| Home | ArchiveSearch | Aims | Personnel | NewsFeedback |
| Experiences and Comments | Account of Past Events  | Links | Join The Forum |


 by David Armstrong

This paper was written for a commemorative Conference in honour of Robert Gosling OBE (1920-2000), held at the Tavistock Clinic in February 2001. The title of the Conference, ‘Group and Institutional Processes at Work,’ made reference to Gosling’s lifelong interest in and engagement with this field of work. Trained as a psychiatrist and later as a psychoanalyst, Gosling joined the Tavistock Clinic as a senior registrar in the 1950s. For several years, he worked as an assistant to Michael Balint in his pioneering approach to training for general practitioners. He became a familiar staff member of the programme of Group Relations Conferences led by Ken Rice and later Eric Miller at Leicester and elsewhere, without ever losing a quiet but sustained independence of mind. From 1968-1979 he led the Tavistock Clinic, as Chair of its Professional Committee, during a period of significant expansion, both in the extent and range of the Clinic’s work. When his hearing began to fail, he decided to take early retirement from the NHS and pursue new paths as craftsman and part time farmer. But he continued to keep in touch with colleagues and friends working within the Tavistock tradition. He was a major supporter of the Bridge Foundation in Bristol and retained to the end a lively and generous interest in the work and development of a new generation.

In his practice and occasional publications, Gosling drew on, without drawing attention to, many strands of his experience and training: on early personal experiences of prolonged illness and hospitalisation, on his own analysis with Wilfred Bion, the collaboration with Michael Balint and with colleagues at both the Tavistock Clinic and the Tavistock Institute, but also on his direct experience of engagement in many areas of organisational and social life, as participant, consultant, colleague and leader.

In preparing this paper, I was asked to focus on Gosling’s published contributions to the field. I found it impossible to do this without at the same time recalling and trying to convey something of my experience of the person behind the words. This is where I start from.


I first came across Bob Gosling in the early 60s. I had quite recently arrived at the Tavistock Institute hot foot from the Psychology department in Cambridge to start, as I thought, on some kind of a career as a social psychologist. (The very term now seems to date one.) Social psychology had been my passion at Cambridge, I think because it was the one branch of the subject that seemed to have any political relevance. And politics – of the left wing variety – were my extra-curricular passion at the time.

Social psychology, along with psychoanalysis, and most other aspects of the subject that didn’t involve rats, monkeys or pigeons (I exaggerate a little) was not taught then in the Psychology Department. You had to mug up on it for yourself. My tutor, a distinguished American physiological psychologist, Larry Weiskrantz, was sympathetic, but not especially encouraging. He had known a guy called Alex Bavelas, who was doing experimental studies with groups in the States and suggested I tried to contact him.

I read all I could but was rather put off by the numerology. Nevertheless, I eventually decided to apply for a Fulbourn Scholarship, ostensibly to carry out research into experimental juries. I recall that in my application I apparently spelled ‘belief’ wrong throughout and one of my referees had to write to the Selection Committee to say that I really was a little more intelligent than this might suggest. Perhaps it was an unconscious expression of my ambivalence. At any rate, on learning I had been successful I immediately began to have second thoughts. So I approached my professor for advice.

My professor was Oliver Zangwill, also something of a physiological psychologist, but a highly cultured man (the son of a distinguished Viennese novelist), who often gave the impression himself of feeling he had got caught in an experimental cul de sac. He was studiously lukewarm about the jury idea and told me bluntly but kindly that if social psychology was really my passion there was only one man in one place it was worth speaking to. And that was Eric Trist at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

I went to see Eric Trist, in a rather dingy room at the top of the Tavistock Clinic’s building in Beaumont Street. Four months later I returned to the building as a raw, opinionated graduate, to start an apprenticeship as a junior Project Officer within the Institute’s action research programme on socio-technical systems: specifically the impact of automation on work structures in manufacturing industry.

It was a fateful step. In those days the links between the Institute and the Clinic were still intimate, both socially and professionally. As new recruits we were encouraged to explore as much of what went on in the building as we could steal time for: attending case conferences, observing groups through the one way screen, going to as many scientific meetings as we could fit in and most of all through hanging around the coffee room and bar in the basement of Beaumont Street (later Devonshire Street) listening in to the elders’ chat.

For an Oxbridge graduate, trained to be skeptical, in love with words and emotionally naïve, it was at the same time exhilarating and unsettling. What was all this stuff about objects and inner worlds and the significance of a child’s play with marbles? Did people really believe, could they really make sense of what an ex-military man, with all manner of initials after his name, but who insistently and irritatingly disclaimed all expertise, had to say about Experiences in Groups?

