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by Robert M. Young

Suggested Reading:

Main, Tom (1975) ‘Some Psychodynamics of Large Groups’, in Kreeger, The Large Group: Dynamics and Therapy. Constable; reprinted Karnac: Maresfield Reprints, 1975, pp. 57-86.

Miller, Eric (1990) 'Experiential Learning Groups I: The Development of the Leicester Model', in Trist, Eric and Murray, H., eds. The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology, Vol. 1: The Socio-Psychological Perspective. Free Association Books. 1990, pp. 165-85.

______ (1990a) ‘Experiential Learning Groups II: Recent Developments in Dissemination and Application’, in ibid., pp. 186-98

Sher, Manny (2003) ‘From Groups to Group Relations: Bion’s Contribution to the Tavistock “Leicester” Conferences’, in Lipgar, Robert M. and Pines, Malcolm, eds. (2003) Building on Bion: Branches (vol.2). Jessica Kingsley, 2004, pp. 109-144.

How does psychoanalysis bear on groups? This is the question Wilfred Bion asked at the outset of his work, work which, you will recall from a previous unit, began in some unlikely places. He was born in India, sent away to public school in England (which means private school in the UK) at age eight, became a tank commander in the First World War and a psychiatrist in the second (Bion, 1982). In the first he was to be awarded the country’s highest military decoration but ended up with a lesser one because he spoke his mind about how the war was being run (Trist, 1985, p. 10). What one might say from reading his autobiography is that what he learned most profoundly in that life, and particularly war, was about strange organisations and about terror, sheer dread of annihilation, where one literally doesn’t know what one is doing or why one acted as one did or how one survived. I believe that this knowledge was the key to his later discoveries. In the Second World War he was involved in a number of exercises which have borne a rich fruit. He devised the procedures by which officers were (and still are) selected (Trist, 1985, pp. 6-10) and went on to create settings in which officers who had broken down could regain their dignity and their will to fight (Bridger, 1985; Trist, 1985, pp. 14-25.

The way he did this is vividly described in a number of reminiscences by him and colleagues. There were two key elements. The first was to place people in a situation where they were constrained to cooperate, to work for the good of the group and not merely for survival of the self. The second was to create an anxiety-provoking setting in which one could, with luck, think about what one was doing while doing it. You’ll recall that he used a phrase for this in his later work, one which I think is wonderful: ‘thinking under fire’ in the here and now and not just with hindsight. What successful group relations work does is to help people to learn to think under fire. To put it another way, it helps people to retain mental space of a creative and constructive kind - to be neither a saint nor a shit but an effective, considerate human being. Religions have always tried to do this - without notable success, in my opinion. I believe that the group relations approach, if applied consistently and ambitiously enough, can do it.

The key to all this is an insight which Bion had and which everyone who has worked in this tradition has held on to. It is this. Put people under stress (and that includes the stress generated in ambiguous situations), and you will evoke their most primitive anxieties, anxieties which it is appropriate to call psychotic, hence, the phrase ‘psychotic anxieties’. It was Bion’s belief that groups and institutions were designed in order to constrain and contain such anxieties and that much of what we find so odd about them is that they do two things at once. They protect us from a perpetual sense of being about to be destroyed, yet they do so by creating defensive social structures and forms of organisation and behaviour which are often dreadful, inhuman, even cruel. They are based on strange unconscious phantasies which his work in group relations and (as David Armstrong has shown, 1992) as a psychoanalyst has done much to illuminate.

This is the deep paradox of life above the individual level - families, groups, clubs, institutions, cultures, countries. Bion showed this exquisitely in the experiments with groups he created in the army. The first lasted six weeks, was hugely successful, and he was rapidly got rid of in an utterly strange way (Trist, 1985, p. 16; deMare, 1985). He went on to create groups at the Tavistock Clinic in London, and others, most notably A. K. Rice, came after him and set up regular venues for group relations events and conferences which are now conduced on a regular basis throughout the world (Miller, 1990, 1990a; Colman and Bexton, 1975; Colman and Geller, 1985; Hinshelwood, 1987). Bion’s own papers in this field were collected and published in 1961 as Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. Toward the end of his work in this field he began to explain his findings in terms of the work of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (Bion, 1961, pp. 141-91), who has done much to illuminate very primitive unconscious processes, particularly those associated with anxiety, aggression and destructiveness (Klein, 1975; Young, 1994, ch. 5). It is my opinion and that of many others that she has a great deal to say to those of us who are trying to save the world -- in the former Soviet bloc, in Afghanistan, in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Oklahoma City, in Tokyo, New York, Washington, Iraq, the Middle East, Columbia, Liberia and wherever the dark side of human nature is engaged in virulent projective identification (which I will define in a moment) - from destroying itself.

