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A GROUP RELATIONS CONFERENCE IN THE CONTEXT OF SOCIAL TRANSITION

by Haralan Alexandrov

The Perspective

The following is an attempt to put in words the very special experience of participating in a group relations conference, which took place in August 1996 in Sofia, and the associations this experience invoked. Therefore this text does not claim to give an objective account of the event, but only a personal, not to say idiosyncratic, perspective. The picture of the conference I keep in my mind is vivid, but incomplete, since in my role of interpreter I took part in some of the composing events, listened to evidence, often contradictory, of others, and a third group completely escaped my attention. The role of interpreter gave me the opportunity to take part both in the staff meetings and the events, and, being attached to one of the consultants, to retain detachment - to observe what is happening without being totally engulfed in the powerful group processes.

The role of the interpreters is a transitional one in a twofold sense. The interpreters, who used to be ordinary participants in previous conferences, are expected sooner or later to achieve the status of consultants. They are in a most favourable position to learn, put still their primary task is to facilitate communication between Bulgarian participants and foreign consultants. In the ideal case, they are not expected to take active part in the communication, but to secure two-way transmission of messages, produced by others. However, when faced with linguistically and culturally opaque utterances and behaviours, escaping direct translation, the interpreters become mediators - exploring, clarifying, explaining messages. Standing on the interface, interpreters occupy a specific transitional space within the larger transitional space of the conference - the space where human interaction acquires trans-cultural and trans-linguistic meaning and understanding becomes possible.

Therefore I believe this peculiar way of participating as interpreter and the experience of that role can add a useful perspective to the conference. At least, in my understanding, the interpreter has an additional indicator - he or she can feel better than the rest of the actors the moment when the interaction between foreign consultants and Bulgarian participants is so intense and profound, that his or her work becomes unnecessary. These moments when translation was irrelevant were for me, and, as it turned out, for many of the participants, the most sympathetic and memorable ones - the moments of insight.

The Setting

The members of the conference were of various educational and professional background, mostly from the helping professions - psychotherapists, social workers, teachers, psychologists, NGO activists, most of them belonging to an informal network of professionals, sharing common values and ideas. Part of them have attended the first group relations conference in Bulgaria in 1992 and the follow-up seminar in 1994, introducing the conceptual and ideological framework of the Group Relations tradition for Bulgarian intellectuals. The majority have had some kind of personal group experience in various settings. The staff consisted of six consultants - David Armstrong, director of the conference, Gordon Lawrence and Robert Young from Britain; Toma Tomov, co-director, Kimon Ganev and Zlatka Mihova from the New Bulgarian University; Maya Mladenova, Rumen Popov and Haralan Alexandrov as interpreters and two organizers, Ivan Ivanov and Kiril Slavcov, who were in charge for the administration. All eleven staff members took part in the meetings and discussions. The conference lasted for five days and included plenary sessions, large study group, small study groups, institutional study and consultation sets. The international composition of the staff introduced right from the beginning the issue of cross-cultural communication, whose most tangible dimension was the problem of linguistic translation. The discrepancy between concepts, worded in English, and the available counterparts in Bulgarian language was obvious in the way the brochure of the conference sounded in the two languages. That was the case with one of the central constructs, on which the conference was focused - "authority". The two Bulgarian words for authority connote exclusively either "power" or "prestige", "competence", but we don't have a word, combining both meanings. The cultural and social realities this split reflects became a recurrent theme of the conference.

The Transitional Space

A group relations conference in a post-communist country in the transition period is expected to focus on the issues of social disintegration, authority and empowerment, morals and values, as well as on the relations of our world with the increasingly dominant West. The conference offered space for exploring and contemplating on these issues not from the outside perspective of observer, but from that of participation in the group processes and co-authorship of the social reality. More than that, the presence of foreign consultants in key roles provided the members with the unique opportunity to get feedback, refracted through experience and world views, gained in different cultures.

