The letter reproduced below was written by Dr. Adams to convey and teach the complexity and
Letter to a young director
Washington, D. C.
Having agreed to your suggestion that I write down some of my thoughts on the role of director in the Tavistock group relations conference work that you and I share, I find that I can best begin in a highly personal mode. I will not omit structure and theory, but the longer I have considered writing this, the more impelled I feel to start my story where it began, that is, where and when I first conceived (and it is a lot like getting pregnant!) how and what I might write to you.
I was at the annual Bryn Mawr conference in 1993. I had been on staff for the first six annual conferences held at Bryn Mawr. For the last three, I had been the Director. Perhaps every person with a number of conference experiences, as staff or member, has a particular conference that seems important or has been the site or stimulus of great learning, pain, or even joy. For me, that memorable site is Bryn Mawr in 1993.
After an absence
of four years, I had returned again to the conference in 1993 to work as
a small study group consultant. Below are some
of my thoughts from that experience, written very early one morning.
'This morning, I can find a place and a time to slow down and take care of my spirit, instead of wishing the whole week away as I did when I directed a conference for the very first time. I haven't been here in four years--a realization that is frightening. I feel anxious.On another morning at Bryn Mawr, I wrote the following note, which, on later reflection, seems central to my decision to attempt to put my ideas for you in writing in this letter.
'Time now to stop all this narcissistic stuff. I am not here as a poet after all. I need to assume my consultative stance with myself and to risk saying what I know, what I understand, and what I think I understand.Perhaps we are all 'stuck' in our own experience, shaped by our culture or sub-culture and of course by our times. I have a fine example of this likelihood. Remember the little joke about why Southern girls don't like group sex? Well, Southern girls don't like to have group sex, because they have to write too many thank-you notes!
I wish we had a Chaucer in this organization we call the A. K. Rice Institute, someone to tell all the sad and humorous, bold and daring, successful and not tales. The tales about the consultants, the managers, the members. My own tale, which is that of a clinician and an artist.
My experience, which is the all and best of what I have, is what shapes my own directorship. There are managerial, administrative, and consultative experiences that may form and inform the style, shape, and ethos of your directorship.
Here is a bit of poetry that arose in me at a Mt. Holyoke conference. At that conference, the artist part of me was not a 'lost' part of my experience. The poetry still rings true for me and reflects the infinite variety and complexity of human interactions in conference settings. It still expresses what I regard as 'serious and beautiful.'
I include these poems in an effort to state here at the beginning of this letter that my central conviction, my working hypothesis, is that the primary task of a conference director is to tend to the complexities of self. It is not to manage the conference or manage the staff, as if one could decide to do that. If, in the conference director's role, I can attend to and monitor my own experience, then I can 'hear' the staff and the conference membership.
To phrase it another way, leadership has to do with task. One cannot direct a conference in a vacuum. There must be a focus, and in our model of group relations work, the task is the focus. The task is to hear, to be sensitive to, to understand as well as possible, what is going on in the conference at two levels: the available and readily observable levels and the more difficult to see covert levels. You, your person, you are the instrument to measure and gauge these.
I am not foolish enough to think that this task is largely accomplished. I am a 'good enough' conference director. I have had periods during a conference of being an incompetent director, because I could not hear myself. Conversely, there have been times when I saw clearly and could take the lead in helping others to see.
In 1993, those five days at Bryn Mawr helped me to see how strongly I hold these convictions and to find the courage to risk saying what I am going to say.
If you are going to use yourself in these ways, be sure to find a place of refuge and quiet during the conference. Those of you familiar with the Bryn Mawr campus may recall that there is a memorial stone bench with a plaque to honor a graduate who married and went to China. She was killed at the age of 23 in an uprising against the Christians in the early years of this century.
I too went to China, at about the same age and in an equally dangerous period. I also got married. The divergence in our stories is that I got out.
For me, the stone bench and plaque, secluded in a peaceful corner of the campus, has always been a place to go, usually alone, to find and renew my energy and my passion for the work. This young woman was massacred. Although I sometimes felt as if I might be massacred during a conference, I had not been. I had had opportunities to learn to live in a freer way, 'to be courageous,' as Margaret Rioch (1985) says.
I have started this
letter on a personal note, because I think that it is only in our person
that the real 'work' can start.