Three or four years later I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to find an answer to the second of these questions for myself (it took me another 3 or 4 years to take the opportunity to find answers to the first.). In the mid-60s, Ken Rice mounted a Group Relations Conference at the Tavistock that was spread over four months. We met once a week in the evenings for small groups, lectures and application seminars. There were also two inter-group events held at weekends. Ken had managed to engineer a coup and persuade Wilfred Bion back to take one of the small groups.

By this time the Institute, for reasons the younger staff had difficulty following, had split into 2 groups, labeled respectively, A and B. One (I think ‘A’) was led by Eric Trist; one (I think ‘B’) by Ken Rice. I belonged to A. Relations between the two groups were somewhat frowned upon. I approached Eric. Would it be OK if I applied for Ken’s conference? Perhaps a little reluctantly, he said “Yes, of course”. So a couple of months or so later I sat in a circle with about 10 colleagues waiting abortively for “Dr. Bion” to start. The unsettling feelings of the early months at Beaumont Street redoubled - but with an unexpected twist. Some of us, without necessarily grasping a very enigmatic text, had read Experiences in Groups. We fully expected, if not to hear about, at least to get some glimmer of understanding of group mentality, and in particular the hidden life of basic assumptions (dependence, fight/flight and pairing.)

Bion never gave the slightest indication of having read this book. We were at sea twice over. He had apparently ‘moved on’! We were left behind, without ever really knowing what was the behind he had left and we hadn’t.

By the time it came to the first Inter Group event some of us were in a very rebellious mood. Bob Gosling was on the staff for this event. I recall Ken Rice introducing it, surrounded by his colleagues, and inviting us to form groups of our choice and kick off. Staff would be available for consultancy on request and the task was to explore or study relations between the groups that were formed. Within 3 minutes, according to Ken, there was no-one remaining in the room. We had all fled into separate groups, apparently at random.

I found myself upstairs, on the second floor of the Institute’s new building in Devonshire Street, with about 8 mates. We immediately agreed we had no intention to ask for consultancy and would manage ourselves. For one and a half days we remained firmly stuck in the room, sending no one out and smugly waiting for others to come to us. For a while this seemed to work but the visitors tailed off and we were left sadly adrift. Towards the last afternoon we panicked, requested a consultant and got Bob.

I cannot recall now what in detail he may have said. Except that, whatever it was, it seemed to face us with our fear of what was outside and our fear for what was inside. To move out was to move on. But to move on was to risk dismantling something: the illusion or fantasy that we knew who we were, what we represented, stood for, believed in: the nature and quality of our (inevitably precarious) attachments. Moving on implied a readiness not to know. We were not ready not to know because we were so uncertain about what it was that we did know.

This memory came flooding back to me as I embarked on reading through Bob Gosling’s all too rare published articles (17 records were found) in preparation for this conference and turned up a number of letters we had exchanged in the intervening years. There were other memories also: of listening to Bob lecturing; of discussions in which he had taken part, and of being a member of I think the first Very Small Study Group to be mounted at a Leicester Conference, for which Bob had been the consultant.

I began to see this first memory and its reference to ‘moving on’ as somehow central both to my experience of the man and to my reading of his work (literally and metaphorically).

It is this notion of “moving on”, as presented in the person and the work that I want to try and capture. Not just as a personal tribute but because I think it has an abiding relevance to the state of the field; to the ways in which we experience and think about group and institutional processes and our engagement with them at the present time.

There is a colloquialism we sometimes use, “movers and shakers”, implying that the two are one and the same; or at least that they go together as in love and marriage/horse and carriage. I don’t think this is exactly the case. Shakers tend to turn the world upside down, including often the world they were previously in themselves. They move from A to B (or A to Z) in a disconcerting way, which leaves us wondering and puzzling about how they got there. Bion was perhaps something of a shaker, which is why he could be so extra-ordinarily unsettling. Bob Gosling was not a shaker, in this sense. He always worked within a recognisable and in some ways familiar frame of reference, conceptual, methodological and institutional, although these frames of reference were themselves often the new found products of shakers: Freud, Klein, Bion and collectively the group of psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists who between them re-invented the Tavistock Clinic after the Second World War.

But he was certainly a mover. In that he never rested in the familiar: was always testing it against his experience, as a clinician, consultant, teacher, leader and not only questioning what he knew but encouraging or joining with others to do the same.