One way to refer to group relations conferences is to define them as transitional learning institutions (Harold Bridger, "Course and Working Conferences as Transitional Learning Institutions"). That very conference could be considered a transitional space in one more sense - reflecting the hardships of social transition in Bulgaria, and attempting a transition in behavioural patterns of individuals and groups, that will promote the change of civilization our society is struggling with. A further speculation in the psychoanalytic paradigm, underlying the tradition of group relations, could suggest a third dimension - the conference as transitional object, helping individuals to work through separation anxiety and achieve autonomy.

The Construction of Authority

People, raised under communism, in a Balkan society, dominated by patriarchal ideologies, share traumatic experience of numerous encounters with power, which builds up precarious, suspicious and servile attitudes towards authority. Power is not expected to be competent or responsible, but quite the opposite - arbitrary and abusive. Relationships with authority are tense with ambivalent urges - to reject it and rebel against it or to comply with it and try to join it. These contradictory trends, their interplay, effects and manifestations were in the focus of interest and study in the course of the conference.

The Secrets of Power

Authority is always suspected of having ulterior motives and secret intentions. Nothing which stems from authority, happens by chance, simple explanations are misleading, self-evident things must have hidden meaning. The world we abide is a complex conspiracy, full of secret signs and messages, meaningful only for the elite of the initiated. The rest are left to guess in anxious uncertainty, and the wrong guess may cost a lot. The large study group spent some time and efforts pondering why one of the consultants wears bright red suspenders. His explanation that he has red suspenders for the simple reason of keeping his trousers up, was both surprising and disappointing. The group seemed to be at a maze, frustrated and dissatisfied. A straightforward answer may be only a cunning disguise for an unfathomably deep secret. The figure of the consultant acquired the aura of a mysterious, impenetrable, almost supernatural creature. One member made a pun with the name of the consultant, which sounds close to the Bulgarian word for God. Another member dared to put forward the question, which possessed the imagination of the group: "Tell us what kind of a being you are?" This question was left unanswered.

Damaged Parental Figures

The image of damaged parental figures haunted the conference. In a consultation set one member shared painful experience with the authorities on her working place, belonging to the elder generation. The interpretation of the consultant suggested a deep feeling of guilt because of the good things she wants to do, as if these good things are going to expose their failure and thus destroy them. A surrealistic image of failed parental figures emerged in the group - not a mighty trees, providing benevolent parenthood and protecting the young offsprings under their proud heads; but thorny, twisted and fruitless scrubs in a barren land, who suck dry the sap of life and doom the young to painful agony.

The Good object is Away

In the large study group one member shared the thought that she would rather support the candidate for the presidential office whom she doesn't know, than the ones she knows (the elections campaign was under way at that time). The interpretation of the consultant was of a perverse conversion of normal relations - the close and near is bad and untrustworthy, the far and distant is good and reliable. The association, which occurred to the consultant, was that of Milan Kundera's metaphor for the existential experience of communism in Czechoslovakia - "Life is Elsewhere".

The Ways to Attain Authority

Authority resides outside, it is opaque, ambivalent and ominous. It is organized top-down and is vested to few chosen ones, and the criteria of the choice are uncertain. One has to guess about them, and try to build personal relationship as a client with the people on the top, pledging loyalty in the internecine struggles of the potentates. If he is lucky, he will be accepted. The participants in the conference were preoccupied with the issue of the inclusion and exclusion - where and how the lines are drawn. In the course of the institutional study several guesses were made about the selection criteria - a member, who was fluent in English, approached the staff with the request to join it and refused translation in the interaction, assuming that language skills are the passport. Another member, a psychologist, tried to establish informal contacts on professional ground. The same member, being a singleton, constituted a group of one, which she named "the group of the gossipers", and devoted herself to collecting, tracing and producing rumours. Gathering, control and manipulation of information, preferably unofficial one, places you in the position to participate in and possibly initiate intrigues, which is considered a broad avenue to power, as far as power is associated with hidden and shameful secrets.