In the next part of my letter, I want to address technical issues. It may be useful or essential to say that this is not a HOW TO BE A DIRECTOR letter. This is an examination and questioning--and they can be painful--around the issue of what we are directing and why we are directing.
I do not believe that race, gender, and ethnicity or sexual orientation are the central issues to be explored in regard to the role of conference director. They are surely powerful factors, but it is the exploration of the parental role, the leadership role towards which so much rage and envy can be directed, that must be the center of attention for young conference directors. I am using young in the sense of not possessing a large amount of experience in the role. You will note right off that it is remarkably parallel to the central problem for young therapists. It boils down to an underestimation of the power of the role and hence a lack of understanding of the patients' behavior towards the therapist.
More specific issues around conference work? Let's talk about staff selection, membership watching, how staff (including conference directors) or members get 'stuck' and how to 'unstick' them.
The central theme of my thinking is to emphasize the young director's need to be newly aware, that is, to learn and relearn, the power of the role and to be prepared for the barrage of intensive positive and negative projections that the role attracts. All of these ideas are born of experience--hard won of experience by the way. They are my ideas.
These ideas are not necessarily in style in the fields of management and organizational consultation. They are not necessarily original ideas, although I think some of them are new and insightful. They are constructs that have been proven in my own experience and that permit me to perform a loose kind of predicting.
We learn from our
experience if we are lucky and courageous enough to collect and examine
all our lost parts, blind spots, ever present prejudices, and just plain
old irrationality. For those young directors who think that they
are free of those encumbrances or that they have sufficient maturity, therapy,
or professional experience to escape them, I offer a word of advice: just
wait till the force of the staff's projections joins with the force of
the members' projections around about the third session of the institutional
Consider one of the main decisions a conference director has to make: whom he or she will ask to work as staff members. Let's first list the overt, sane, and rational ways of making those difficult choices. You consider the number of people that you may need on staff, the variables of age, gender, race, perhaps sexual orientation. You decide whether the conference will have a training component, that is, whether some staff members will be present in a learning role. You may consider the prior staffmember experience that your prospective colleagues will bring to the conference work. Finally, the mysterious phenomenon called sentience may enter into your thinking. I believe that it should enter into the decision making, but it cannot override in importance the task of the conference.
If all these decisions are made in good faith and with good sense, you will probably manage well. But if you go no further in your exploration of your choices, you will have missed a truly elegant chance to examine your style as conference director. Of more concern, you will also have missed some data essential to you as director. Lacking these data and a deep understanding of them, you will be managing, not directing. I think you cannot be truly creative in your directing unless the rich nuance and underside of staff selection is noticed and reviewed, and thereby made conscious.
For example, let's review a staff that I invited to work. My goals were to have a staff that was balanced as to gender, race, age, and experience. At the time, sexual orientation did not seem to be a variable that could be noticed. When I refer to level of experience, I refer only to conference experience, since each staff member was an amply experienced professional in other roles.
I invited a very experienced white male psychiatrist in his fifties, an inexperienced white female psychiatrist in her early thirties, a moderately-experienced black male psychologist in his early thirties, a white male organizational consultant in his early forties and with very little experience.
I selected an administrator who was a very experienced white female in her mid-thirties.
So, let's see, three women and three men, experienced and inexperienced, a fairly balanced range of ages, one Afro-American, one staff member from outside the Washington-Baltimore Center of the A. K. Rice Institute, to which I belong, and two staff members in what could be described as training roles. Who could ask for anything better?
The unconscious exists and things are not always what they seem. This staff, which I selected, presented many difficulties, which took only moments to surface once the conference was about to begin. Literally minutes before we were to walk into the conference opening, all of the men began to speak disparagingly of the Center and conference work in general, commenting on the meaninglessness of our efforts. The women were not innocent bystanders in all this. They all seemed to be keeping very sharp eyes on my face.
Taking my courage in hand, I said that this was the most important work that I had ever done and that I was looking foward to working. Their conversation quickly changed. I thought that I had passed the first test. But they soon found new and even more exotic ways to drive me crazy!
The first level of my choices for staff had been sane and organizationally oriented. My intention had been to offer additional opportunities for work to competent professionals and to provide opportunities for training to less experienced staff members.
