I have always been fascinated with group work. I was introduced to group work in adult education by Rev.Tom Hamill, B.A., S.T.L., L.S.S., scholar, genius and leader. Tom is a prophet in his own right like Professor Ivor Browne. The maverick priest and the maverick psychiatrist have a lot in common, and I doubt very much whether one has met the other. They are both people whose goal it is to empower people so that they will be able to grow to their fullest potential. They are essentially marvellous enablers and empowerers. Tom has long been a believer in the power of group work in adult education. It is hard to know what happens in group work because a lot of issues come up and it is fascinating to see the role of different individuals in a group:- one person (or more indeed) can struggle to dominate the group and become the leader, another can be the scapegoat of the group, another its emotional channel or weeper or crier, another its channel for anger, and still another can play the roll of jester or joker. Then another interesting role is that of the mad hatter or the person who becomes the psychotic or mad one for the group. I think I have observed most of these roles save possibly the last one of which Ivor gives a marvellously vivid account in his reminiscences on the Tavistock conferences in TCD and other venues in the 1970s.
Whatever the dynamics at work in such groups I have found through my experience of them that certain "powers" are experienced welling up in one as the work progresses. I remember vividly Tom Hamill, the leader of the group, noticing that I had something to say. As he invited me to speak he prefaced his invitation with the comments that I was like a volcano ready to explode or a crater reader to break open, mentioning that the original word in Greek was "krater" which meant an ancient vessel used to mix wine and water in. I will never forget the welling up within me before literally the lava of my thoughts boiled forth. Again, it is a marvellous experience to be in such groups as the "powers" or "dynamics" vary about the group. Unlike Tavistock type work, our groups were deliberately and kindly and gently conducted by our spiritual guide or leader, namely Tom. Tom was and is an exceptionally insightful group co-ordinator, facilitator and guide. Anyone who has never experienced group work will not understand anything Ivor writes about his Tavistock conferences. Again, I also have some understanding also of group therapy as I did a course for two years in counselling skills and we learned hands on what counselling is through such group work as it were. While these were not called "group therapy" they operated very much on the same principles and were in fact very therapeutic. Our trained counsellor and teacher guided the group. Tavistock conferences have far less control - practically none from what I can gather from reading Ivor's account. All I know is that I'd love to do such a conference for the deep learning experience it must be.
Now back to Ivor's book and his account of these conferences:
One of the most significant activities of the Irish Foundation for Human development was the group conferences we organised based on the method developed by the Human Relations Division of the Tavistock Institute in London. (Op. cit., 179)
Ivor refers to the fact that all his life he had great difficulty in spontaneously expressing anger, and was amazed that "in this small group, to find myself expressing rage quite freely." (ibid., 180) This has also been my experience in groups and I have witnessed many explosions of anger from individual over the years. I have also witnessed much weeping also. On his rage in a particular group Ivor has this insight to share with us:
My rage was directed towards the consultants and I remember saying to myself, "I am going to hit one of those fuckers as they leave the room," but as they passed close by something prevented me from doing anything. What really surprised me was that, ten minutes later, out in the bar having a drink, I felt perfectly relaxed as I chatted to other members. I can see no possible explanation for this experience other than that I was flooded with the energy and rage of the whole group for a few moments before the event ended. (Ibid., 181)
The last sentence above is very important as each person becomes a channel for the energies or dynamics at work in the group. I have experienced this happening myself. It is an extraordinary experience to be part of and to reflect upon in hindsight. Again Ivor offers us another insight:
...what happens in these conferences is not something artificial and separate from real life, which is a complaint many participants voice when they first attend a conference. On the contrary the design of the working conference is such that it acts like a pressure cooker, bringing very intense emotions and primitive behaviours to the surface. But everything that happens there can be found in ordinary life, albeit in a less intense and less intense form. (Ibid., 184)
...The conference is designed to force out these primitive behaviours and to promote the use of defence mechanisms in order to reduce anxiety, escape ambivalence and preserve sanity. But these behaviours are also present below the surface in our interactions in ordinary society. (Ibid., 186)
The four sequential chapters on The Tavistock Conferences and the following one on Derry, also the chapters entitled The Irish Conferences and the one entitled The Derry Youth and Community Workshop are especially insightful and profoundly moving for anyone interested in the power and potency of group work or group therapy to the human learning and healing processes. Read with openness and be impressed. Also, for anyone interested into community work, in helping the marginalised of any sort the insights of these four chapters are most helpful. Reading both chapters on Derry, one will also be astounded at the insights of Ivor into what makes a terrorist because all of what goes to make one surfaced in the powerful group conferences of the local youths, mostly young men.
Another thing I learned about intensive group work is that it can and does dissolve our personal boundaries for a certain period of time. I found this fascinating. (cf op.cit., 202-205)
Minding the Members at a Conference:
Leaders or mentors or facilitators of groups have to be mindful of what is happening, especially if someone takes on a role, say the role of a psychotic for the group, that the group owns this and takes this psychosis back into itself and the poor person who has become the vehicle of the group's psychosis is not expelled from the group and left carrying it. Here again, I will return to Ivor's words:
When someone becomes disturbed in this way in a working conference, it is vitally important that they are not exported out of the conference. It is the task of the director...to hold them in the conference and to get the members to take responsibility for what they are doing. It is vital for them to take back the energy that they have projected into that unfortunate person before the conference is terminated. (Ibid., 200)
Anger and Union Reps:
People with aggressive temperaments almost always get sucked in to systems as shop stewards or trade union reps.
The Role of the leader:
I found what Ivor had to say here very illuminating indeed:
the essential function of leader then is to ensure that the members of society of which he is in charge take responsibility for all the positive and negative forces that exist within that group. The task is to continually resolve conflicts and contradictions among them, and to manage these within the boundary of the group. There is a paradox here, however, for looking at it in this way would suggest that the job of the leader is essentially to manage something other than him/herself. In actual fact once the leader has emerged, s/he tends to become the stage on which the conflicting forces and contradictions of then group are acted out. (ibid., 205)
Creativity and Control:
As a person with a considerable interest in creativity I find all of what Ivor has written in his wonderful book insightful. Where people struggle for power or where there are power brokers or "control freaks" creativity will find it hard to put down any roots at all. Once various vested interests seek to control anything it would appear to be a fact that creativity withers like an unwatered plant.
To be continued.
Another view of my favourite beach - Donabate Strand, June 2008.