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This account is subtitled:  The weirdness of a ‘Tavistock Group’ (Group and Individual psycho-dynamics), 1973

Something happened to me about forty years ago: it was a very strange experience – the haunting memory of which continued to re-surface over the years – along with the question: ‘What was it all about?’ Now, forty years later, I have tried to identify what really went on and what significant lessons I can draw from that original experience.

At the time I was working as a psychologist and psychotherapist in Feltham Psychiatric Borstal. In some ways, although I was very young, I probably enjoyed a certain status. In those days a psychologist was often assumed to have special powers and insights – as well as the ability to unearth the ‘truth’ about another person. Added to this was the fact that the offenders in Feltham Psychiatric Borstal were thought to present special problems to the staff (and the wider society) – problems that psychologists might even be able to solve.

The Borstal ran its own staff development programmes – and, among other things, the programme attempted to establish a genuinely therapeutic ethos amongst all of the staff. As part of this programme I, along with a mixture of governors and prison warders, was detailed to attend a training session that would last for three days and that was to take place in a suite of training rooms situated in a nearby town. However, in truth I was not overly concerned with the ambitions of the Borstal institution as a whole: I was 23 years old, relatively self-absorbed and caught up in the spirit of the times – a spirit that took as its over-riding value a simplistic idea of ‘freedom’. So, although the training course had serious ambitions it was, for me, just something I was required to attend. I did no conscious preparation for the training event – and that meant I had no real idea of what it would entail.

I arrived about fifteen minutes after the course had started. There were three reasons for this: First, the train and bus journey I had to take was long, slow and tortuous. Second, I did not know exactly where I was supposed to go and wasted time looking for the exact location. Third, I didn’t care enough about the course to make absolutely sure that I was there on time.

As I walked into the room I saw a group of people (perhaps 7 or 8) sitting in a circle with no desks in front of them. No one spoke. I recognised one or two members of the Borstal staff and I sat down on a chair next to a young deputy governor called Jack. I knew him – but not at all well. I felt extremely uncomfortable because no one in the group said anything and the group continued to sit in silence. No one explained anything to me about what was happening. As the silence continued I felt increasingly worried in case I had disturbed what I thought might be some sort of prayer or special meditation that was still taking place. The silence lasted for several minutes. Then, a man, who I later discovered was the facilitator of the group, said:

‘It seems that the group is having difficulty expressing itself, is having difficulty talking to itself’ (or something like that).

Since he had broken the silence I said: ‘I’m sorry I was late. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to interrupt anything. I thought, perhaps, everyone may have been praying.’

And still no one said anything until the facilitator said:

‘Maybe some sort of prayer was taking place.’

This really puzzled me. At the time I took him literally: I didn’t say anything but I thought that either the practice of silent praying had taken place or it hadn’t. So, I looked around at the people in the group – as well as the facilitator – hoping that someone would confirm or disconfirm the facilitator’s suggestion or say something about what had been going on – but no one said anything. Everyone seemed to be thinking or reflecting – or introspecting – but no one said anything. And, no one asked me why I was late. Those who didn’t know me did not ask who I was – nor did I ask anyone to introduce themselves or to say something about how they were feeling. So, by this time, I was feeling not only a real sense of bewilderment but also a high degree of discomfort. I even wondered if I might suddenly lose control or go mad. And, in a way, that was simply terrifying.

The silence continued. At this point I thought that I would somehow just have to sit things out until the coffee break. (I was sure that there would, sooner or later, be some sort of break. Surely, I thought, we couldn’t spend the whole day just sitting in silence.) At last, the facilitator pointed out that it was 11 o’clock and that it was time for our first break. I was very relieved and looked forward to some sort of normality. I asked Jack what was going on. He said that he had no idea and that it was all very strange. I didn’t feel I had much in common with the other people in the group. They were much older than me – and so I hoped that things would get better as the day wore on.

