The character and structure of Study group consultancy: Elements of the task

and the language employed in it

The book, Study group consultancy: Elements of the task, both in its structure and its purpose, is closely related to the character of the study group consultant's work in the context of a Tavistock or group relations conference model.  The study group and the work of the study group consultant are defining components of this conference model.  This book is patterned on the style and content of the consultant's interventions in the study group setting.

Just as the work of the consultant is complex, uncertain, and filled with novelty, so the book is complicated in its structure, in its grammar, in its vocabulary.  Undoubtedly, some of the statements and concepts presented in the book require the same actively curious and inquisitive approach that behooves both consultant and study group members as they attempt to understand the group's motives, which are more often unstated and covert than not.  Few truths are simple or simply stated in a study group; for most points, there are counterpoints.  For each person in agreement with a statement, his or her counterpart is often convinced that the statement does not apply to him or her.

The vocabulary used in Study group consultancy:  Elements of the task may present difficulties, provoke irritation or resentment, or seem less than straightforward.  In a similar way, the vocabulary and grammar of the study group often seem convoluted or problematic.  A consultant may come face-to-face with his or her ignorance, lack of education, or unfamiliarity with the vernacular of the group.  Unfamiliarity and lack of experience are not shameful, but human experience cannot be expressed through the use of the 300 most commonly employed words.

A common occurrence is to have 12 group members in a study group; there are 12 chapters in the book.  Neither the members nor the chapters have labels, nor does either collectivity encompass all aspects of the individual components' richness.  Neither members nor chapters can be satisfactorily described by a title, and no title is really adequate to facilitate comprehension of either members or chapters.  Both are open-ended systems, largely unknown, which depend upon each individual participant for definition and understanding.  Titles are more than occasional impediments to learning, though their functioning in our management of anxiety can be comforting.

Although conference members and staff may be accustomed to using a vocabulary less precise and abstract than that of the book, the degree of abstraction which the members must engage as they encounter and struggle with processes neither new nor familiar is substantial.  The consultant and the book both deal with reasoning that is abstract and not bounded by traditional or common turns of phrase.  No one knows every word in her or his native language; no consultant can know every process or striving in a study group.

Nonetheless, the consultant has an obligation, reflected in conference brochures and in the Tavistock tradition and manner of consulting, to use language precisely.  Each interpretation must be able to stand alone.  The work of integrating or capturing the meaning and drift of the totality of interpretations offered rests with the individual group members.  Likewise, a consultant, reading this book, may take each sentence as an expression--the best and clearest expression that the author could muster at a past and unrelated point in time--complete unto itself.  He or she subsequently must work to integrate these short, individual expressions, into a pattern or an outline of a whole.  The responsibility for learning always rests with the learner.

The consultant can ill afford to simplify, abbreviate, or employ unidimensional language in her or his interventions in an attempt to ensure that all the group members understand exactly what she or he means to say.  In the first instance, such efforts are not likely to be successful.  In the second instance, such an approach deprives the group members of the very experience that Tavistock or group relations conferences strive to furnish:  the opportunity to learn to think about group and organizational processes, using one's own experience as a guide, and in a collective setting.  To think together with others is distinct from thinking alone and of course the results of the process are almost always different.  Projective and interpretive dynamics are always present in human beings.  The possibilities for learning in a collective context lie exactly in the likelihood or certainty that no two human beings will think, understand, or conceptualize complex social life in an identical way.

Consequently, the structure of sentences and communications in the book are varied.  Their diverse nature may stimulate, at different times and in different readers, new thoughts, new additions to familiar thoughts, or new avenues for thought and learning.  The consultant's mandate is to favor essentially similar exposure to novelty or growth.

After pictorial or impressionistic images, such as paintings, words are most capable of imparting a profound or poetic vision to reality.  This poetic vision serves the purpose of illuminating and making public the inevitably multi-faceted perception human beings have of the world they share with others.  Additionally, the use of words as a tool of discovery and artistic creation serves to recreate reality, to enrich it, to remove its familiarity and mundane mien.  In this regard, words, artfully and precisely arranged and conveyed, are basic elements of the learning and synthetic processes.

The consultant's authority and work role are directed toward broadening or deepening group members' vision of the specifics of group life and the generalities of social existence.  The basic tools that the consultant employs are: physical presence, language, and poetic or creative silence.  So, in this book, language is used not only to convey the author's beliefs or stance; it also strives to enrich, broaden, or reveal aspects of experience that habit may preclude one's "seeing."

Almost all work in the Tavistock tradition supports the conviction that a vital portion of learning occurs through experience, through one's own experience.  Just as looking up a word in a dictionary may be educational, so the consultant's engagement with the subtleties of language and his or her use of language to convey experience to others demand the scrutiny that this book may encourage.

Basic assumption dependence causes members and consultants to yearn for an authoritative voice to give instructions about what to do and how to do it.  This book, on the other hand, offers the reader the opportunity to enter into a collaborative or work  relationship.  No less than the realization of competent work by the study group consultant, the book demands that the reader enter, on rational terms, into such a relationship.


Group relations conferences provide first-hand experience of working in the small study group.  Further information about upcoming group relations conferences in the United States and France can be found at:  Forum International de l'Innovation Sociale / International Forum for Social Innovation, FIIS-IFSI, and The A. K. Rice Institute

Chapter One of Study group consultancy:  Elements of the task

Return to Index Page

iii 2016
vi 2006
xi 1998
vi 1998
iv 1991