  The consultant must observe the boundaries of the study group's published task.

Initially, group members may not be aware that study groups and therapy groups do not share homologous boundaries.  An elementary knowledge of the psychotherapeutic change process can be of service to the consultant, not only in clarifying the distinctions between the situations but also in simplifying management of their similarities.  Familiarity with the vernacular of the social sciences, particularly psychoanalysis, eases the consultant’s assimilation into the group relations conference culture and accelerates intellectual collaboration with fellow staff members.

 Chapter Two