Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

A group-wide focus, exteriorized in group-as-a-whole interventions, is the instrumentality which most reliably develops pivotal learning opportunities.  Sound interventions that result in insight at the group level have their source in knowledge of the history and of the past and current dynamics of the group.  They sketch consultant's and group members' co-active contributions to the tone and direction of the group's dynamics.

Ability to appreciate and voice the dynamics of the group as a whole is not solely a desideratum; unless the consultant adroitly explicates and thereby alters specific dynamics of the group as a whole, notably scapegoating, splitting, and projective identification, group members may be subjected to unwarranted and psychically noxious pressures.  Familiarity with only individual dynamics is a shortcoming irreconcilable with responsible role performance.  Lewin's (1951) thesis relates ad rem: different properties obtain for the whole, which is neither less than nor equal to nor greater than the sum of its individual parts.

"The group becomes an entity..., sometimes separate from, sometimes fused with its members but capable of symbolic activities and imaginative productions that individuals can seldom achieve by themselves" (Hartman & Gibbard, 1973, p.321).  A quantum of anxiety institutes the formation of symbols and fantasies, which substantively enrich the group matrix.  The anxiety customarily felt by both consultant and group members thus ingeniously cultivates learning.  Because the symbols and fantasies fashioned by group members' synthetic faculties betray the group's core conflicts and concerns, they materially assist the consultant.  Symbol formation and elaboration of group fantasy are evidence that the group is working, as opposed to embracing avoidant Survival-behavior (B. Palmer, 1979; B. W. M. Palmer, 1979) or basic assumption behavior (Brown, 1985; O'Connor, 1971).

The symbolizing activity prompted by the experience of anxiety is the basis of every sublimation and of all talents (M. Klein, 1930).  Emotional contact with the collective symbols and fantasies of the group breathes life and efficacy into the consultant's interventions.  Symbolizations register the group's struggle to synthesize experiences of anxiety.  The consultant's perspective and anxieties, discriminable from those of the members, permit a further or second-order synthesis of the material.

The first imperative in manipulating the group's symbolic creations is to eschew violence to them.  Irreversible harm is easily wrought by premature attention to the symbols' real qualities or literal attributes.  The consultant must sustain an attitude of nonjudgmental consent toward group fantasies and symbols.  An ordinarily passive, sporadically active cooperation in their evolution and elaboration is more apposite to the task than are untimely public scrutiny and rational analysis.

Giving priority to group-wide foci need not lessen respect for "the subjective impact of groups--the power of the group's consensus, the inevitable complicity of every member in the group process, the demands of the group on its members for participation and conformity to group norms" (Almond & Astrachan, 1969, p.288).  The vivid subjective experiences of the group entity animate interest in the discovery of the dynamics of the group as a whole.  Separated from the framework of vital involvement, study group membership becomes an intellectual puzzle, with little chance of inspiring veritable learning.

The task is to elicit as sweeping a prospect of group activity as feasible within parameters set by the participants' intellectual capacities and by the time boundaries of the event.  Study of the role an individual plays or offers to play or is drafted to play for the group appertains to the learning task.  But the systems and organizational focus distinguishes the study group from psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic arrangements and their primarily individual sphere of concern and operations.

Bion (1961) stressed that the essence of the group's developmental conflict consists in bringing together the primitive and the sophisticated.  Through poignant avowal of the ambivalence inherent for the individual in group participation and equally through citation of the quandaries born of this ambivalence, the consultant keeps the group in touch with the emotions propelling the exploration of the contiguous boundaries of the irrational and the rational, of the defenses against work and the task itself, and of the primitive states and the new ideas.

Inveterate use of any theory or method, divorced from potentiation by the altogether unique resources of the individual, resembles addiction in its sterility.  Marshaling theory, method, and personal providence to guide efforts to comprehend the group as a whole, the consultant escapes becoming a prisoner of the method and collaterally upgrades appropriate consulting skills.  Emotional responses, intermittent hunches, momentarily coalescing cognitions, and educated guesses are all particulars, often counterintuitive, of these solid resources.