Once again, what happens in group relations work is that people are put in situations which are designed to be safe and contained enough so that when those anxieties are - quite deliberately - evoked by the staff, it is just possible to see them in operation and to think about them in the thick of the distress they evoke. It is the staff’s role to take in and detoxify the poisonous projections and group madness and to make interpretations which are designed to help the members of the conference to come to understand - and to some extent transcend - the situation of being in the grip of psychotic anxieties and thereby learn to behave rather better than they did before being given access to this insight, this training in thinking under fire. The group exercises are usually complemented with group therapy sessions and with individual consultations where each member is invited, in the presence of others in a small group, to reflect on the potential relevance to that person’s work and life of what has been experienced at the conference, The hope is that if you do this a few times, you may be able to think under fire yourself in your work role and perhaps even at home.

The Leicester Conferences on group and organisational behaviour, with particular emphasis on authority and leadership, have been held at least once a year since 1957. They are heir to the traditions discussed above, especially the work of Klein, Bion and Rice (other influences are mentioned in Miller, 1990, pp. 165-69) In the two-week residential conferences is that various group events are so arranged as to facilitate experiential learning about the ways in which group processes can generate psychotic anxieties and institutional defences against them (Miller, p. 171). For example, the staff may simply instruct the membership to form groups and specify the available rooms, some of which have consultants in them. The staff then leave the room, and the anxiety about what to do overwhelms the members. The struggles that ensue in the members' minds between individuation and incorporation, as a result of the conference group events, is hard to credit by anyone who has not taken part in a Leicester Conference or related 'mini-Leicester' events. Similarly, descriptions of events and feelings are likely to seem odd to anyone not familiar with the sorts of events around which the conferences are structured. I believe, however, that the relevant emotional points will be sufficiently clear without a (necessarily) long description of the conference rubric.

I will describe my experiences as an ordinary conference member at Leicester and as a member of staff at two group relations conferences in Bulgaria and will then add some reflections by Manny Sher, the director of a later Leicester conference. My own experience at Leicester involved feeling continually on the edge of disintegration as a result of behaviour in the various group events (ranging in size from a dozen to more than a hundred people) which I found appalling and from which there seemed no escape, while efforts to persuade people to behave well produced flight, sadism, collusive lowering of the stakes or denial. The potential of the group for uniting around (what was called on occasion) 'cheap reconciliation' or for cruelty, brought me to the point of leaving on several occasions (some did leave), and I frequently had the experience of having to use all my resources to hold myself together against forces which I experienced as profoundly immoral, amoral or pathetically conformist. No appeal to standards of group decency was of much avail.

I ended up feeling so alone and defensive that very early one morning after a bad night (during which I consumed a lot of pistachio nuts) I formed a group in my mind which consisted of some of the people I admired in history and in my lifetime, e.g., Socrates, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, Bonhoeffer, Marcuse, Mandela, who had stood up to intolerable social forces without quitting the field or having their spirits broken. I dubbed this ‘The PSÖD Solidarity Group’ (to indicate the oscillations between paranoid-schzoid and depressive functioning). Armed with their mandate (bestowed by one part of my mind onto another) I managed the next morning to talk my way into a meeting with the staff, for the purpose of mounting a critique of the rubric of the exercise. I felt contained by the inner solidarity provided by my imagined group, while I was, in truth, actually on my own in the phenomenal context of the conference events. I had blown out of a group in considerable distress, because it had utterly failed to live up to its self-designation of advocating and practising decency and civility among its members and urging such standards on the larger group of conference members.

