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FIRST GROUP RELATIONS CONFERENCE IN BULGARIA

by Robert M. Young

On December 18-22, 1992, there was a new and inspiring event in Bulgaria, which its sponsors and participants believe could make a significant difference to the development of democracy in the country. It was sponsored by George Soros, a Hungarian and a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who was inspired by Karl Popper's contrast between totalitarian or 'closed' societies and democratic or 'open' ones which he encountered is an undergraduate at the LSE. He emigrated to America and went on to make a fortune from investments. More recently, he made a billion dollars from speculating against the pound. Among his other philanthropic activities in Eastern Europe through the Open Society Fund, he is supporting group relations events in Bulgaria.

There is a strong and developing link between British consultants and the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. It was originally developed through relationships built up by David Reason, of the Centre for
Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Kent, with people in Sofia who are interested in psychoanalysis and related subjects. There was a week-long conference on 'Psychoanalysis and Culture' last Easter, which included contributions by Nicola Worledge (a Kent graduate student working on psychoanalysis and aesthetics), Dave Reason and me. Each of us gave lectures and led discussion groups, and I gave a clinical supervision. (See her account in Bulletin no. 4, 1992, p. 6.).

As a result of the success of that conference, an ambitious programme was conceived which is intended to involve four closely-related activities: training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and in group psychotherapy, a graduate degree in psychoanalytic studies and a regular series of conferences on group relations. I have been appointed by the New Bulgarian University as co-ordinator of the overall programme. David Reason has spent the autumn term in Sofia lecturing, giving seminars and individual tuition and providing invaluable help to the New Bulgarian University in setting up teaching programmes and other aspects of open-ended and experiential learning. This has been particularly useful, since the teaching of university subjects in Bulgaria has hitherto suffered from rote learning and has not been good at fostering creativity and individual initiative. Part of the raison d'čtre of the New Bulgarian University is to foster more democratic and innovative ways of teaching, learning and doing research. The creation of the university, and our conference have been funded by George Soros' aptly-named Open Society Fund. The British Council has funded David Reason's activities. It is not easy to convey the problems which lie in the path of setting up the programme, which has been developed by Professor Toma Tomov, the Deputy Director of the university and our main Bulgarian colleague and mentor, Dave Reason and me. For example, there are practically no books and teaching materials in these fields and no foreign currency to buy them. Individuals and institutions in Britain have begun to make gifts of books, periodicals and off prints, but the need is very great. Moreover, there are no qualified psychotherapists in the country. Since undergoing individual psychotherapy is a central feature of training as a psychotherapist, a way will have to be found to provide therapy for the trainees. Either someone will have to live there for a number of years, someone will have to fly in every week for three days, or trainees will have to come abroad for their therapy. Experience has shown that people who go abroad rarely go back, and no qualified person has yet been found to go there for years or for forty-plus three-day periods per year. I believe, however, that this problem can be overcome and that visiting teachers will also be found who will be interested in being among those who will go out and give lectures, seminars and supervisions for the requisite thirty weekends per year. We are in the final stage of preparing an overall budget and applying for major funding for the various modules of the programme. People who have been approached to take part have been very enthusiastic about the programme, which promises to provide the most comprehensive training in Europe. [Note, 1996: These plans are still seeking funding.] One aspect of the overall scheme which we could get on with is group relations, since it could be launched without the overall project being established. This is because the usual mode of teaching in this field is an intensive conference which can last for days, a week or two weeks.

The approach was evolved by Wilfred Bion (see his Experiences in Groups, 1961) and others and developed at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations under the leadership of A. K. Rice. It involves the intensive study of authority, leadership and autonomy by individuals taking part in a temporary institution. This is achieved by members monitoring their own experience in the process of taking part in the individual, group and institutional dynamics of the conference itself. That is, it is a particularly intense form of experiential learning which concentrates on interpreting the constantly shifting, dynamic unconscious processes which mediate the relations between the individual and the group in the 'here and now'. The group relations model is a tool of social and cultural enquiry and an equivalent to the psychoanalytic method, and the members of the conference are encouraged to make links to their wider experiences in organisational and social life. When Professor Tomov first learned about this approach he immediately saw its promise for facilitating change from the rigid bureaucratic methods which prevailed under communism. Although there is now an annual two-week group relations conference at Leicester and frequent ones on the Continent, in Israel, America, Australia, India and elsewhere, there have been practically no previous group relations events in Eastern Europe. The only one we have heard about went so badly that a leading figure in the field was led to warn us off from attempting it. Indeed, our Bulgarian colleagues got cold feel in the penultimate planning stage and had to be persuaded to see it through. The sense of risk and weight of responsibility on the shoulders of Toma Tomov were very great, and the British team approached the event with considerable trepidation.

