Recovering meaning and sense making in groups

Recovering meaning and sense making in groups

The norm today is delivering projects that ‘hit the target but miss the point’...


15 June 2015

The norm today is delivering projects that ‘hit the target but miss the point’, a fellow activist researcher famously said a couple of years ago.

Action research is often misunderstood as a kind of research-that-does-things. Probably the root of confusion is the lack of awareness that thinking is an action, probably even the ultimate one. In a culture in which thinking is usually taken for granted, decisions makers and practitioners alike are unprepared when encountering the reality that thinking and understanding are in fact a craft. This is because, as a norm, it is difficult to think while acting or within a group setting. Very often it turns out that those that are most at risk of not being able to think are those expected to perform as leaders because of the many pressures they are subject to. Action research, therefore, paradoxically, aims at enabling thinking in the first place – and it does so by means of designing and delivering a series, a number of cycles or a spiral of spaces for thinking and understanding.

As pressures today are piling, unsurprisingly, practitioners and middle tier managers are increasingly demanding spaces where they and their teams can think about the emotional responses they bring to their organisation. Whether the opportunities for this are called reflective spaces, psychologically informed environments, shared learning groups or action learning sets, a key to these frameworks is that they are not work meetings or team meetings, decision making forums, agenda-driven discussions or psychotherapeutic groups.

The UK-based psychoanalyst Dr Alberto Hahn has been working for years to create such spaces using Meltzer’s approach of running groups as ateliers. I had myself the honour and pleasure of participating in Alberto’s ateliers for several years. Atelier is a French word for an artist’s workshop. In Meltzer’s work (1971) atelier conveys the idea that learning in the psychoanalytic sense interweaves the aesthetic with the professional and takes place between individuals in a work-group (in Bion’s definition). This learning in a work-group is qualitatively different from the learning acquired in formal settings and institutions. The lack of excessive pressure to succeed or conform, and the degree of self-selection in such groups, are considered key drivers for learning together with the fundamentals of what enables and even constitutes learning from experience and thinking in Bion’s work (Meltzer and Harris, 1976). The quality of reflective spaces as an art work dedicated to thinking and understanding, as an action, may help understanding the role of such spaces in the discovery of meaning and the process of sense making for the participants or – as I prefer to call them in the group relations tradition – members.

Recently, meaning making has been highlighted as a key factor for psychological survival as well as growth and development when incubated in a relational context. The very close concept of sense making also refers to staying sane in insane contexts, but also to being able to understand where the insanity comes from, working with this insanity and addressing it to bring back both reason and soul to the work and – even more widely – to being. Two Tavistock Institute thinkers have recently provided, independently from each, other very illuminating accounts of how groups and organisations can get stuck when thinking is not fostered: Dr Mannie Sher (2014) speaks of how practitioners and policy makers can mobilise a range of psychological defences to protect themselves against imagination. Dr Tim Dartington (2014) confronts us with an account of how brilliant stupidity operates inevitably in organisational contexts where thinking is replaced by doing.

My own work strives to bring together principles and techniques from the atelier method with those from the group relations tradition, all in a framework that works with psychosocial, social and political theory within a sociological approach. In designing and facilitating frameworks for internal and external conversations, I observe that thinking in such spaces is very much enabled by love. The essence of the whole Tavistock tradition in psychoanalysis and research as well as a vast body of work in critical social theory and the arts can be indeed seen as the systematic application of love – the love between mother and child, the love between father and child, kinship love, the love between the analyst and the analysand, in couples, but also at the workplace. Yet to be developed perhaps are reflections on what type of love may be at work between client and patron and – why not – between researcher and researched, consultant and consulted.  The growing depository of thoughts on intersubjectivity and the whole relational turn in social and psychosocial theory can be seen as a search for ways to facilitate genuine loving, or as we call them human relations, in such a way that they remain genuine, cordial and authentic and do not become psychosocial interventions and a set of mechanical techniques, policies or procedures.

Working with researchers and policy makers in reflective spaces has highlighted the mechanisms through which research can stay on the way of understanding in its search for objective facts as evidence. The members of the groups I have set up use reflective spaces to find both their voice and their silence as well as to remember what they have always known but have forgotten about being professionals. Bringing together learning and theorising from a more ‘objective’ research with group opportunities designed to enable thinking and understanding is a must if we are to ensure that policies and practices are based on sense. It is even more important that they offer new collective interpretations to provide shared meaning to society in its diversity, rather than sticking to fashionable today ‘buzz’ words such as data, evidence, targets and impact.

In my experience, mental health practitioners, in particular those who have an impact on mental health and, more generally, on wellbeing, use reflective spaces to sift through the range of experiences and projections that can influence them from below and from above. Such spaces, widely regarded from management as kind of treats for staff, are actually essential in order for their passion for care, altruism and compassion to become again the source of staff’s knowledge and the drivers of their work. Action research based on reflection and the use of reflexivity is about understanding the inter-subjective connectedness that constitutes the social world in which we live and the ways in which we can all make sense of this shared world together. Recent projects in which we used elements of this approach are ReSAurSE, Fostering Futures, Review of Mental Health needs in IRCs and a number of bespoke client-funded consultancies.

Dr Milena Stateva, Senior Researcher / Consultant TIHR.

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