Just as I was on the point of sitting down to confront the staff group in the name of my inner world group (vainly hoping they would show some interest in its name, membership and values), a representative of the group I had left appeared and bestowed 'plenipotentiary powers' (the highest of the designated forms of delegation of authority) on me, freeing me from the dreaded status of 'singleton'. A singleton is a person with no role status in the large group (see Miller, 1990, p. 179 and Turquet, 1975, where the plight of the singleton is insightfully and poignantly described). I had felt unutterably alone, almost totally in the grip of paranoid persecutions, holding on for dear life to my hallucinated historical group. The bestowal of my conference group's trust reincorporated me into the social whole on terms I could accept. I was told afterwards that one motive for giving me the mandate was fear of what I would tell the staff group if I approached them while still furious with the group I had left. I later learned that there was also a measure of admiration for me among some members of the conference staff who referred to me as ‘the Lone Ranger’.

My confrontation with the staff group, acting in this exercise as 'Management’, was - predictably - without issue, but I went away feeling that I had spoken my piece without suffering the humiliation that many others had experienced. I had offered my analysis of the situation and their role in it, one dimension of which was that they would - as a part of the point of the exercise - continue to behave as they were doing, i.e., act as an immovable object onto which the groups would project their phantasies about authority and (hopefully) begin to take responsibility for themselves and take back their projections. I felt that I had done that and negotiated my own rite of passage - just.

Having gone some way toward resolving my own temporary insanity (though not my omnipotence) I was only able to bask pleasantly in group membership for a few minutes before members of another group, who had sought refuge in being regressed and silly (they had all been to previous conferences and might have been expected to be street wise, but they took refuge in regression and called themselves, with a nice pun, 'The Potty Training Group') stormed into the room where the staff/Management group were holding court. The person whom I had considered to be the mildest member of that group physically attacked a German member of staff with shouts of 'fascist' and other violent epithets. He was aided and cheered on by other members of his group, until one, a woman I felt sure was a Jew but I now recollect was probably not but was a German, broke down sobbing and shouted for all this to stop (‘Not again!’), which it did.

The descent from work or task-oriented groups to groups in the thrall of psychotic basic assumptions is, as Bion pointed out, spontaneous and inevitable (Bion, 1961, p. 165), even in a situation which all concerned know to be temporary and 'artificial'. I continue to find this profoundly sobering. I also continue to ruminate it and am far from having digested the experience, though I have found it increasingly helpful in my work and related activities.

My next experience of a group relations conference was some years later and in a novel and particularly apt setting, Sofia, Bulgaria, where I had played a central role in setting up the conference and was, for the first time, a staff member. I have been involved since 1992 in an attempt to bring psychoanalysis to Bulgaria, a project which is full of pitfalls and has met with many setbacks. Many aspects of our overall project were stymied for lack of funds and the non-availability of training therapists in the country. Indeed, there was not a single person in Bulgaria trained in psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy. One aspect of the educational and clinical 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. 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 an equivalent to the psychoanalytic method as a tool of social and cultural enquiry, and the members of the conference are encouraged to make links to their wider experiences in organizational and social life. When the instigator of the introduction of psychoanalytic thinking to Bulgaria, Professor Toma Tomov, first learned about this approach he immediately saw its promise for facilitating change from the rigid bureaucratic methods that 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 feet 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, David Armstrong, who works at the Tavistock Centre Consultancy Service, is one of the leading figures in the field. Both he and Gordon Lawrence, the deputy director, have decades of experience conducting group relations conferences. David Armstrong recruited a team of consultants from the UK, of whom I was the least experienced.

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 British staff were very impressed by the alacrity and insight with which they got on with it.

The setting of this first Bulgarian conference was surreal. It was held at the Palace of Culture, an extraordinary kind of institution found in the centre of every capital city in Eastern Europe. It was said of the one in Warsaw that it provided the best view of the capital, since it was the only vantage point from which one could not see the Palace of Culture... The one in Sofia 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 purported to embrace all of history and all of symbolism and formed the backdrop to all events in the room where plenary sessions 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, sometimes with intense feelings, sometimes with boredom. 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 adequately 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 British member of staff said it was the best group relations conference she had ever attended. Once the participants 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 made up so much of their lives under the old regime and in the chaos of subsequent 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 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 only been in place since 1989.

