Group relations conferences in the Tavistock tradition: Comparison of consultants' interventions in the Institutional System Event (ISE) and in the Intergroup (IG) or Institutional Event (IE)

Stan  De Loach, Ph.D. »

A Tavistock group relations conference provides the context for this article, which compares consultants' behaviors in different, though similar enough to be easily confused, conference events.  The intentions of consultation vary with the event.  This article presents hypothetical consultations, questions, or observations considered possibly useful to conference member groups or subsystems that have requested the presence and services of a consultant in their work space or territory.  These types of consultations are delivered by conference staff members assigned to the consultant role.

The interventions below are divided between those likely to be more appropriate in one of two different Tavistock or group relations conference events (ISE or IG) than in the other.  Comparison of consultants' verbal behaviors in the Institutional System Event (ISE) context and in the Intergroup Event (IG) or combined Intergroup/Institutional Event (IG/IE) context highlights the events' different purposes and foci.  To provide clarity, the IG and IG/IE event designs are considered together and designated simply as an IG event.

During all these events, conference members may be authorized by their group or subsystem at one of three different levels: observer, delegate, or plenipotentiary.  Only duly authorized delegates and plenipotentiaries are authorized to request the presence of a consultant in the authorizing group's or subsystem's work space.

The verbal interventions that follow are possible interventions to be made by a consultant to conference member groups (in the IG) or subsystems (in the ISE), which conference members form ad libidum during the opening session of these events.  They are presented as hypothetical responses to a specific request for consultation received by the consultant from a member group or subsystem.  The content of the possible interventions presented progresses generally from lesser to greater psychological or emotional "depth."

The substance of the petition for a consultant's services should substantiate the validity or genuineness of the group's or subsystem’s request (which is likely made starting in the second of 3 - 5 sessions set aside for either the IG or the ISE event).  For example: “We still can’t decide whether to leave the door open or closed.  Some want it open and some want it closed.  We are spending all our time on managing the boundary.  We don't know what we might do or have to do if someone comes to the door from another group/subsystem.  We need a consultant to help us understand and resolve this indecision.”

Possibilities for use in consultants' work with member groups in the IG

1.  “I notice that you are all men.  Do you know that there is also a group in this event composed only of women?  How do you come by knowing that?  How do you interpret that development in this conference event?  What kinds of projections do you imagine might be made upon your single-sex group?”

2.  “Did you take a conscious decision that there would be no women in this group?  Any idea about what allowed or caused it to ‘just happen’ that way?  Did the consultant or consultants present in the opening of this event have any comment or suggestion regading your group's way of deciding to join together?  What do you imagine the consultant(s) might have said?”

3.  “Would your decision about the door be any easier if there were women in your membership?  Is interacting with female members of the conference anticipated negatively, positively, neutrally, or indifferently?  Could you imagine that your behaviors in this event so far have portrayed your group as possibly being ambivalent?”

4.  “How are you using your experience during this event as a basis for your learning?  For example, have representatives from other groups come to your space to observe or interact?  What did you feel when they knocked on the open door and you turned to look at them there?  What did you learn from that experience?  How would you have liked your group to handle those visitors from another group?  Was any learning produced in you during their visit?  Will the learning be transformative or influential in your thinking or behavior going forward in the remaining sessions of this event?”

5.  “You say that you didn’t feel ‘ready’ for them and that you were interrupted and unable to work on establishing/organizing yourselves while they were here and because they came too quickly after the start of the event.”

6.  “Was the presence of those ‘Others’ what initiated this discussion and indecision about the open or closed door?  Had you already been working on the issue?  Did those members of another group, who, you say, were females, in effect set your group’s agenda or task priorities by simply coming to the door and forcing you to act?”

7.  “Are you perhaps unconsciously waiting or hoping for more or new members, and could closing (or not) the door be interpreted as letting go of (or holding onto) that maybe cherished but so far unacknowledged wish or possibility?”

8.  “Who is next door to you?  What’s going on with them?  What is your relationship to them?  Have you found yourself entertaining the fantasy of escaping from here and going next door to join them?”

9.  “How is what your neighbors (and the other groups that have formed) are working with related to what is going on in your group?  Can you function (i.e., learn) and survive as a group without knowing much of anything about the other groups?” 

10.  “How (and when) do you propose to relate or interact with the other groups in this event, who are working at the same time and on the same shared task?”

11.  “Have you sent a representative to other groups (besides that of the Staff)?  What feeling or concern or motive prompted that activity?  What did you learn from that experience that could be relevant to your open/closed door issue?”

