The basic assumptions of group relations

This is the first in a 5-ish part series about the experience of group relations.

Although the tagline of this blog is “The young person’s guide to group relations”, you may have noticed that I haven’t written all that much on the supposed topic. This is because up until very recently I didn’t really have any group relations experience to draw on, and just reading the literature – OK, let’s be real here, mostly just reading Wikipedia and the Tavistock Institute website – didn’t give me enough to go on.

Well, I haven’t been to a group relations conference yet, though I’m going to one at the end of March, but I have recently had a sort of “group relations lite” experience. I took the Psychoanalysis of Organizations course at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Each class was half a discussion of relevant literature – foundational papers of group relations by De Board, Bion, Jacques et al – and half “experiential study”, where we learned about group behavior by, well, being in a group.

One hour a week of group study isn’t the same thing as a full two weeks at a residential conference, of course, but it is a taste, and an interesting preview of the real thing.

Like every arena of human behaviour, group relations is a product of its time and social context, and a number of implicit assumptions jump out at you from the literature and the experience. These may not be testable or provable or valid in all contexts, but they do reveal a lot about where group relations and its founders are coming from.

So here are some assumptions I’ve noted:

A utopian reading of Freud. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, the working hypothesis in group relations is that bad feelings and interpersonal problems within groups arise from unconscious conflicts and desires rather than bad actions. For example, Jacques’ seminal paper “Social Systems as a Defense Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety” (link is a pdf) uses as a case study a conflict between workers and managers at the Glacier Metal Company. Jacques assumes that the hostility between workers and managers is due to their collective anxieties rather than the justifiable suspicion with which people on opposite sides of the labour/management divide often view each other, or at least chooses to focus on the psychoanalytic aspects of the conflict rather than the structural ones. Depending how you look at it, this is either pretty optimistic about human intent or a bit naïve about the existence of human predators.

Social skills are an impediment to learning about groups. Group relations experiences expose group processes by deliberately stripping away and/or subverting social conventions which make people get along better. There will be awkward silences and uncomfortable shifts in topic and unstable group norms. This isn’t an excuse for deliberate rudeness, though I’m sure people sometimes do take advantage of this loophole to exercise their ids, but an invitation to learn from your discomfort.

At the same time, certain boundaries are very important and need to be strictly enforced.
For example, punctuality is a must, as I learned when I showed up 10 minutes late to the first session. This is why most group relations conferences are residential. I’m not going to get into it in great detail, but boundaries are a central aspect of group analysis. One formulation of the group relations practice is BART, or “Boundary, Authority, Role, Task”. “Boundaries can be seen as a container that ‘holds’ the task” (Green and Molenkamp, 2005) – the anxieties provoked by the group and brought forward by the stripping away of social niceties mentioned above require strong boundaries to “hold the frame”, and the boundaries of time and place are the easiest ones to control. So don’t be late!

Ordinary people can use group relations techniques reach profound insights. True, most group relations conferences and events are attended by psychoanalytically-minded managers and leaders as well scholars and practitioners of psychoanalysis or psychology, but group relations techniques have been used with amazing results on people from all walks of life. For example the Hope of the Amazon conference in Peru brings together group relations professionals with indigenous youth and leaders to create social change.
We read excerpts from Bion’s “Experiences in Groups”, and one quote stuck out. Of course now that I’m looking for it I can’t find it (of course!), but the gist of it was that the purpose of psychoanalysis is to illuminate the human mind. Maybe the power of psychoanalysis (and by extension group relations) is not healing mental pathologies but rather part of the project of art and literature: to reveal and understand human nature.

It’s not therapy. It’s really, really not therapy, and can be hazardous to people with psychological conditions. Every group relations conference brochure contains a disclaimer that if you are suffering from psychological or personal problems, you should not attend. Unlike group therapy, the goal is not to help individuals deal with their psychological problems or come to personal insights about themselves but to reveal group behaviour. It would be a very irresponsible kind of therapy indeed as it’s intense, awkward, and challenging.

This was a fascinating, revealing, and difficult – difficult in a good way, like reading a famously obscure book or nailing a really hard yoga pose – experience, and this was only one hour a week! I will definitely revisit it after the conference in March.

Next week: A whirlwind tour of Bion’s basic assumption groups.


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