But they didn’t. The session up until lunch-time was almost the same in character as the first session. Over lunch no one said anything about the group session(s) that we had experienced. Instead, the conversation was dominated by the frustrations the staff felt about working in the Borstal. Then the afternoon sessions began: For most of the time there were only fragments of conversation or short verbal exchanges between group members and the facilitator (who looked thoughtful, serious and kindly throughout the sessions) still maintained his extraordinary stance of non-intervention.

I spent most of the time feeling intensely uncomfortable – and I always had a feeling that I might suddenly go mad – although I had no idea in what form the madness would manifest itself. I spent a lot of time looking at the floor and I tried to find a mental state that would help see me through until the end of the day. Amazingly the next two days were virtually identical to that first day. As a group we somehow managed to spend three days in a silence that was only sporadically broken by seemingly disconnected comments and momentary outbursts about the way the Borstal was ‘going to the dogs’.

Now, as I finally look back and sustain a focus on the experience I am able to make some sense of what was going on and I think that I can uncover significant learning about myself – then and now.

First, I arrived late and instead of having the confidence and self-assurance to ask, “What has gone on, what have I missed?’ I sat in the group feeling very uncomfortable. And I let this discomfort continue. But why? I did not ask because I was afraid to break the silence and be seen as rude or inconsiderate. In other words, I allowed myself to be deeply constrained by the presence of others – and this has remained a theme throughout my whole life. I am scared of making a mistake, of offending a norm of conduct – and I am always worried about how I am being judged. I continue to have an excessive (and dysfunctional) sensitivity and susceptibility to the presence of others. When other people are around – even including those I know well – I am likely to put on some sort of performance for them (in the sense that I am alert to their reactions – it’s as if I’m ‘on the look out’ or ‘on guard’) – and this means that I often do not know what I really think or want – precisely because I am more concerned about the impression I am creating rather than attending to my inner ‘being’. In a way, I become alien to myself.

Second, I had no real grasp of group dynamics; I did not ‘see’ that my autonomy and individuality were effectively dissolved or swamped by the mere fact that I was in a group. Even though I may have thought that I – and everyone else – was primarily an individual I was blind to the fact that I (and everyone else) was now responding as a group member to the emerging phenomenon of the group. In fact, the facilitator’s opening remark underlined how the event was concerned less with individuals and more with group dynamics. But I did not appreciate this.

I did not have any organised theory of group dynamics – and no idea of the ‘irrational’ forces that are at play in human groups. Only later did I learn that ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’. I had tended to think that there was a gulf between theory and practice – but, as my experience shows, if I had had some insight into what was going on then I would not have been quite so paralysed and rendered so inactive – a kind of non-existent in the group; my lack of knowledge and lack of any useful theoretical framework meant that I was virtually powerless. It also meant that I lacked any resource to make the group a safer place.

Third, I did not know who was ‘in charge’ and I expected someone to be in charge. I was reliant on the presence of an authority or leader or on someone who would fill the role of guide and teacher or trainer. And since no one was filling this role in anything like a conventional way my disorientation (and emotional state) meant that I was completely unable to do anything positive with the lack of structure. This surfaces one of the most basic issues about individual and group dynamics i.e. the dynamic of power, authority and control: It demonstrated that I (and probably almost everyone) needed a figure or figures to orientate the group so that it could achieve whatever it was convened to achieve. But it also reveals something that I completely denied at the time: I had a self-conception that I was free, innovative, non-conformist and independent: I fantasised my identity as something of a rebel. The problem with this self-conception was that it did not co-incide with the facts: I relied far more on leaders and authorities than I ever realised. But my self-conception went further than this. It actually disallowed me from admitting or owning up to the fact that I was really anxious and fearful in the group. Perhaps this is the most significant learning of all: I was using psychological processes to protect my self-conception even when that conception was massively contradicted by the facts.