12.  “How is your indecision and disagreement about the door’s position related to the task of this event, which is: ‘to examine together the developing relationships between and among member-formed groups and the staff group’?”

13.  “Could you say that your group is ‘stuck in the mud’ or maybe in this room and that this issue is intentionally or not, consciously or not, being used to prevent the possibility of interacting with other groups in this event, which involves all the members?  Could fear of interaction play a part in converting a minor, probably resolvable issue into an insurmountable obstacle, just so in the process you are able to avoid the feared or hated intergroup interaction and the important differentiations (by level of authorization, for example) that interaction requires?”

14.  “Who will ‘win’ or prevail in your decision about keeping the door open or closed?  What will 'winning' or 'losing' mean?  With only other men in this group, will you develop a specific way to manage, emotionally and psychologically, 'winning' or 'losing' or coming to an agreement about it?”

15.  “What does a Mexican standoff mean?  How did it ‘happen’ that you got the services of the only American-Mexican consultant in the staff to work with you on this paralyzing issue?”

16.  “Does the presence of Others, including a consultant, make it easier or more difficult to resolve the issue of the door position in a way acceptable to your group’s members?  Why?  Who is responsible for making the decision?”

17.  “Would you prefer that the staff group, through the consultant, tell you how to resolve the matter?”

18.  “Thinking about it in retrospect, was the purpose of your request for a consultant in any way meant to make staff aware of your helplessness and feeling of loss?”

19.  “What role does the door decision play for your group?  What effect does it have or what message does it send to your colleagues in the other groups participating in the event?”

20.  “It doesn’t seem that time is on your side:about 40% of the event is past, and so far indecision and perhaps dependence have largely immobilized you.  Maybe a discussion with other groups in this event could give you some picture of, for example, whether or not they also have experienced strong internal conflicts or debilitating indecision.  If they have, two heads (groups’ ideas) could be better than one (group’s ideas) as far as satisfactorily understanding and resolving the issue goes.”

21.  “You understand that you would have to authorize in some degree or level a representative from among you in order to gather that kind of information?”

22.  “Metaphorically, would you say that your group is “closed” (as in ‘closed for business’) or “open” (as in, ‘open for business’) in this event?”

23.  “You are one of ____ (number) groups participating in this event.  Because all the groups and staff are inter-connected parts of a single system or event, what risks do you and the other groups face if any single part of the system becomes, for whatever reason, unavailable or ‘out of action’ or lost?

24.  “Would it be realistic to say that you are uncertain as to whether you as a group are ‘open’ or ‘closed’ to the task and spirit of this event, as represented by the Staff?”

25.  “Could the real ‘victim’ or ‘casualty’ in this struggle be the learning (i.e., yours and others') possible when different groups interact?”

Possibilities for use in consultants' work with member subsystems in the ISE

1.  “You were all in the ISE opening plenary with the Director?  What do you suppose or imagine the Director and the institution’s Management would prefer that you do about the door (for example)?”

2.  “How do you confirm the validity of the data that lead you to believe that?  What fantasies or feelings hold you back from visiting with Management to check out the validity and character of the relatedness that joins you in this work?”

3.  “This is your self-selected work space during the ISE.  In this event, you are explicitly the managers of your behaviors and your relatedness (physical, psychic, political, and spiritual) with the other subsystems of this institution, to whose formation you are all contributing.  Have you had dialogue about how your selection of this particular space and your current indecision about how you will manage it may be related to the system-in-the-mind that you have of the Management of this Institution?”

4.  “How do you define your system-in-the-mind with respect to Management?  What do you believe or expect that they should do?  How should they behave?  What should they be mindful of in managing this institution, including your subsystem?  Is what is in your mind about Management also present in the same form in the Management's space?  Is what you imagine, what you get?”

5.  “In this event, in which we work with Management in order to study the nature of the relatedness between Members and Management, is it possible to be in a work space more distant (or closer) physically from Management than the one that your subsystem has chosen?”

6.  “Could your location be an oblique statement to Management about your subsystem or to Management about your physical, political, psychological or even spiritual relatedness to them, now, at the start of the ISE?  One image that comes to mind is that of those individuals who are the very first seated in the house of worship for weekly services.”

7.  “What do you find it easy to project onto Management?  Do you notice that different people, maybe even within this subsystem, view Management through different eyes or with distinct perceptions of what Management’s task or method of working or character or charisma is?”

8.  “You say that some of you want the door open and some of you want it closed.  Might these mixed or divisive feelings or ambivalence be related to similarly conflicted feelings present in your unspoken, unexplored relationships to the Management of this institution?”

