Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

The complex task of the study group requires adequate consultant availability.  Neither an aspect too sententious, too prolix, too sparse, nor a tack too uninvolved, too prescriptive, too intrusive should mark the consultant's interventions.  While heeding the panorama of the group and making the expedient excursions into the group's invisible government, the consultant must persist in directing full responsibility for the group upon the members themselves.

When able to attend to the group without memory or desire (Bion, 1967), probity and credibility are less equivocal; but no one arrives with a tabula rasa to take up the role.  No one is adiaphorous through and through.  Individuals can seldom disembroil personal desires and hopes from their vision of the work.  Logically, each consultant must be alive to the potential for functioning as either assets or liabilities of such hopes as that the method assist each group member in

developing a habit of attention to...ongoing experience....Learning to recognize fantasy as a mode of experience....Learning to recognize the influence of shared fantasy in groups and organizations....Becoming alert to the influence of fantasy in relations between leaders and followers.  (B. Palmer, 1979, p. 175)
The consultant must represent the method rather than personal ambitions or the notional results of the techniques.  Group members have responsibility for their own learning.

One intention of the design of the structure and task of conference events is to interest group members in creating their own strategies for learning and developing responsibly.  The study group is the arena in which group members' creativity and latent endowments are exposed.  To the advertent observer, the group reveals its resourceful transformations into action of those consultations fit for learning.  But learning fostered by sagacious interpretations is only partly observable or knowable in the sense of being experienced.  Consultants must not expect to derive recompense for their assiduity from its fruits.  Much learning occurs unconsciously and outside the time boundaries of the conference.  Learning, moreover, is not an external proceeding.

The risk of inner discomposure and reformation influences human beings to exhibit endless vacillation in what, how much, and when they want to learn by acquaintance.  In consequence, a sense of how far the outer universe can encroach on the inner world without retaliatory or compensatory distortion inheres in mastery of the interpretive expertness instrumental in consultancy.

Ways of learning follow individual and group biases.  For some group members, learning is a sport of daring, a foolhardy neglect of the potential subversiveness of every in-depth examination of motives and meanings; for others, it requires inner assumption of an uneasy nonchalance toward an outer assemblage of thorny questions and supposed answers.  For yet others, experiential learning turns on twin strategies: the counter-phobic exegesis of outer realities and the prefatory stipulation that inner structures be transformed only insignificantly.

Learning in the study group entails a series of intellectual and psychological changes in the inner realm, initiated ab intra by the excursion of that which indwells into the theater of that which impresses, for the purpose of disentangling inner from outer choices.  However group members learn, they usually find it taxing to verbalize the knowledge won because it does not cohere immediately and cannot be succinctly moved from the inside to the outside through the medium of words.

Although consulting staff have no commission to instill satisfaction in a task responsibly undertaken and brought to fruition, neither envy nor insensitivity should blind the consultant to the fact that "every form of growing up or maturing is greatly helped by the individual's pride in his achievements" (Balint, 1957, p. 241).  Members may foreclose employment of their apt vantage point and qualifications to evaluate their efforts and to judge their own and consultants' competence.  Assessment of competence is a skill vital to all persons engaged in institutional life.

All staff must countenance critical analysis of their own verbal and nonverbal behaviors.  The sanctioning of the open analysis of role-related competence can itself actually increase group members' personal competence, as acquaintance with disparity hastens learning.

Short-lived as it may be, consentience grounded in the philosophical underpinnings of the Tavistock method or of the culture from which group members come merits the consultant's stated skepticism.  Group relations work is of mixed ancestry; its philosophic substratum has been faulted, from dissonant but informed viewpoints, as much for plainspoken gravity and pessimistic seriousness (Alderfer & Klein, 1978) as for lofty aspirations and excessive optimism.  Absolute agreement is suspect until the motives behind it are outlined.

Epidemic optimism suggests over-dependence on the philosophy of pragmatism, which "has led to a belief that the existence of problems implies no more than a lack of effective methods" (Back, 1973, p. 17).  If participants establish and shore up a nearly incurable optimism, a blatant denial of tragedy, of even the ordinary human predicament" (Back, 1973, p. 12), by glossing over the "basic facts out of which tragedy is made--the certainty of death, of aging, the impossibility of full human understanding, the inevitability of conflicting human needs and social concerns" (Back, 1973, p. 12), their own experiences of the profundity of the dilemmas laid bare in group relations conferences sooner or later undermine the tenability of this splitting.  Consultants must deal delicately with the undoing of this defense, declaring the defensive purposes and meanings of such reverie and then giving latitude to members' capacity to reconcile previously unconscious information and to approach the processes occurring with the intention of understanding and learning from them.

By strictly relying on the data at hand, consultants forgo the imprudence of colluding with a group to deny live issues and, at the opposite extreme, of propounding idle theses or vacuous lines of inquiry.  In the operations of a study group, members engage a non-random subset of perennially solutionless social problems.  Experiential learning flourishes in the study of the specific context shaped by this agenda.  Consultants need not excogitate additional nonexistent or extraneous problems nor append adscititious cares to the group's genuine concerns. To do so is both inefficient and sadistic.

All learning has validity.  Although the conference staff may select elemental foci for study, the transcendence of the Tavistock method rests on the fact that learning can be attained in virtually any area of human interaction.

But learning by experience does not produce the uniform results reverenced in other educational settings.  Ultimately, group members must seek confirmation for the dictum that the group's deportment is lawful and not haphazard in their internal experience.  From consultants' managing the data so as to arrive at a convincing synthesis of collective experience, group members may gather unfamiliar techniques of use in the search for patterns, the basis of much education and "of all scientific investigation.  Where there is pattern, there is significance--this epistemological maxim also holds for the study of human interaction" (Watzlavick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967, p.36).

Chapter Eleven

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