Routine assimilation and proficient management of internal data develop competence; they enhance the usefulness to the members of the consultant role.  Reckoning with these private data, the consultant presents a practicable example of task-oriented interpenetration of the primitive and the sophisticated.  The results of this merger leave a legitimately personal mark on task performance. Verbal interventions, moreover, ineluctably air the consultant's peculiar constructions of events.  Original and lyrical wordings of the group's experiences, evocative in their freshness, invigorate the participants' work-directed inclinations.  The exercise of work mobilizes learning and the development of individual responsibility; the more accurately the reticular fabric of the group system is seen, the more exacting does the task of its members become.

The relatively delineated activity authorized for the consultant role and the intensity of concentration directed to the interpretive task afford a degree of security not available to group members, who, in contrast, may feel the choices implicated in their verbal participation to be baffling, stultifying, disabling, or terrifying.  Learning through experience to rely on the normally commensurate reserves of individual authority is the conclusive solution to some dilemmas and the precondition for simple coexistence with others.  Yet such learning does not take place rapidly.  In the meantime, the proximity and power of the primitive threats lurking in the group and of the social defenses erected to quell them must not be underrated.  They work against learning.  The study group process exploits the group's ambivalences to supply the impetus for eventual advancement.  Group members' early discomfiting feelings of uncertainty and helplessness, followed by a quickly dawning consciousness of "the need to belong and the wish to be separate, the danger of being isolated and the panic at being engulfed" (Astrachan & Redlich, 1969, p. 490), importunately rouse examination.

Group-as-a-whole interventions invite curiosity about the operations of the group as a unity, diverting a portion of attentiveness from individual dynamics to those of the entire assembly.  The shift from individual to group-wide perspective accents and simplifies the learning task.  Group-as-a-whole interventions acquaint members with their coherent generic functioning.  Through them, the consultant modulates the anxiety level of the group, by turns both cultivating degrees of anxiety propitious to learning by experience and tempering the fearful isolation, which deflects energies from the integral task to personal survival.

While storing or containing all perceptible communications, whether spoken or mimed, the consultant embodies rational, verbal articulation of experience.  Articulation of experience through verbalization is a more mature, adapted outlet for affect than impulsive motor discharge.  Speech obviates the possibility of destructive action, with its press for ensuing regrets.  Within the conference, a permissive definition of freedom at the level of the spoken word encourages verbalization and discourages acting out of feelings and conflicts.  Permissiveness also at the behavioral level is emblematic of group relations conferences, whose stance emphasizes both group members' freedom to speak or do whatever they wish and their responsibility for all behavior at all times.

The consultant must model license to broach whatever occurs and sanction liberty in this regard for group members.  Naturally, the consultant must carry on a steady and openhearted discourse with other staff members.  Very personal data from the workplace must be shared.  The consultant's preceptive provision to the staff of the profluent emotions and fantasies inspired in the study group favors joint labors to implant reasoning in the bountiful collection of incondite impressions.  Verbal exchange governed by the fewest necessary curbs and structures aids task achievement and  institutes "the idea of mutual rational control by critical discussion (Popper, 1961, p. 44).  The exchange of free thought enables members to discriminate, acquire, and retain the permanent definitions and meanings of untried concepts (Piaget, 1967).  In contrast, the expediency or prevalence of an assimilative, accommodative, or coercive relation to differentiated viewpoints moves the group toward a distorting egocentricity of experience and away from learning via cooperative industry.  The absence of reciprocity endangers social and logical perspective.

Nonverbal behaviors, especially those leveled at the consultant, are telling points of entry into matters of current concern to the group.  But members' verbal messages more often form the basis for the consultant's interventions.  Freely floating attention must establish whether the semantics, which expresses ideas and referential meaning, or the morphology, which conveys relational meaning, merits more emphasis at a given moment.

In the main, the consultant considers not individual units of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, but rather the motivations for and the significance of the configurations of behaviors perceivable in the group.  Grasping the contours and teleology of these gestalten is an exigent order.  Only a mind involved and working intellectually and empathically with many streams of social movement can apprehend group and organizational processes sufficiently to forge an imaginative synthesis of them.  The compendious character of the consultant's synthetic functioning commutes a chaotic array of sensations, emotions, and fantasies into slightly ordered, though still confusing, anlagen of insight. But the life of such order is brief, owing to the tentative spirit of the consultant's hypotheses and to the presence of nonconsensual viewpoints among group members, whose agreement with a specific construction of events and of their antecedents and vagrant motivations does not dispel the inadequacy of words to unerringly disclose recondite human experience.