Perhaps the clearest example of this refusal to rest content is afforded in a paper written for a memorial festschrift for Wilfred Bion on his experiences with Very Small Groups (Gosling 1981). (The VSG was a group of 5 or so members, meeting with a consultant in the context of a residential Group Relations conference, with the aim of studying their behaviour as it happened, as the formula goes in the ‘here and now’).

The rationale behind setting up these groups was the realisation that many members coming to these conferences spent much of their working lives engaged in groups of 5 or so people, rather than the groups of 10 or so that conventionally define the boundary of small groups in conferences, let alone the large group made up of all the members. It was assumed that in such smaller groupings a different range or colouring of dynamics might come into view.

The institution of such groups could, of course, itself be seen as an example of moving on. And indeed Bob’s description of his experiences and his characterisation of the psychological field opened up in this setting, broke new ground: in particular in his drawing attention to the problem of intimacy as “an impending danger that must always be guarded against”, a problem which seemed to put limitations on what could take place, draining energy in a way that could lead members to miss what one described as “the power politics of the small group and all the attendant archaic and crazy events.”

It is not, however, this aspect of the paper I want to draw attention to. Having sketched his tentative observations from his first two experiences in taking these groups, Bob goes on to describe a third. This is how he puts it.

“No sooner had these thoughts of mine got to the stage of being expressed than I was confronted with the experience of yet another VSG to which what I thought I had learned so far seemed to have only the vaguest relevance. This was a VSG experience in 1977 provided for members of a Training Group numbering 13 in conjunction with a Working Conference membership of 45 and a Conference Staff Group of 12. Training Group members had each had experience of being a member of a Working Conference on at least two occasions before.

The aim of the Training Group was to provide them with the experience of assuming the role of consultant to groups of Working Conference members later in the conference. In this setting the two VSG’s, one of six members and the other of seven members, remained firmly sub-groups of the 14; it was the Training Group as a whole that held the predominant sentience.

There was much nostalgia for the raw experiences of the SG’s of yester-year, there was some pressure to demonstrate expertise in identifying some small group phenomena that had become familiar; notions of “doing things on behalf of the group” were so quickly mobilized and so firmly ensconced in the orthodox jargon of the group that there was little room left for testing things out in the light of members’ personal experience. For my part I had, by accepting a staff role in relation to the Training Group, come to put a premium on the fact that I had worked in two VSG’s before and so was more “experienced” than most others. I was constantly hoping that some of the psychological models that had seemed to be fruitful in the past would turn out to be so again. It is unclear how much time was wasted by us all trying to recreate circumstances that would have vindicated the idea that we all had “experience.” In fact the salient affective issues in the VSG were of a depressive kind, in particular how one is one’s own most dangerous saboteur and how one’s public stance on the side of learning turns out to be a determination to repeat what one already knows and to learn as little that is new as possible. This experience left me with two vivid realisations:

1. How much the events I was trying to get to grips with were defined, predicated or determined by their social context and therefore how empty of meaning it was to refer to VSG’s, SG’s or LG’s as if they were reproducible objects or even that there was such an identifiable category as what I have heard referred to as “conference learning.” The initials VSG refer to events that have a certain amount in common, such as number of participants and the fact that they take place in a tradition of exploration called the Leicester Conference, but that are profoundly influenced by what is going on round them in time and place. So much is this the case that any generalization about VSG’s that can fairly be made is likely to be so modest as to be of very little use or interest.

2. How quickly a formulation, a concept or a theory loses its enabling quality and becomes a barrier to the possibility of making further observations. An experience of a VSG is deepened or led on to a further and new experience only at the moment that a theory about it is being fashioned. The theory may then lie around for a while to be applied occasionally and enjoyed in a way that is neither productive nor harmful. Sooner or later, however, it becomes a barrier to new experiences, a Procrustean bed and a downright blight. Psychoanalytic practice is also replete with this phenomenon. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is that this cycle of degeneration, if there is one, is accomplished in asshort a time as possible,”(Gosling 1981).

I do not think these subversive observations have ever been given the full attention they merit.

- The relativity of psychological events to a social context;

- the danger of generalizing across such contexts;

- the tendency to re-ify objects (VSG, SG, LG but also perhaps psycho-analysis,

- group relations, open systems); and

- the paradox of learning, that the moment of formulation – the emergence of a

model or theory, simultaneously deepens experience and becomes a barrier to

new experience, have seldom been more clearly and simply expressed.

