Basics of Group Relations Revisited: What’s it like?

Now that I’ve actually been to a group relations conference – I survived the spiral! – I’m taking a second look at my initial group relations impressions to see how my perceptions have changed.

One thing I didn’t get after the Psychoanalytic Understanding of Organizations course was how exhausting a group relations conference can be. The one I just went to was only 3 days long – Friday-Sunday – and non-residential, so the schedule was not as grueling as they sometimes are, but I am still exhausted from it. I also have a much better sense of how emotionally draining and potentially traumatizing they can be. (I don’t feel traumatized or anything, but I can see how a fragile person definitely could be.)

So let’s revisit my original Basics of Group Relations: What’s it like? post and see how the experiences compare.

It’s going to be awkward. Embrace it. Group relations experiences deliberately do away with many social conventions of interaction…(…)…Even if you know what you’re getting into going in, it is awkward and is supposed to be awkward. Just go with it.

Yep. Awkward. Mega-awkward. Unbelievably awkward. Still OK.

Be prepared to feel really self-conscious. You’ll feel like you’re talking too loud or too soft, laughing too much or acting too serious, saying too much or too little, being too personal or too reserved.

I actually didn’t feel too self-conscious this time, probably because I had a level of “expertise” from my previous group relations experience. I also had a sense of “outsider-ness” from being the only Canadian there. (The conference was in Boston.) Incidentally, the level of aggression and hostility was much higher in the US. At first I found this refreshing, thinking that at least people were being honest and expressing themselves rather than passive-aggressively pretending that everything’s fine like Canadians tend to do, but after a while I realized that aggression-aggression can be as much a defense mechanism as passive-aggression. Anyway…

It’s not about you. Think about it this way: if you are behaving weirdly, this is not so much an indictment of your character as a reflection of the forces at play within the group. So there’s no wrong way to behave – pretty much anything you do is helpful as it reveals what is going on in the group. Don’t take this as license to be a huge jerk or anything, but do take it as license to give yourself a break.

I do feel there was a lot more meanness and nastiness than there was in Canada. At times the large group felt like a particularly snarky blog comment section. Some people did take the lack of social niceties as an excuse to be jerks, just like some people go around insulting everyone they know and claiming they’re practicing “radical honesty”. Other people felt that the group was “failing” at its primary task(s) without being able to see that “failure” as a site of learning.

Also, no matter how many times you print “The primary task is [whatever the primary task is]” in the conference brochure, about 20% of the participants will not stop asking “Why don’t we have a task? What’s the task? Can we pick something to do?” My last day of work before I left for the conference, I joked to my boss that if anyone did that I’d just take out the brochure and point at the description of the task; during the small group one of the other members actually did that out of frustration. Relatedly, some people will never be comfortable with the lack of imposed structure in the large or small groups and will keep trying to elect a facilitator or go round in a circle or wear nametags or what have you.

Who do you want to be? You have choices. You can’t really control what the group brings out in you, but you can observe your reactions and make choices.

This is a bit airy and hand-waving; over 3 days the role you fall into in a group can be very hard to shake. One of the more aggressive participants spoke very eloquently of how frustrated she was to have fallen back into the role she’d taken on, saying it was easy and familiar to her and she’d hoped to break out of it. Five minutes later she started a shouting match with another member. I wish I’d approached her one-on-one and talked to her about this, but my Canadian fear of conflict got in the way and I gave her a wide berth.

It’s not therapy, but you might learn something about yourself anyway.

I definitely learned a lot about myself, not all of it good or easy learning, either. I also made connections and had conversations with people I’d never have met in a million years otherwise and would never have had deep conversations with even if I had.

It’s maybe not accurate to describe it as “fun”, but perhaps “compelling” will do.

As much as I enjoyed staying in a hotel room by myself for three nights with no responsibilities for toddlers or basset hounds, I wouldn’t exactly call it a fun weekend. One of the other members told me that you don’t enjoy group relations conferences in the moment; you start enjoying them about six months afterwards. At any rate, I think it was incredibly fascinating and fruitful.

The group can contain different opinions and experiences and that’s OK.

Even the consultants had different opinions about what was going on/how we should react to it. No one steps in the same river twice as they say; no one goes to the same conference. For me the conference was a kind of bonkers learning experience; for others it was a failure and a disappointment. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

You really had to be there.

I managed to describe the conference to an actor friend of mine by comparing it to a Meisner workshop. So far I have not been that successful at describing group relations anyone else, and describing things is part of my job. I need to find another metaphor to describe it to people who’ve never stood opposite to another actor and repeated “You’re pissing me off” “I’m pissing you off?” “You’re pissing me off” back and forth for ten minutes.

Give it a chance.

If you go to a conference and find yourself feeling uncomfortable, unhappy, hostile, angry, sad, like you just want to cry the whole time, or like you want to go home and demand a refund – take a step back and think, where does this feeling come from? What does it mean? And what can I learn from it?

These are difficult experiences. There are moments of fun, connection, and levity; but overall it is hard, introspective work, and you will not always want to do it. But if you stick with it, while it may never get easier, you are probably going to learn something. And that’s always good.


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