The Pains of Self-empowerment

The context of experiential learning in the conference offered various opportunities for the members to experiment with self-empowerment. The way these opportunities were utilized or missed is highly suggestive for the culturally established patterns of assuming authority in Bulgarian society. As was already said, in the course of the institutional study much effort was put in guessing about the intentions and forecasting the moves of the staff, assumed as the body of supreme power (part of the staff shared a feeling of being experienced by the members like a kind of Politburo holding a meeting of historical importance). The members, who approached the staff as representatives of groups, were ambiguous about the source of their legitimacy as such - the group delegating them or the staff approving them in the new role. This offered material for reflection on the experience, underlying these ambivalence - the practise of imitating democratic procedures as disguise for totalitarian control. In the small groups several of the members, who had attained leadership in the course of the institutional event, reported uncertainty about the support on the part of the group and anxiety whether it will not surprisingly withdraw it and fail them in their mission. The anxiety was so strong that came to the margin of paranoid phantasies of annihilation. The theme of the tense relationship between leader and followers repeatedly came to the fore in the large study group as well. Biblical imagery was invoked to express the feeling that this culture can not tolerate genuine leadership but only tyranny and leaders are raised only to be blamed, betrayed and overthrown - the worship of Christ, followed by profanation and crucifixion. The group dwelled on the idea of the impotence of people to vest trust and authority in talented and outstanding individuals and thus launch and sustain them as leaders, which predestines them to obey power, imposed from outside and above. In this way, however, they escape personal involvement in social processes and responsibility for the resulting deterioration, resigning with the befalling misfortunes and sustaining the identity of victims. This pattern obstructs the development of participatory life-style as basis for civil society and democratic institutions, and thus perpetuates and legitimizes the abuse of power.

Envy and Gratitude.

As an explanation for this self-defeating strategy was suggested the envy towards the merits of talented individuals, underlying egalitarian attitudes. One member said in the large study group that he feels both envy and gratitude towards one of the Bulgarian consultants for his numerous contributions. In the perspective of recent Bulgarian social experience the Kleinian construct acquires unexpectedly dramatic overtones and the importance of socially and politically relevant explanatory scheme. In the setting of the conference became possible for the individuals to gain understanding about the unconscious mechanisms through which they vest their phantasies and emotions in the life of the groups and institutions and thus influence social processes. The newly gained capacity to name these emotions, to distinguish destructive from constructive impulses, to mourn the losses and repair, implied hope to overcome the self-destructive patterns of social interaction and embark on a new path.

Integrity and Integration

In everyday social interactions each gesture and utterance presupposes and begs its counterpart - a complementary move on behalf of the partner. In the context of the conference the staff members refused to comply in the game and often behaved in ways, frustrating the established expectations. For instance, when caught in the play of projections and projective identifications, the consultants would interpret the process, instead of being involved in it. The resistance of the staff against being identified with absolute power, deprived the members of one of the usual objects for projections of negative emotions. Suddenly the group was faced with the split-off negative parts, unable to cope with them in the usual way. This sharply raised the anxiety, as if individual and group integrity was endangered - always precarious and on the fringe of falling apart, since integrity in that culture is largely maintained through the primitive defence mechanisms of splitting and projection. The group immediately mobilized alternative options, dormant in the culture and activated in times of crisis, such as scapegoating of minorities. In the large study group the mechanism of producing a scapegoat was clearly observable. A member with markedly deviant behavior complaisantly entered the role, performing in a manifestly provocative way. At a point that special member stepped out, placed himself in a chair on a podium, and demonstrated neglectful, if not contemptuous, attitude towards the rest of the group. To add to his strangeness, he spoke in German, a language foreign both for Bulgarian participants and English-speaking consultants. For a few minutes the group could contemplate the personification of its destructive part standing up there, nagging and miserable, begging to be attacked. Several people said they feel very angry with him. Then a woman said that she feels tense and unhappy with that member thus exposed and vulnerable outside there, because wherever he stays and however he behaves he remains part of the group, and asked him to come back, which he willingly did. An air of absolution and reunification possessed the group. It had managed to master the aggressive impulses and without much damage to reintegrate its split-off parts to achieve better and wiser integrity, if not harmony.

