Sunday, September 09, 2007

Relational Ruptures in Large Groups

Entry for 9 September 2007:

Although I wasn’t particularly looking forward to them, I was curious about what the large groups would be like at BAPCA (British Association for the Person-Centred Approach). These were scheduled for an hour each, generally at the beginning and the end of the day. The two I went to were attended by 100-150 people, sitting in 3 or 4 concentric circles in a large room. the size of the room necessitated the use of microphones, which had to be paased, sometimes awkwardly, back and forth, which controlled the communication process fairly strictly.

The first morning group I attended was a fairly quiet affairs, and in fact, I had trouble staying awake for it (always a problem for me). One of the really odd things about the large groups here is that they have no formal ending. Instead, when the time is up, first one person gets up to leave, then a few more, until suddenly, most of the people get up and leave en mass, even though someone is speaking. This reminded me ever so much of a flock of birds taking wing, and I am sure that it is a self-organizing in much the same way as described in various forms of chaos and dynamic systems theory.

The second morning group, however, was a quite bit more lively, and confirmed all my worst prejudices about large groups: After a slow start, in which people made various announcements and plugs, a series of confrontations began, featuring increasing anger and attack. The structure of these relational ruptures, in which someone expressed anger toward someone else, seems to me to be something like this: First, someone (Person A) offers something with the ostensible purpose of helping a particular person or the group as a whole. However, something about Person A’s behavior is taken by someone else (Person B) as unfair in someway (e.g., an insult, intrusion, control). Person B either waits for the next available microphone opportunity or interrupts Person A (e.g., by standing up and physically moving). Person B then angrily expresses a public complaint about Person A’s behavior, including attributions about Person A’s character or lack of sensitivity. In a large group of this many persons, it seems clear to me, there is a very high probability that Person B’s public complain will (in EFT terms) induce primary shame in Person A.

What happens next varies. In some cases, the complaint is ignored, which then becomes the subject of further complaints; in interpersonal cycle terms, this is a pursuer-distancer cyle (Person B pursuing Person A, who then withdraws further). In other cases, there is some kind of defense on the part of Person A. Both of these responses lead to a continuation of the confrontation, and sometimes to an escalation into a mutual attack interpersonal cycle.

In PE-EFT terms, this relational breach is an alliance rupture marker, which would strongly signal the suspension of other ongoing activities and lead to structured processing of what had just happened in order to try to resolve it through a relational dialogue. In the unstructured large group I saw this did not happen. Instead, the initial response of the group was for some to come forward to support one person or the other, in effect taking sides in the rupture. However, others came in to try to take the conversation in a different direction, especially as other complaints/ruptures accumulated. As time begins to run out, still others offered empathy (generally in the form of claims to understand) and support to both of the conflict parties, in an apparent attempt to bring some closure to the rupture. Finally, there were several complaints about the group process itself (this analysis can be understood as a delayed instance of this). What was again missing, for me, was any focused, effective attempt to resolve the rupture. It was clear to me that several people had been left with untended emotional injuries as a result of the group process we had witnessed. What also became clearer to me from this experience is that the size and complexity of the group, together with the noninterventionist philosophy of the participants, militates against resolving relational ruptures; and most participants, including me, would consider it too risky to attempt to do.

In fairness, these folks might have engaged in various processes to extract meaning out of the experience, and may even through this further work derive growth out of the experience, in the same way that trauma survivors commonly extract some sort of gain from their traumas. However, this is by no means assured. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that the real issues of shame, injury, and secondary reactive processes are not being addressed. For example, Person B’s angry reactions are taken at face value, rather than as secondary reactive emotions; the primary shame and emotional pain are not being acknowledged, making the interaction less than genuine. To my mind, large groups that unfold in this manner simply replicate everyday circular (structure-bound) processes of blame and attack; I can see little value – and potentially much harm – in replicating these interpersonal patterns.

On the other hand, I can see much value in a group process in which relational ruptures are recognized as such and subjected to alliance dialogue, in which both parties are encouraged to honestly examine and unpack what happened between them, in order to access their underlying primary emotions and to truly understand the other’s experience. Focused relational work is not hand holding or depriving parties of the opportunity to work things out for themselves, as my colleagues on the diploma course at Strathclyde have objected when I proposed holding rupture processes more strongly. It’s difficult and scary and requires training and scaffolding. In my opinion, not properly training counsellors to deal with ruptures leaves them with unresolved issues and thus increases the possibility that they will replicate the process with their clients. In other words, such processes may make counsellors less rather than more safe to practice. A full articulation of a model for resolving relational ruptures in groups is badly needed. The PE-EFT Alliance Dialogue task provides a starting point, but needs to be adapted for groupwork, which is an inherently more complex situation, but which also provides more potential resources to aid resolution. A starting point, I believe, would be preparing students for large groups by teaching them the Alliance Dialogue model and having them practice in role-play situations.

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