In the small and large group events people are allowed to speak whenever the spirit moves them. The members spoke with great clarity and simplicity and quite soon found the conference events facilitating and relevant to their lives and work. I felt that the emotional atmosphere 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 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 was planned for Easter, and all who attended the one in December were greatly looking forward to it. It was felt, and I agree, that 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.

In fact, the next conference was cancelled. The reason was envy and spite on the part of other academics at the New Bulgarian University (NBU), the base for the project of bringing psychoanalysis to Bulgaria. A way was found to bring some of the young people who had acted as trainee staff to a group relations conference mounted by the Grubb Institute in London. A Group Relations Club also met regularly to read, discuss and plan future events. We then managed to get a grant of $100,000 from the Open Society Fund and to mount another group relations conference in July-August 1994, which was as remarkable in its way as the first one. It was held in the newly-acquired premises of the NBU, a facility which had formerly been used for the education of Communist party officials. The grounds were sorely in need of the attention of gardeners, and the rooms were hot, but the proceedings were electrifying. I recall most vividly an event in an exercise in which the membership were asked to form groups to interact with the staff, who were designated as ‘Management’ (like the one I described above at the Leicester Conference). One young psychiatrist - well-known to all of the staff, whose clinical work I had supervised and with whom I was on affectionate terms - came before the staff/Management group and said that since we were unwilling to meet with them and were completely intransigent, there was no possible way forward. When it was pointed out by the director of the conference that they had asked for no meeting and that we had therefore made no response of the kind he described, a deep frown came across his face. He was silent for a long time and then said that we had utterly shattered his world view. That is, he had to acknowledge that his characterization of us was pure projection, albeit firmly based on his experience growing up in the culture and society of pre- and (unfortunately) post-1989 Bulgaria.

There were many comparable experiences in the various small and large group events of the conferences and in the application groups at the end of the week. People found it hard to the point of impossibility to imagine that groups could be formed for good and proactive reasons, that institutions could permit progressive and constructive things to happen, that anyone outside one’s own family and closest friends could be trusted. This was especially evident in the large groups, where various people were repeatedly accused of playing cynical or comical or otherwise disruptive roles. Still others told moving stories about how it was pointless to hope, to build, to seek change. In the application groups, people told poignant tales about why their jobs were pointless, their initiatives thwarted, their positions based on fragile patronage.

These conferences and the plotting and intrigues surrounding them offer vivid illustrations of the insights the group relations approach can provide. They do so in ways that are reminiscent of the fate of Bion’s initial experiment at Northgate Hospital in World War Two -- a success but killed off after only a few weeks. When the second Bulgarian group relations conference ended the staff were heartened and felt sure that the next conference (which I was unable to attend) would be able to build quite quickly on the experiential learning of this and the previous one. Then we learned that the rest of our grant had disappeared It was simply gone. There was a heated showdown between advocates of our programme and certain responsible officials which might have led to catastrophe, but it didn’t. Instead, it led to the creation of a new Bulgarian Institute of Human Relations at the NBU, with an ambitious programme and full backing for grant application to funding bodies in the West. Not much has come of these applications, but the Institute of Human Relations continues to thrive.

One crucial meeting is worth recalling. A significant figure with access to major financial resources had agreed to meet with us. People who had been power brokers under the old regime had moved over to being administrators of funds being granted by Western agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The meeting was scheduled for Saturday morning in Winter. Gordon Lawrence and I flew in from London, but fog prevented us from landing at Sofia, and we were diverted to Burgas on the Baltic. In order to get to the meting on time we had to take a taxi and ride all night through the fog on icy roads. We got to Sofia in time to sleep for an hour, and we arrived at the meeting rather breathless and dog tired. The grandee did not turn up. We were assured that this did not mean that the grant would not be forthcoming - only that he wanted to make it clear who was more important. We swallowed our understandable reactions and set about explaining the proposal to a group of people who knew about it already. The potentate turned up an hour late and explained disarmingly that when he agreed to meet us it had slipped his mind that he had promised his wife that he would look after the children that Saturday morning -- hence the transparent bag containing water and a goldfish which was suspended from his hand as he came into the room and which remained there throughout our deliberations. After our exposition he assured us that he would get us a major grant. It never came, nor has any other significant funding. The third Bulgarian group relations conference was, nevertheless, held with Bulgarians in charge and British staff in support. I cannot give an account of it, since I was (suspiciously, you may think) laid low with sciatica just before my intended departure from London.