The second level on which the choices could be understood soon revealed itself. The black male consultant and the administrator were my friends; I had sentient ties to them. They knew me and we had all worked together many times previously. The white psychiatrist was to be the designated competent one, while the two trainees were to carry the incompetence in a dignified manner, legitimate and appropriate to a trainee.
This insight interested me and I began to wonder if there were another, third level of meaning that had played a role in determining whom I asked to work on staff. You guessed it: there was.
If the experienced white male psychiatrist were competent, then no one would envy my real competence. If the administrator and the black male consultant were my sentient ties or supports, then they might distance me from my insecurity and feelings that I really wasn't very good at this kind of work. And I wouldn't feel threatened by their very real competence.
The two trainees were there, at least in part, so that I could avoid my own feeling of being an adult learner--incompetent, embarrassed, and angry with myself.
If the director is 'stuck' by not being able to explore his or her own personal irrationality, then the conference as a whole cannot blossom to its full extent. No conference has ever realized all that it might have. If that were the case, there would probably still be groups of us at Amherst or Mount Holyoke or Sheppard Pratt, talking, exploring, learning, and feeling so alive and enchanted with our learning that we could not possibly imagine moving on!
Do you remember the beautiful short story in The Atlantic Monthly several years ago, the one about the string quartet that enjoyed just such an experience of fusion? It is called The everlasting quartet (1960). The author is Whit Burnett. The story relates the sublime experience one might have at work. At the end of the story, the quartet gathers together to play their beloved music--and they just keep playing on and on. They cannot leave one another. Finally, at a later time, they are discovered. They are still together and, of course, dead.
One of the closing paragraphs in the story reminds me of elusive moments of conference work:
It was, of course, a perfect quartet. It is a rare thing to find a quartet that can meet at a time to suit everyone. Four individuals have four separate lives. It is rare, if you find four good players, that one doesn't have to leave before the others are satisfied. Here was a meeting not only of minds and talents, but a meeting of spirits. It could only happen once in a lifetime. And they all simply played themselves to death. (pp. 41-42)That story is about the joy of work, of collaboration, of creating, and of sharing learning. I hope that you all have had this kind of experience in your conference work. It is a model of what we might do if we but knew how to sustain the freedom to be creative.
The choice of conference administrator is perhaps the lynch pin of a successful staff. He or she or they are the director's lifeline to the surrounding environment and to associated agencies or organizations. The choice of administrator must not be made on sentient bonds. Do not hire your friend's friend; do not hire a favorite graduate student or a colleague who is interested in the consulting work and would like to try out conference life as an administrator.
Hire an experienced administrator and let him or her bring along a trainee. This will take care of all the hopefuls without sinking the conference in incompetence.
The critical need for providing training opportunities must be considered. The facts are simple. If we do not train new staff members, there will be no one trained to do conference work. Many of us learned 'on the job,' so to speak. We were asked to be on staff without any training experience. Such a route remains one way to learn. But I cannot champion it. The necessity for training conference staff is an exact parallel to the necessity for at least some of us, as members of society, to have children. Someone has to manage the world after we are gone. Trainees often bring fresh insights and are able to identify operant issues, with which those with conference experience may be so familiar that they are unable to see clearly.
To my knowledge, no formal training for the role of conference director has been offered. Filling the role of associate conference director can be a useful introduction to the experience of isolation and formidable projection inherent in the role of director.
As an adjunct to
such training, written reports about conferences
are a useful way of passing on the accumulated "know how" or folklore.
I write director's reports and have recently decided that the best way
to elaborate a coherent conference report is to ask, prior to the conference,
each person whom I am considering for a staff position to agree to write
a brief report at the end of the conference. Such reports can be
joined together in some way. I have also tried asking staff members
at the end of the conference to write a brief report, but the response
has been minimal.
I must mention situations that seem frequent in conference work and which are not positive occurrences. Rather, they constitute a breakdown of our efforts to provide opportunities for learning. I think that these kinds of breakdown are due partly to the language or presentation of the task that have become almost traditional. We say, for example, that staff will provide opportunities for members to learn. Of course, there are also ample opportunities for staff to learn. However, when staff members are having difficulty in a particular small study group, whether in a single session or over many sessions, staff may be more likely to make comments about 'the group' and its constituents or particular idiosyncracies than about staff's own dilemmas, uncertainties, or irrational behaviors.
