Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

Regardless of professional training and experience, every consultant must be cognizant of the sway of the original family matrix and subsequent personal history over the content of perception and the cast and tone of  interpretation.  Self-awareness enables consultants to continuously refine conception and mastery of the task; secondarily, conversance with the singular weight of their own contributions in the group process conforms to standards of responsibility.

Group members rarely overlook the consultant's role behavior; it evokes predictable repercussions, chiefly anxiety, which is deemed fitting for experiential learning.  The person and behavior of the consultant may exert the most crucial influence on the group's unique climate  (Harrow, Astrachan, Tucker, Klein, & Miller, 1971).  Thus, consultants must privately monitor their  manner of taking up the role and gauge the related personal and stylistic precipitates incorporated into the group's mood and mode of working.  The discerning individual can thus regulate self-centered contributions to the group's atmosphere.  Critical self-awareness expedites the internal sorting of emotional states currently being  projected into the consultant from other, previously introjected aspects of experience.  The consultant must strive to establish an ability to function as an objective, nonaligned authority figure, whose presentation is disciplined and expert without drawing force from a prepossessing or charismatic delivery.  A patronizing or sarcastic stance always denotes compromise of the consultant's reputation for candor.

The rubrics of consultant behavior are specified and require minimal executive decision-making:

rigorous promptness in arriving and leaving at the hours agreed upon; [a]... tendency not to speak until the group's verbalizations [have]...broached and elaborated the theme with sufficient richness to permit interpretation;...avoidance of direct participation in the interaction except to observe and explain it; [a]...sparseness of...verbalizations relative to those of the...[members]; and...avoidance of self-revelatory exchanges with the group as a whole and with individual members in the course of inevitable casual encounters.  (Fried, 1977, p. 120)
These conventions are purposive.  They illustrate a mature acceptance of the terms of a contract and, at some cost, a wholehearted compliance with those terms; they reduce confusion about the primary purpose of the study group; they remove possible distractions from and distortions of the task; and, they elucidate responsible dedication to an esteemed task.  Though socially deviant to a degree varying from culture to culture, they underscore the contrariety between stated and unconscious agendas, the antagonism between the requisites for achievement of the task and the demands for maintenance of social comfort, and the disunity between what is needed and what is wanted, the realities and the desires of human systems.  These role behaviors subsume an abecedarian ideology about the exercise of authority.

The consultant's refusal to be a party to dyadic social relationships with group members, inside or outside the boundaries of the study group, parallels a belief that entering into private or confidential intercourse with individual members or subsets of a system prejudices contemporaneous efforts to collaborate with the system as a whole.  The chronic disinclination to repeat verbal interventions is a move to prevent an atmosphere of passive submission and dependence as well as to consolidate the notion that group members may rely and at times must rely on one another for resources that habitually appear scarce but that are in reality sufficient, if not plentiful.

The frustration of group members’ initial and persistent dependency wishes piques the group to recur to its indwelling potential for self-direction.  Likewise, leaving the plurality of the group's questions unanswered encourages their exclamatory complexion to come into focus.  Queries unanswered, except when contraindicated on a rational basis, are conducive to learning by experience.  The consultant's abstinence is tutelary, not arbitrary: it protects group members’ self-confidence and it foils sciolism.  The consultant's abstinence and the consequent nonfulfillment of irrational expectations and hidden convictions of what an authority figure is or should be occasion divers learning opportunities.

Conference design intensifies these opportunities.  The design limits the avail of customary social defenses and makes public the terrors that they keep at bay.  Firm expectations about the makeup of social beings, their manners, and their institutions are thrown into doubt.  The uncertainty and disequilibrium resulting from the novelty of the situation favor retrospection and reevaluation.  Long-held assumptions can be plumbed in the light of fresh information and salutary experience.   Formerly censured behavioral choices may gain respectability, and vice versa.  In short, learning can begin under a new and transient set of conventions.  "The essence of scientific enquiry is the search for the conditions in which current hypotheses break down.  Nothing new is learned by repeating tests which confirm existing theories" (Popper, cited in B. Palmer, 1979, p. 186).