Candour obliges me to mention that at a certain moment in the second conference we were having a hurried lunch. The director, a person I greatly admire and like, called the group to order for a quick meeting. I made a response to his first sentence, to which he replied, amiably but firmly, ‘I wasn’t necessarily intending to start a discussion’. I experienced this like a slap in the face. Without a word I got up and left the table. He found me some time later and said that he was very angry and that my storming off challenged his authority. I said I meant no disrespect, and we got on with working together without incident and subsequently. After long reflection I have concluded that I regarded myself as his special protégé and could not bear to be publicly silenced by him. I wonder if my chagrin at that exchange may have brought on my sciatica when it was next time to work with him.

This incident brings me to the somewhat delicate topic of group dynamics among staff at group relations conferences. Not much has been written about this. Indeed, not much has been written about the experiential side of such conferences at all. The classic accounts of the rubric are not expressed in the first person: Eric Miller’s Miller, Eric (1990) 'Experiential Learning Groups I: The Development of the Leicester Model' and ‘Experiential Learning Groups II: Recent Developments in Dissemination and Application’.

When I was preparing for my first group relations conference I was not ale to find much literature about the experiential side, though I’d heard many a tale, most of them lurid, and I wondered if that was somehow deliberate so that one could experience it unprepared and therefore relatively undefended. There is a literature about large group events under the auspices of the Institute of Group Analysis (e.g., Kreeger, 1975; Ettin, 2003 Wilke, 2003) but not much about the Leicester Conference model. This omission has been strikingly filled by an extraordinarily honest and self-revealing account by Manny Sher (2003) of his experience as a first time director of a two-week Leicester Conference. What is so striking about his diary of the conference is something one should have known, but I confess that I didn’t. It is that the director has to bear all the projections of three groups -- the ordinary members, the training group (trainees for becoming staff in the future, people very jealous of their status as no longer being mere conference members) and the staff, who can by no means be relied on to offer unqualified support. I say I should have known it, if only because when I was an ordinary member at Leicester I became utterly convinced that my partner was having an affair with the conference director (she was not at the conference, but they were colleagues and friends). I should add that I did not have a scintilla of evidence for this paranoid projection and that he did not behave toward me in an untoward way at the conference. Indeed, when the crunch came I felt that he was respectful of me where he had been hard on others. Nevertheless, in my mind and in the grip of the anxieties evoked by the conference, he was -- in the transference -- the patriarch and a threat to me in many ways, including sexually.

Sher notes that his anxiety about the role of director was so high that he had included eight former conference directors on his staff of ten. His aim may have been to shore himself up, but the effect under fire was to make him feel extraordinarily scrutinised and perceived as a new boy. When he made mistakes, e.g., in scheduling events or their lengths, none of which was particularly major and all of which could be corrected, he subjected himself to withering self-criticism. Loyalties and betrayals preoccupied him. He felt vulnerable for being a Jew and for being a South African. He saw himself as the captain of a rudderless ship. He also reflects on the key elements of the processes of the agenda-less groups which make up the structure and processes of a group relations conference:

1) the psychotic anxieties which we all bring from infancy and which are evoked when we feel potentially overwhelmed and regress in social settings,

2) the unconscious phantasies which make them specific and which colonise our minds and overwhelm and replace rational, secondary process thinking,

3) leading to the formation of projective identifications onto the group and individuals in it and especially onto the conference staff and director.