9.  “Can you summarize your explorations of the subtle unconscious bases for your indecision?  What is behind or beneath or beyond this partisan standoff preventing you from effectively managing your task and yourselves and from exercising your leadership in your own work space?”

10.  “Some of you are students with previous contact with the Directors/Managers of this ISE.  Others have a ‘boss’ at work.  Is your present situation and way of acting related to the perhaps still unshared management ‘system(s)-in-the-mind’ that you hold?”

11.  “What could be keeping you from sharing with Management your reflections around your dilemma or struggle or indecision?”

12.  “You say that you have not felt any desire to interact with other subsystems in the ISE, especially with Management.  For your subsystem, what is the greatest risk that lies in deciding to enter into such encounters?  What is at stake in encounters with the Other?” 

13.  “Management designed and presents this event because it believes that it provides opportunities for learning about one’s management of self, authority, and responsibility as a member of an institution.  How do you understand what they are referring to?  What institutions?  What self-management?”

14.  “In dialogue with Management, would you expect to learn anything of use?  How could the learning that might take place in such encounters be ‘dangerous’ for you?”

15.  “On the superficial level, what do you want or look for in your image of the ‘good’ manager?  On a more private, perhaps only interior, plane, what do you yearn for from your ideal manager?  How do the 'desirable' qualities you imagine compare with what you wish for and obtain here and now in the ISE?” 

16.  “Is ISE Management functioning or behaving as you expect(ed) them to?  Let’s explore the differences between what you expect(ed) and what you are getting…and the feelings and behaviors that such differences stir up in you and in your subsystem.”

17.  “When you express anger and resentment towards Management for the difficult and unforeseen situation in which you find yourselves in this event, because ‘they knew beforehand what was going to happen,’ are you speaking perhaps of expectations of Management that you have in your mind and heart?  Almost sounds as if you expect Management to insulate you from difficulty because of Management's theoretical but unexamined ability to know or predict the short-term future.  In this system-in-the-mind, what do you fantasy that Management expects of you in return for this preparation and/or protection?”

18.  “Have you shared frankly with the Management of this event the risks that you anticipate in any encounter with them?  Do others in other subsystems feel the same way and do they have fears or issues or doubts similar to your own?”

19.  “Could opening or closing the door signify inclusion or exclusion of Management or serve as a convenient, if nonverbal, way of including or excluding Management?”

20.  “Does the door issue have to do with your subsystem’s ‘position’ or 'posture' towards Management, perhaps reflecting an idea of Management that you hold in your minds?”

21.  “Do you dare authorize a delegate or plenipotentiary to relate directly to Management?  Does the door issue forestall the authorization of each other and thus keep the whole shebang in the safety of the ‘out there’ and of the future tense?  Could there be some connection to the idea of your being in a 'retirement home' or 'shelter for the abandoned/homeless/stalked/abused?”

22.  “I encourage you to share with ISE Management your work, your hypotheses and ideas about your relationship with them as Managers and any links you see between your own self-management ability (in your role) and their exercise of institutional management in this event.”

23.  “How do you explain the reality that most of you have gone as observers to Management’s work space, but have never spoken with them from a position of being authorized by your own subsystem to act as delegate or plenipotentiary?  What does allowing yourselves to be only silent observers say about your psychological or spiritual or political relatedness to Management?”

24.  “You say that it’s all a show, that come Monday, the managers will be acting quite differently when you will see them in the corridor.  And that a couple years ago, as an undergraduate, you ‘believed’ it all more.  Perhaps someone might now describe you as a disillusioned believer, former believer, or even a management-atheist.  What influence does your experience exert on your system-in-the-mind about Management in the here-and-now?”

25.  “Could your subsystem have some fear that you may not be able to return to being altogether the same you, come Monday morning?”

26.  “You report that you saw the Director and the Associate Director, the two top managers of the ISE, walking together and laughing at lunchtime.  How did you find yourself viewing them?  What feelings did the sight of them leave with you?  What do you imagine that they could have been talking about?  In your fantasy, what could they have been laughing about?”

27.  The hypothesis delivered by Management mentioned something about the fear of knowing (learning and transformation through encounter with the Other) being greater than the fear of not knowing (maintained through isolation).  How do you resonate with that part of Management's hypothesis within this subsystem?  What are your fears really about?”

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+(1 504) 616 0643 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
+(5255) 5510 9830 in México, Distrito Federal, México
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5208 Magazine Street, PMB 200, New Orleans, LA  70115


© 2009, 2011, 2013, 2016 by Dr. Stan De Loach  All rights reserved.


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