Let us approach such situations in a slightly different way, using the small study group as an example. I think that what I have observed is equally revealed in the other conference events. My data for this opinion come from my own experience as a small study group consultant, small study group consultant team leader, and conference director.
Several frequently heard complaints come to mind. A consultant may say, "My group is so damned racist that they are unable to work with me!"
Another small study group consultant may say, "The women in my group are so passive! They just sit. They are driving me crazy."
Or, a group may be described as cozy and therapeutic, intolerant of any angry or competitive feelings. Note that I am not talking about the usual fight-flight, pairing, or dependence kinds of basic assumption behaviors, but rather about the particular stance of a specific group. I believe that in these particular groups it is not the members who are 'stuck' but rather their consultant. There seems to be a direct relationship between the place where the group members get stuck or stalled and the parts of the consultant that are 'lost' or that represent parts of himself or herself that are out of awareness.
Often the small study group team leader or team members can help this consultant to explore more deeply and carefully the relationship between the difficulties of the study group members and the spots where he or she is personally in difficult waters.
Sound too much like psychotherapy? I do not think so. Rather, it is part of the needed stretching or growing that one must do in order to be and function as a consultant. One can only hear in others what one accepts in oneself; what is not accepted will remain unheard or misheard.
This same avenue for understanding can be applied to a stalled or stuck large study group session or sessions. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that all groups can be moved along in a sane, reasonable, rational way. Besides the consultant's character, all the irrational and 'out of awareness' parts of the group members continue to be influential.
What I want to make
clear is that consultants to a study group can further stall the work if
they are not clear about their own motivations and unconscious processes.
If the staff can explore what is being missed or unperceived, what has
been lost or has fallen out of awareness, then the learning and experiencing
can begin again. Naturally, none of us wants to be reminded of our
own racism or passivity or difficulty with intimacy and dependency.
Yet the truth is that they are parts of each of us.
One way of identifying a director's style is by noting the basic assumption predominating during the conference he or she directs. A particular basic assumption may seem to 'take over' the conference. I suggest that the lost parts of the director determine the prevailing affective state of the conference. The director's style, then, is a manifestation of what can be tolerated in himself or herself.
The next deeoer level of sensitivity to members and staff is grounded in the realm of subjectivity--for which I presently have no truly adequate language, though my aim is to pursue such a language. You may recall what William James (1892) said about the varieties of religious experience. He noted that they are absolutely authentic but that they cannot be described clearly.
In Tavistock work, there are a number of phenomena that fall within the realm of subjective experience. The first of these is the well-known 'oceanic' feeling in the small study group. The oceanic feeling is often dismissed as mere regressive and avoidant behavior. I am convinced that it is more than that.
The following vignette clearly conveys another example of the curious, unnameable ineffable forces that sometimes develop in group relations conferences.
During the intergroup event, the staff is sitting around feeling angry, tired, bored, and uneasy. There is no activity at the boundary to the staff space; almost an hour has passed without any activity at that boundary. A staff member suggests that perhaps the basis for this 'stuckness' lies in a staff dynamic. 'Perhaps we could explore....' is usually how it begins. After a period of painful exploration by the staff, conference members do indeed begin to appear at the staff room's boundary and they ask to come in to speak to the staff. The intergroup event, in this way, grows 'unstuck.'A final example of this mysterious experience is one that I, in all modesty, have dubbed the 'Adams phenomenon,' since, to my knowledge, no one else has described it! It occurs at the conference discussion and seems to manifest or enact a kind of 'out of awareness' pairing between staff and members. One notices it in the following way:
The member who is seated directly in front of the conference director seems not to be an accidental choice. Often this member, who may have certain individual valences for particular clusters of feelings or conflicts, has nonetheless carried a particular meaning, affect, or cognition for or on behalf of conference participants. In fact, this seemss to be true for every member seated across from a particular staff member. The message may be that the 'worker bees' are in the front lines, or that the anti-Work forces have prevailed, or that some staff members have made work relationships across the member/staff boundary, or that some staff members are filled up with certain emotions or are seen as dictatorial or deaf.