The mind is multidimensional to an impossible degree, whereas any description is limited to one dimension.  Language can describe only one sequence of events at a time; if several occur simultaneously, language has to jump to and fro among the parallel lines, creating difficulties, if not confusion, for the listener. A further, almost insurmountable complication is caused by the fact that mental events not only take place simultaneously along parallel lines, but influence each other profoundly.  (Balint, 1957, p. 172)
The imperfection of language obliges unceasing amendment to all formulations of the changeable group situation.  The consultant contrives to approximate the reality of the situation with linguistic tools grievously wanting in precision.  But the "lag, the discrepancy between experience and word is a productive long as [one]...remains aware of it" (Schactel, 1949, p.21).

The vigor and weight of the consultant's comments are fortified by their brevity and paucity.  The language chosen to package the interventions also plays a part in their effectiveness.  Indeed, a sober appreciation of the power of words to ignite revolutions of all types should palliate mutative interventions.  Clever wielding of the verbal format of interventions provides manifold learning opportunities.

The consultant must be at ease with the use of silence, because silent attentiveness is perforce more common than verbal responsiveness.  Silence, prolonged in order to acquire detailed evidence of the grain and dynamics of the group process, is but one of the set of techniques intended to draw out undiluted verbal and imaginal communications from stores located as exclusively as possible within group members themselves.  Silence punctuated by only interpretive interventions intensifies members' use of the consultant as a "passive projection screen" (Ezriel, 1959, p. 110).  As such, the consultant invites projections and awakens fantasies about authority figures, leadership, followership, power, competence, and a range of related issues, so that they can be given external representation, recognized, experienced, and evaluated rationally.  Ultimately, the projections must be accepted by members as their own creations, mock-ups of internal tableaux or systems-in-the-mind.

The consultant fulfills a containing function for group projections.  Over and over again the recipient of group members' projected authority and responsibility, oftentimes the repository of their competence, hopes, and desires, the consultant is "most often the container of the archaic roles: that of benevolent, nurturing figure upon whom group survival depends and that of the malevolent withholding figure by whom group survival is threatened" (Agazarian, 1980, p. 187).

Containing these projections, though lexically suggestive of passivity, is a strenuously active process.  The consultant must receive these collective images without protest but eventually return them to group members in a reworked, less alien form. The task is to bring them and their origins to the consciousness of the group, not so soon as they are projected upon the consultant, but at a moment opportune to and in a manner compelling their recognition and re-incorporation.  Otherwise, group members find themselves increasingly impoverished vis--vis the minimum intellectual and emotional wherewithal sufficing for task achievement.

Consultants must be wary of drawing a single class or narrow range of projections.  Individuals who contrive to represent only parental or custodial figures, for example, cannot be convincingly cast by members in sibling, colleague, supervisor, or mentor roles. Affective learning about the exercise of authority in these latter roles is then lessened, as is the advantage of heterogeneous study group membership, with its potential for projections of unassociated roles.

To the members' eyes, the consultant, like any associate of a social system, is a product of the attributions and projections of those persons within and those persons without the system.  Working as members of the staff, consultants must monitor their roles in the conference organization.  They must direct attention to sentiments and projections that they carry for the whole conference institution. The convenience to the institution of individuals' spontaneous, altruistic, or docile accession to such projections is far outweighed by their miasmal impact on the ability to consult.

Staff's difficulties in collaborating rationally and creditably are always matched by allied deformations of consultant-member relations.  Should staff members stage discord and philosophical contention in such hebetic practices as pouting, sullenness, or vows never to work in another conference, group members may hesitate to direct negative emotions toward the consultants; the consultants, already feeling a surfeit of distress, may shrink from drawing the reasonable focus of members' typical anger and aggression.

Throughout the conference, the task of learning dictates that the consultant, in dealings with self, with other staff members, and with study group members, confront and account for feelings and their sources, internal and external.  "Responsible confrontation goes far in making reality the measure of one's thinking instead of the reverse" (Egan, 1973, p. 121).

Chapter Eight

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