To the extent that the conference process works, it sets in train a process of containing anxieties and the taking back of projections, leading from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position, from extreme splits and punitive guilt evoking hatred and ardour felt toward particular individuals, to seeing things as a mixture and to constructive, reparative guilt. This takes place to different degrees on different themes in a given conference and affects individuals in the staff, the training group and the ordinary members in individual ways. It is also not a process which is completed on site. One deliberates on group relations events long after one returns to ordinary life. Indeed, I have seen a new thing of two while writing this unit. Woe to him or her who is the partner of someone who goes home on the free day in the middle of a Leicester Conference. I was once such a person and was cast in the role of all-purpose scapegoat at the same time that I was called upon to be a perfect breast. This occurred years before I went to one, but I remembered and when I did go to a Leicester Conference, I stayed in Leicester and spent that day swimming, pottering around and eating pistachio nuts.

I’ll offer a tiny example of attempting to get the membership to ‘take back the projections’. In my first Bulgarian group relations conference a member asked me several times why I was wearing red braces. This question became extremely interesting to a number of members as the days went by. One can only imagine what thoughts and anxieties they may have had. Come to that, one can speculate at length on why I would wear such a flamboyant article of clothing (which was not unusual for me). On the last day I took the floor and said, ‘I will tell you why I wear red braces: to hold my trousers up’. Much genuine and relieved laughter.

I mentioned that there are ‘application groups’ toward the end of a group relations conference. These can be both painful and extremely useful. The staff member facilitates the application of what has been experienced and learned, to the work situation of the member, which can be a very moving and cathartic experience, as I mentioned with respect to the Bulgarian conferences. I like to think that once one has been to such a conference, there is a space in one’s mind to which one can return and gain enough perspective to think under fire. A good analogy is the ‘internal therapist/analyst’ a person who has finished therapy/analysis carries around in his/her head. That internal object is a presence and can be consulted in trying times. Perhaps even the voice and manner of the therapist comes to mind, giving self-containment, insight, forbearance, compassion, strength. On a good day the result will be that the person who has benefited from a group relations event will not shoot from the hip but will be somewhat mature in responding in stressful group and institutional settings..

Group relations events lie somewhere between group analysis and the work setting. They are specifically designed to bring primitive processes to the surface and to allow a contained space to reflect upon them, just as the analytic frame of group analysis or individual therapy does. The space has well-defined boundaries and parent figures who are known to be experienced in this work as well as others who are known to be apprentices (the ‘training group’) -- children, young adults, adults. Of course, at the same time, all are simultaneously children and adults. Members are likely to be heads or department heads of institutions, even though they may be neophytes at group relations events. The events also have rules which are carefully spelled out in the literature one received before arriving; the references cited therein and in the documents placed in one’s hands at the conference specify timetables, room, sorts of events. These are all containing at the same time that they are experienced as restrictive. Members express their protests at being infantilised by acting out -- affairs, drinking, even sneaking off or playing truant from particular events. Jealousy, envy and spite are expressed. People shout, others pout and tears flow. Rumours abound, especially about the mythical member who found the conference dynamics so stressful that he had a heart attack, and the staff would not call an ambulance. This story is apocryphal but perennial.

I have tried to evoke the experience of group relations events, events which are, above all experiential in the sense of experiential learning. I believe that you can learn a lot from reading about such events in my account and the ones described in the references. However, there is no substitute for the real thing. People who have attended group relations events will assure you that they were important to their understanding of human nature and themselves. Go forth and do likewise.

This is a unit for the Distance Learning MA in Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Sheffield (2003).


(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.) 

Armstrong, David (1992) ‘Names, Thoughts and Lies: The Relevance of Bion’s Later Writings to the Understanding of Experiences in Groups’, Free Associations (no. 26) 3: 261-82, on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/lies.html

______ (2003) ‘The Work Group Revisited: Reflections on the Practice of Group Relations’, Free Associations (no. 53) 10: 14-24, on-line at http://human-nature.com/hraj/work.html

______, Lawrence, W. Gordon and Young, Robert M. (1997) Group Relations: An Introduction, on-line at http://human-nature.com/rmyoung/papers/paper99.html

Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups. Tavistock.

Bridger, Harold (1985) ‘Northfield Revisited’ in Pines, 1985, pp. 87-107.

Colman, A, D. and Bexton, W. H., eds. (1975) Group Relations Reader 1. Washington, D. C.: A. K. Rice Institute.

______ and Geller, M. H., eds. (1985) Group Relations Reader 2. Washington, D. C.: A. K. Rice Institute.

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