If the conference director examines imaginatively and carefully the resulting array of members and staff, he or she can often gain a sense of where the conference is. To clarify this understanding is after all the primary task of the conference discussion. That task, as usually stated, is 'to explore the conference as a whole and in its various parts.'
In describing these phenomena, I may be regarded in divergent ways. On the one hand, I may be beginning to work out an understanding of hitherto unexplored dynamics or processes. In other words, my observations about the member/staff pairings in the conference discussion may be just the tip of the iceberg. Much more about such subtle and unconscious intergroup processes may remain unseen and may only be imagined at this time, with our current level of understanding of the processes of communication and collaboration.
Secondly, my attempt to glimpse into unknown places may be understood as the efforts of a fanciful old lady attempting to find order in a pretty sloppy world. Even if that perception is true, I am not the only one who is searching. You no doubt remember the stories of students who want answers from an experienced teacher. In the group relations conference literature, the story might go as follows:
Four young consultants corner an old conference director. They ask her, "What do you think has gone wrong with organizational theory? We cannot use it to predict accurately!"
In this matter of conference directing, the central questions seem to be: What are we directing and to what end or purpose?
These are nasty questions. They question the meaning of struggling and not struggling. None of us alive in this age can escape the notion that the world is cruel, vast, and indifferent to the joys or sorrows of one human life or even of one thousand such lives. Just as easily, we can see that time, whatever that is, is equally indifferent. We are approaching not only the end of the 'nineties,' but also the end of the century and of the millenium. Still, these constructs are only human constructs, as far as I know.
What do those of us involved in Tavistock group relations conference work believe that we can do to make a difference? What kinds of difference ought we to labor for? The philosophy of this paper is perhaps best summarized in the words of the Czech poet and statesman, Václav Havel, who says,
The world of our experience seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. Experts and intellectuals are more capable than ever of explaining the objective world, yet we understand less and less. The awareness of being anchored in the earth and the universe (is) the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves, but that we are an integral part of more mysterious entities.We live in a world that contains much sadness. To speak only of recent years, consider Bosnia, Rwanda, Ireland, Somalia, Algeria, and Washington, D.C. It is estimated that one-third of the babies in the world go to bed hungry each night. If we are not depressed by the range of tragedy and human agony, then perhaps we should be.
I do not know that these conditions can be changed. When I decide to accept work as a conference director, my central concern might be to create or lead out of this clear disorder an order that has to do with the art of leadership. Such leadership would imply learning, seeing, and caring enough about the chaos that confronts us to attempt to understand it and give it meaning, perhaps alter its meaning. Such leadership would enable us to pick our way through the minefields and at the very least help us to avoid adding to the chaos already present. At best, what could happen? What constitutes 'at best' is still a mystery to me, but being as clear and informed as possible about our 'self' would enable us to make more rational and beneficial use of our 'self.'
The need to confront one's self in a frightening and frightened world evokes Wilfred Bion's thoughts about basic assumption group life. Part of his thinking can be simplified or condensed into an awareness of how human groups tend to deny the passage of time. We tend to act as if we had endless time to fight, to pair, or to remain passive in the face of our own and others' pain. In essence, this denial of the passage of time seems to be a denial of mortality itself. Death, as a reality, is not allowed and is not permitted to impact this illusion. At the same time, however, group life is full of a paradoxical denial around the issue of birth. It can be difficult to sort oneself out from the crowd. To differentiate or to be born may be as difficult and painful as dying.
Simone Weil, quoted by George Steiner, said, 'To take seriously, existentially, the question of the significance of human life and death on a bestialized and wasted planet and to inquire into the worth or futility of political action and social design is not merely to risk personal health or the solace of common love; it is to endanger reason itself.'
Rainer Maria Rilke writes in Letters to a young poet (1984), 'Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.' (p. 92)
My final thoughts on being a Tavistock group relations conference director are these:
Suffer your own fools gladly. You will be changed and then events around you will change. How this happens is a mystery. So far. Do not scoff at the group's experience of oceanic feelings. There may be an as yet undiscovered ocean.
M. Adams, Ph.D.
Brodsky, J. (1977). A part of speech. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
This paper was originally presented at the biennial scientific meeting of the A. K. Rice Institute in May 1995. With the author's permission, the original article was edited for internet publication by Stan De Loach, Ph.D., in July 1999.