The Director of the conference is one of the leading figures in the field, David Armstrong, Director of the Grubb Institute in London. Both he and Gordon Lawrence, Director of Imago East- West, have decades of experience conducting group relations conferences. Miranda Feuchtwang, a child psychotherapist, has also been a staff member of a number of such conferences, as has Paul Hoggett, who specialises in group work with local government officials. Tara Weeramanthri, a consultant psychiatrist, has had considerable experience in working with the Leicester conference model (the main paradigm in the field). I had been a member at a Leicester conference and have been trained as a group psychotherapist, but this was my first experience as a staff member. There was, of course, the problem of languages. This was solved by appointing a Bulgarian colleague to work with each member of the British team. They were interpreters at the same time that they were trainee staff members. This combination of roles was a tough one to carry out, since staff members are the objects of intense projections in all the conference events, and the people involved had no previous experience. The Bulgarian staff included three psychiatrists, Vesselka Christova, Kimon Ganev and Toma Tomov; three psychologists, Zlatka Mihova, Vesela Slavov and Nikola Atanasov; and a postgraduate student in English, Milena Nedeva. The British staff were very impressed by the alacrity and insight with which they got on with it.

The setting was surreal. The conference was held at the Palace of Culture, an extraordinary kind of institution found in the centre of every capital city in Eastern Europe. It is massive, lavishly appointed and festooned with striking and imposing artefacts which had been commissioned by the communist regime - carvings, sculptures and a huge colourful mural which embraced all of history and all of symbolism and formed the backdrop to all events in the room where plenary meetings took place. There is a particular penchant for elaborate chandeliers among the official architects who design these palaces, and I found myself irresistibly drawn to counting the burnt out bulbs when the dynamics of the conference threatened to overwhelm me. The setting was made more remarkable by the fact that one result of democratisation and embracing the market economy and free enterprise is that the palace had been opened up to hundreds of stalls selling the most awful junk which comes from the West or from new enterprises - zillions of plastic toys, hair sprays, portable cassette decks, perfumes, along with cars and television sets. The conference was held on the fifth level, and I experienced it as floating on a sea of tat, while seeking to foster a more worthwhile set of values for this dramatically and confusingly changing society.

I find it hard to express what happened, but it was very moving and heartening. The sixty conference members were bewildered, didn't have much idea what to expect and felt ambivalent about the British experts who had jetted in for the event. On the one hand, they were keen to learn, especially since Western ideas of management are de rigeur; on the other, they were understandably resentful of what might be a new and subtle form of cultural imperialism. But what transpired was truly remarkable. One member of staff said it was the best group relations conference she had ever attended. Once the members got past their first layer of defences, my experience of them was that their souls yearned to be free of the suspicions, cynicism, spying and despair that has made up so much of their lives under the old regime and in the chaos of recent events. They found it particularly hard to find a way of being between the position of isolated individual and a member of the mass. That is, the task of forming groups with clear aims, boundaries and territories was especially lie appreciated. One participant expressed this as the result of a society whose members are in transition from serfdom to citizenship. Bulgaria was under Turkish hegemony for five centuries, followed by Russian, German and then Soviet control. Nominal and fledgling democracy has been in place since 1989. People spoke with great clarity and simplicity and quite soon found the conference events very facilitating and relevant to their lives and work. I felt that the emotional atmosphere of the conference was unusually free of bull-shit, when compared with what happens in Britain, where there is often layer after layer of conference-wise defences and tricks interposed between the aims of the conference and the insides of the members. When we came at the end to the applications groups - where members describe their circumstances and seek to apply what they have learned at the conference - each member spoke of truly daunting life dilemmas on the part of professional people attempting to find authenticity and dedication in settings which could easily go either way: to integrity or toward destructive splitting and opportunism. The problem of trying to hold things together - intellect and feelings, job form and content (in a society of sinecures) - was especially striking. In the final plenary a member said he felt he was left standing helpless in the middle of a large field. This was interpreted as less forlorn that it might appear to be at first glance. To be able to stand there and bear that experience without running away from it into an instant, perhaps superficial, solution means that though he may have felt helpless, his situation was far from hopeless. His ability to have that experience, to contain it and reflect on it, struck us as a real benefit of the conference.

There was a press conference on the following day in which participants and journalists agreed that the use of the group relations model has immense promise for Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries and could make important contributions in a number of settings - medical, commercial, governmental, psychiatric, educational, and in working with minorities (there is, for example, a large, alienated Gypsy population in Bulgaria). A week-long conference is planned for Easter, and all who attended the one in December are greatly looking forward to it. [It had to be cancelled because of opposition in the university, and the next one was held in 1996.] The group relations approach offers the best synthesis of management thinking with integrity and psychodynamic authenticity in dealing with the role of the individual in groups and institutions.

Reprinted (with alterations) from Bulletin of the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Kent, Spring, 1993, pp. 7-11.

A GROUP RELATIONS CONFERENCE IN THE CONTEXT OF SOCIAL TRANSITION BY HARALAN ALEXANDROV


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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