I think that, for Bob Gosling, all experiential learning, whatever its setting - the psycho-analytic encounter, group relations events, Balint groups, came to be felt by him as taking on a necessarily provisional cast, in which every formulation or theory was for the time being or rather for the present time, time now; simultaneously a point of arrival and a point of departure: from which one had to find the courage to move on.

In an earlier paper than the one I have cited, also I think sadly neglected, Bob drew on Winnicott’s account of transitional phenomena in early childhood to offer a new perspective on the difficulties involved in this movement on. The paper is titled ‘Another source of conservatism in groups,’(Gosling 1978). Its focus is on what he terms “resistance to change in the face of good reason.” In it he reviews two familiar sources of such resistance that psychodynamic studies have focused on:

- reluctance to give up established relationships, reviving internal experiences of loss, and linked to this

- fear of the unknown, experienced as a realm populated by, as he characteristically puts it (avoiding jargon) “all sorts of hobgoblins and foul fiends.” 

But he then makes an unexpected move. Drawing on Winnicott’s descriptions of transitional phenomena in children’s play, he suggests that all or at least most groups, be they “families, teams, working gangs, committee meetings, therapy groups etc.” create or come to inhabit a transitional zone or space in which the boundary between reality and illusion, objective and subjective worlds is held in abeyance, allowing for paradox, inconsistency, the play of ideas, the emergence of myths at however rudimentary a level. As he puts it “it is as if a group soon develops along with its customary ability to recognize some hard facts for what they are, a similar capacity for indulging illusions and living along with inconsistencies and paradoxes to say nothing of downright lies.”

It is this feature of group life that partly accounts, he suggests, for the value we can come to place on group membership. “In one’s group one is again allowed to be opinionated, inconsistent, inconsequential and downright nonsensical. Here some indulgence of illusions is taken for granted and the place is strewn with paradoxes. Whether or not the group is engaged in an explicitly avowed common task, such a group has high sentience for its members.

If this is the case, it would not be the least surprising if people clung on to groups that they know either as to membership or as to structure or as to both. For only in such a company where “assumptions” are for the time being accepted as “facts” will the individual feel he has some sanction for his “omnipotence” and so be able to gain some faith in what he is dreaming about but what he has not yet been able to find in the shared world of objective experience. For this chance to be playful with fellow members of a group and for this reminder of how imagination was first led on by a playful mother, group membership may sometimes be stuck to through thick and thin, and all efforts to change its culture resisted to the death.”

On this view, the problem of change is that it involves decision, a choice between alternatives: a but not b; an either/or which dissolves or cannot allow for contradictions. “Action is felt as “one for all” and as a death to the as yet unconceived alternative. At this threat conservation rears its noble or ugly head.”

I want to suggest this. All real learning takes place within a transitional space. But the moment of learning dissolves that space, through an act of exclusion. The difficulty is that the evolution, in the individual or the group, brought about by this moment and this act, gets re-incorporated in ones repertoire of response: a kind of so far and no further, which in turn resists the burden of future experience. Learning and resistance to learning are endless. That is our existential dilemma as learning animals. Or, as Bob expressed this elsewhere “it is as if learning always has to take place at the edge of exasperation”.

I think, though, that it is important to make the point that this is not to be regretted. One other characteristic of Bob Gosling to my mind was the way in which he seemed as it were to sit loose to psychopathology. One might think of this as a kind of charitableness, born of and from his own more personal experiences and awareness. After all, much of what we may deem pathological is but a heightening or distortion of developmental truths about the human condition: a point it seems to me made quite explicit in the work of Melanie Klein.

So, for example, in an unpublished late paper on the ‘Everyday Work Group,’ (Gosling 1994) Bob sought to rescue Basic Assumptions from the suggestion, sometimes implicit amongst Group Relations practitioners, that they are in some way an unfortunate, archaic hangover from our inheritance as a group species. Without basic assumptions, he suggests, we could not negotiate many of the challenges presented by working life. This was not to deny the conflicts there can be between basic assumption mentality and work group functioning. Rather it was to make the point that the focus on this conflictual element might tell us more about the matrix of psycho-analytic ideas and methods from which they sprang, with its emphasis on mobilizing and probing tension and conflict, than about the realities of our reflected experiences of their presence in group life.

So too in the paper I have just cited, Bob sees the transitional territory groups may inhabit as a potential and not just a constraint. So, having characterised the transitional state of mind in groups he goes on to say this:

“As people who are often called upon to operate in groups, whether committee meetings, clinical teams, seminars, therapy groups or what have you, I suggest it is of some importance for us to consider what opportunities for playfulness a group offers, what are the limits that are appropriate and how are the opportunities for imaginative innovation set up. According to the task in hand the constraints on playfulness may be too great or not great enough, the former resulting in a stilted and sterile group that produces only what its leader already has in mind; and the latter, through its disregard of common reality resulting in an omnipotence that expands beyond the boundary of the task and that provokes various kinds of acting out.”

