Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

To the study group members, the consultant represents the staff and the aims of the conference.  With no other staff representative do conference members have contact so intense and extended as with their study group consultant.  The study group generates more individual anxiety than other conference events; this anxiety impedes attempts to adapt to an arrangement felt to be unfamiliar, extraordinary, and disconcerting.  The consultant is frequently viewed as a model to whom group members turn, surreptitiously and unawares, for tactics and direction in negotiating the indeterminate challenges of the situation.

The responsibility for filling the role requirements and for being able to perform the task competently is the consultant's.  More immediately, consultants must evince proficiency in functioning within the anxiety-laden milieu that they help to institute.  Although group members are themselves charged with developing strategies that enable them to advance their primary task, they often infer prescriptions for proper or beneficial conduct from the consultant's posture.

The consultant

makes strategic choices in…"modelling…desirable"  behaviours.  It is likely that forthrightness, humanistic concern and...courage in being willing to tackle difficult issues will be considered by...members as standards for themselves....[But the consultant] should not see himself as modelling any sort of an "ideal type" of member....  The modelling of behaviour that is most effective, role consistent and of enduring value...stresses the "second look", the reflection on interactions and emphasizes the willingness and patience necessary to consider interactive behaviour and its consequences.  (Lakin & Constanzo, 1975, p. 226)
Consultant behavior and member behavior are largely incongruous because the respective tasks are distinct and conceivably the inverse of each other.  To provide opportunities to learn, to facilitate learning about group and organizational processes, and to study group processes as they occur are not synonymous endeavors.

The consultant cannot perform the task of consulting by rote or by relying on imitation of earlier role models, whose behavior nonetheless may corroborate the consultant's conception of the task.  Each study group is unique and deserves an originative response from the consultant.  The happy impossibility of foretelling the turns of events in the study group enjoins the consultant to persevere in the anxious and uncertain immediacy of experience.  In spite of the lack of a categorical formulary of becoming behaviors, consultants must feel and demonstrate a basic trust in their competence to faithfully observe the spirit of the task.  Members’ trust in one another is positively correlated with the consultant's ability to execute the consultative, managerial, and administrative components of the task in such a way as to hold forth a secure environment.

A consultant's engagement with the convoluted affairs of the study group reflects operative norms.  In unelaborated form, these norms are to

bring uncomfortable issues out into the open; persist in drawing attention to problems even if others seem reluctant to consider the implications of what...[one is] saying; listen to other members’ viewpoints even if...[one disagrees] with them; encourage zany and bizarre perspectives to insure that nothing important and possible has been overlooked; make people aware when a topic that should generate a heated debate has not.  (Kilman, 1985, p. 66)
Suggestions that the consultant present problems rather than solutions (Mills, 1975) or pose antitheses to the group's theses are pithier expressions of the gist of these norms.

Actions consistent with these technical maxims subserve both the group members’ and the consultant's tasks; their value derives from a propensity to mediate the accomplishment of these tasks.  Such norms delimit the path to a systematic examination and study of both the group's vexations and its delights.  They afford one elementary structure suited to the work at hand.  Such norms suggest constructive avenues for dealing with the disturbances that pose utmost difficulty in any work setting: those entailing collaborative interaction oriented toward a collective goal.  They support attitudes and behaviors that are applicable to systems larger than and outside the study group. Theoretically, these attitudes and behaviors should have relevance to the specific fields from which conference membership is recruited.

Consultants must adhere to these norms while in no way exacting acceptance or utilization of them. They must not permit themselves to insist even subliminally that the group adopt  their way of proceeding.  Otherwise, to paraphrase Main (1957), suffering groups that frustrate keen consultants by failing to improve and behave according to their standards are always in danger of meeting primitive human behavior disguised as consultation.  While trying to be instructive about what is going on in the group, the consultant must not push members to pursue any matter further than they wish.  Misapplied consultation often aims to coax members to mirror the consultant's own real or idealized learning at previous conferences.

Globally, the consultant holds up for group members’ consideration the Tavistock model of study and learning.  A number of advances in conceptualizing group life have generally diluted the initial  sovereignty of psychoanalytic doctrine in the Tavistock model.  Concepts from open systems theory and the field of organizational development have been absorbed into the substructure of this model, which also strives to grapple with points of morality and politics, institutional as well as personal.  Nonetheless, no Tavistock theory yet exists as such.

The Tavistock method is prosaic but potentially subversive: volitional collaboration with autonomous group members to become attuned to, contend with, and understand the fugitive and at first unknown foundations and phenomena of the group's existence.  The method, however, ought not become the focus of the consultant's fealty.  Rather, an allegiance to the internalized principles of the method, especially commitment to the primary task and to intellectual and emotional integrity in complying with it, ought to substitute.

Although proselytizing is neither the tacit intention nor a secret component of the consultant's task, skillful acquittal of the responsibilities of the role ensures that positive or negative regard for the principles of the method is based on ample exposure to their strengths and weaknesses.

Chapter Three

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