Humility in the face of the complexity of the processes operant in human groups is an outgrowth of a mature (i.e., undeceived) perspective.  The cultivation of self-doubt as a tool of intellectual growth and as a conduit to increased self-awareness epitomizes the consultant's dedication to the task and provides a sense of freedom needed by group members in their search for approximate truth.  The consultant's disregard or elimination of alternatives and opacity, like the comic denial of the passage of time (Schafer, 1970), may humor the group, but they are not honest or accurate approaches to the definition of reality.  The scientific method requires the sufferance of incomplete conclusions.  A sense that the quest is unending and that understanding is ever embryonic establishes a need and use for freedom, just as a sense that humankind's tasks are unfinished lays its groundwork.

All distortion and destruction of the truth, even through benign efforts to deny differences, have malignant effects on group work.  Either the dearth of true data or the plenitude of false data can mislead members to bargain their freedom to learn for the comfortable trappings of a senseless and abasing discipline.

Dread and anxiety regularly attend experiential learning; these the consultant must modulate well.  Of overreaching pertinence is the requirement that the consultant demonstrate ability to preserve the role, that is, to limit behaviors to those necessarily prescribed.  Inability to do so elevates anxiety unduly and nullifies otherwise valuable interventions.  Maintenance of role requirements neutralizes the blunting effects of errors of incomplete or inaccurate interpretation.

The nature of the processes examined and of the learning negotiable in the study group demands a reliable environment.  The setting is social, but the grounds for social defenses are disarrayed by scrutiny and interpretation.  Human beings' ambivalent affection for personal knowledge is whetted as consultant and members together work to "see--and value seeing--that which...[they] are most powerfully disinclined to see" (Schafer, 1970, p. 291).

Members contend with the disheartening realization of the repeated discrepancies between actual behavior and the intentions and beliefs behind it (Balint, 1957).  Though the information appears captivating, such knowledge threatens with chaos both the members' internal order and the skittish homeostasis of the group as a whole.  Hence, ready resistances to its attractiveness surface.  Resistances sparing individual order are inveterate; resistances nursing systemic homeostasis are less entrenched.  The latter resistances can serve as foci for consultations directed at promoting study of the system's formation and at stirring awareness of its inhibitions and sanctions.

The consultant is bound to tailor attention and comments to the entire assembly, in order to further its primary task of learning about group and organizational processes.  Both attention and intervention should indeed bear on the total group and should not be just pro forma.  The aim of such intervention is educative, not manipulative.  All action to organize the group, be it through outlining and planning goals or through advice and discipline, is beyond the scope of the consultant's task.  All action to build motivation, whether through offering encouragement, interjecting succor, or setting forth interim assessments of the group's industry, is similarly inconsistent with the consultant role.  All action to shape the employment of the group's resources, as by subjoining hints about sensible ways to proceed, is also extra-marginal meddling.  Supplying information already in limited or widespread circulation is countertask activity.

In sum, all action, of whatever ilk, to organize, motivate, direct, or publicly rate or evaluate the study group impairs the consultant's effectiveness and the members’ learning.  Neither benison nor opprobrium is in the consultant's domain.  The consultant performs an anxiety-regulating task by staying in role: by circumspect observance of the role boundaries, the consultant contains the features of the group's anxiety that members surmise to be dangerous and unmanageable.  This containment safeguards group members’ readiness to approach the task.

Staff commitment to the opinion that experience can precede learning places broad restraints on the consultant's conduct.  Experience in a setting fraught with anxiety and fear, from which the consultant is not immune, must be permitted and supported.  The consultant must not essay to vanquish these feelings through action, that is, speech, because action hinders revelatory exposure to experience.  Conference members quickly demonstrate that it is easier to act, to do something, than it is to think about stressful affairs.

The consultant must be patient.  Raising too many questions or otherwise intervening overmuch early in the group's existence prevents the unfolding of group members' concerns and blurs the consultant's vision of access to the group's unconscious life.  Impatience and insensitivity wreak iatrogenic harm, which enormously confounds the task of consulting.

Chapter Four

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