I have not time to describe the three illustrations he uses to expand on this point. But I think he is here exploring territory which has great relevance to the organisational worlds we are now inhabiting. So, for example, it could, I think, be said across much of the public sector, that the externally driven preoccupation with detailed and intrusive target setting, quality assurance, clinical governance and risk management, is squeezing out not only the space for professional judgment, but also for the exercise of the kind of unfettered, messy, sometimes playful, sometimes conflictual imaginative interchange underlying all human creativity, either as individuals or groups.

On the other hand in the private sector, perhaps, the saga of the companies illustrates what may happen when the absence of constraints is not great enough and omnipotence extends beyond the boundaries of the task. Though, even here, we should perhaps be chary of dismissing such experiments as simply illusory, rather than, say, the first, faltering ventures of a revolution.

I have tried to describe something of what has emerged for me in preparing for this memorial paper: the spirit of movement and the reflections born from it that I felt I was picking up in memory and from the words on the page; and their abiding professional challenge to us, certainly to myself.

Before closing I want to say something that it has occurred to me may have helped and served to inform the particular emphases I have picked out from Bob Gosling’s work. There may have been more personal elements, also, but they are not available to me. There are two aspects I want to comment on: the range and variability of Bob Gosling’s professional activities and interests and the constancy of a certain mental practice.

Bob trained as a psychiatrist and a psycho-analyst and was a distinguished practitioner in those disciplines. But he did not confine himself to them. The impression I have is that his centre of interest always lay in what one might think of as applied fields, except that the language of application does not do justice exactly to what is involved.

To put this another way, and perhaps this is what Sebastian Kraemer meant when he described Bob Gosling to me a few days ago as a “quintessentially Tavistock man”, Bob was always putting his psycho-analytic knowledge and understanding, including here his knowledge and understanding of group relations, both to the service and to the test of engagement with other areas of experience and practice: work with families, general medical practice, the interaction of students and teachers, the leadership of professional support groups, the management of institutions.

He moved himself between such social contexts and I think it was this moving between that both drew his attention to and enabled him so clearly to formulate, from his own experience, the necessity and the difficulty of moving on.

Nonetheless, in this movement between there was also something held constant, which characterised his practice and surely reflected something from his psycho-analytic training and experience. In the chapter he wrote with Pierre Turquet on The Training of General Practitioners (Gosling and Turquet 1967), which describes the approach developed by the two of them to working with Balint groups, they state their objective as follows:

“Our problem is so to conduct a seminar that there is little or no denying or evading of the emotional welter in which the GP is living his professional life.”

A little later referring to the role of the group leader, they say:

“The leader’s aim is to assist the ego’s of the member to embrace more, to experience more fully the forces current in their relations with their patients.”

To combine these two images I think it is this stance of encouraging us, whatever the context we inhabit, to embrace the emotional welter in which we work and live, that perhaps best sums up Bob’s enterprise, as it were across the board. Not as something from which he stood apart but as something in which he was necessarily also implicated and attuned to. Necessarily, because it is only through being implicated, through recognizing one’s own implicatedness, that one gets access to what is happening.

And this enterprise for Bob was not something engaged in simply for its own sake, but because it made a difference to us, carried information, intelligence about the worlds of thought and action we inhabit, and the dilemmas and challenges we face.

For myself and my colleagues, it is an exemplary stance and one which I believe, if we can be true to it, helps us, with our clients, to keep on moving on.


Gosling, R. (1981) “A Study of Very Small Groups”, in J.S. Grotstein (ed), Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? A Memorial to Dr Wilfred Bion, New York: Aaronson

Gosling, R. (1978) “Another Source of Conservatism in Groups,” in W.G. Lawrence (ed), Exploring Individual and Organisational Boundaries, Chichester: John Wiley

Gosling, R. (1994) “The Everyday Work Group,” in Burkard Sievers and David Armstrong (eds), Discovering Social Meaning: a Festschrift for W. Gordon Lawrence on the occasion of his 60th birthday (unpublished)

Gosling, R. and Turquet, P.M. (1967) “The Training of General Practitioners,” in Gosling, R. et al, The Use of Small Groups in Training, Codicote Press Ltd in conjunction with the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology 

Address for correspondence:

Tavistck Centre
120 Belsize Lane
London NW3