The Struggle for Meaning

The feelings of lost perspective, continuous embarrassment and failure to grasp the events, which dominate Bulgarian society in the time of unremembered crisis, were inevitably introduced in the conference. The developments in this temporary learning institution added to the anxiety of the lost meaning, precipitating the painful discovery that established patterns of social interaction are increasingly maladaptive and self-destructive in the new circumstances and adhering to the survivalist wisdom, bequeathed for generations and sanctified by patriarchal culture, does no longer grant survival. But if we have to give up the identity of victims - which manifests itself in muted criticism and passive resistance to power, but failure to hold it responsible for abuses and ultimately complying with the double standards it imposes - than what do we do? Is there any other way we can construct our relationships with authority, and who is going to authorize us to try? Can we take the risk to authorize ourselves, and what happens if we fail? And after all, what is legitimate authority? The conference was haunted by these and other questions, certainly not formulated in such straightforward way. The participants soon discovered, that nobody is going to give the ultimate correct answers, and what a temporary institution like that can provide is to create and sustain appropriate learning context, where they can produce their own solutions and experiment with them without being punished for that. However, the feeling of a world that has lost its meaning was so intense, that at moments was prevailing the suspicion that the whole conference is going mad. "What is happening?" was the question the staff members asked themselves once and again, and often the guesses had to be made almost at random, interpreting the slightest hints the behaviour of the group suggested, and only the experience and imagination of the consultants (and the amazing cultural sensibility on the part of the English-speaking among them) enabled the event to escape the reefs. No question, the members faced similar challenges - to reach terra firma in a turbulent sea, to act in a situation going beyond past experience, to conceptualize the chaos of emotions and organize it in explanation, "to think under fire". In the course of the institutional study one member came to meet the staff. He had produced his own version of what was happening, shared it with his group and now wanted to verify it with the consultants. This was not an easy thing to do - his face was frozen with tension, pale with the effort, a face one can hardly forget. But he had found his way through the void; had brought together the fragmented world, establishing and sustaining links in his mind; had vested meaning in what was happening and communicated it to others. The effort was worth while - he was no longer helpless victim of circumstances.

Links Broken and Links Repaired

A recurrent theme of the conference was that of the broken communication, of words devoid of sense - empty shells, echoing tragically in the silence of solitude, dump sounds, useless signs, denotative of nothing but their own exhaustion. In the context of the conference the destructive effects of the abuse of words for the sake of maintaining double standards loomed large. This sad realization was especially painful for the interpreter, discovering that words such as "moral", "love", "care" or "justice", when translated from English in Bulgarian suddenly fade, as if their meaning has been subversively diluted and ultimately substituted in the decades they were used to conceal and legitimize control and manipulation. Systematic attacks on linking through destruction of the language as a primary source of human communication had produced atomized, silent, and suspicious individuals, striving towards communion and association, but deprived of means to attain it. This painful experience, intensified in the context of the conference, was once again incarnated in Biblical imagery. The large study group introduce the legend of the tower of Babel - a multitude of embarrassed people, punished by an uncognizible deity for sins unknown to speak without understanding, to meet without being able to help each other, to be together without intimacy, to live next-door without being community, to toil without goal and perspective. And if we speak unintelligible languages, is it at all possible to embark on a common undertaking, to establish links with others, to build anew human association, to hope for compassion? Paradoxically, the answer came in the way least expected, transcending language and cultural barriers. At a certain moment in the large study group, distressed with the intense pain and suffering, permeating the atmosphere, one of the English-speaking consultants sobbed. This was a cathartic experience for the group and a moment of insight - compassion is not only possible, but it is always with us; one can do good things without being punished; broken links can be repaired; authority can be human; hardships can be meaningful; hope is never lost. For the interpreter this was a moment of bliss - translation had finally become unnecessary.


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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