In addition to these very basic learning points that I have drawn from the experience I also think that I completely missed the opportunity to benefit from the event and draw lessons from it at the time. That is a pity because my subsequent work would have been much better informed (and my practice might well have been enhanced) if I had been able to understand what was happening –through the provision of appropriate theoretical frameworks. How and when to help people with theoretical frameworks that they can use in real life is a matter of timing and judgement. Perhaps an even bigger challenge and difficulty lies in the problem of how self-image refracts, distorts and denies ‘reality’. I imagine that this is a very widespread phenomenon: in all likelihood most people (including me) live it a world of self-deception – where ego-defence mechanism shore up fantasies about the self.

I think I also need to address two other aspects of that original group experience. The first concerns my concern that I might go mad. The second concerns the way the group as a whole appeared to settle on simply ‘sitting out’ the experience: there seemed to be a tacit agreement that ‘we’ would wait for the whole thing to be over.

Some years earlier when I had first visited a mental hospital whilst I was an undergraduate I had real fears that I would (somehow) tip over into a state of madness from which I could not escape. And exactly this feeling re-surfaced in the group. I think that this fear of madness was related both to an aspect of my personality and a prevailing belief that madness could come upon someone ‘just like that’. My father had sometimes noted that I was ‘highly strung’ – as if I was like a taut bowstring – something that was liable to snap. And there is no doubt that I had a feverish temperament. I think that my underlying sense of instability was heightened in the bizarre circumstances of the group. Some years later (in the late 1980s) when I was training in the practice of humanistic psychology I came across a paper published in 1977 by Banet and Hayden entitled ‘A Tavistock primer’. At the outset they note that ‘training in human relations’ often overlooks or ignores ‘the hidden, sometimes sinister irrational processes that affect individuals in group life.’ My fear of being overcome by madness was almost certainly attributable to those ‘irrational processes’.

If the group situation was also unusual for the other group members I imagine that, tacitly, a strategy of no risk-taking, silence and reduction of the self was collectively hit upon as the best way to survive the experience. I think that this must be commonplace in organisations: people keep their heads down and avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

Banet and Hayden’s ‘A Tavistock primer’ also suggests a way of making sense of the group’s extraordinary silence. In their paper they surface the importance of ‘boundary issues” as follows: ‘A fundamental precept of group relations maintains that work is not possible unless some boundaries that are known to all members are established and maintained.’ However, in the group in which I participated there did not seem to be any explicitly shared agreement concerning the boundaries. There was no identifiable ‘skin’ with which to contain the group; there was no obvious agreement as to what we were ‘in’ the group to achieve. And that meant we could not function – except in a kind of shut-down mode. We were too scared and too uncertain to be able to do anything.

Looking back at the event it seems incredible that a number of adults were able to endure a three day group event where, on the surface, almost nothing happened – an event which demonstrated the fact that it is almost impossible to conceive of humans as anything but individuals-in-relation. And this, as Banet and Hayden remark, contradicts the notion that that ‘we as individuals are responsible for our own behavior, that we control our own destiny, that we can make things happen for ourselves.’

In drawing this short analysis to a close I think that the most revealing aspect of that original experience concerns the self-image that I had constructed (of which I was not fully conscious) and the way it so effectively prevented access to reality. My self-image not only led me to avoid acknowledging my actual emotions but it also functioned so that I avoided considering the origins of those emotions – i.e. the way my fear was generated by the new group situation and all the anxieties I had about status and competence and adequacy. This, I think, is enormously significant and surely points to the need for an emotional education, an education of the affect.

Reference: Banet, A. and Hayden, C. ‘A Tavistock Primer’ (available online)

Footnote: I use the term ‘Tavistock group’ to refer to a training event where the focus is on the group-as-a-whole and not on any individual in the group.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice work, Rob. Very honest and almost frightening. I wonder what the facilitator hoped to achieve? No doubt he could offer an unfalsifiable answer to that! It is hard to classify his action under PICCCS. Catharsis? But where was the learning, for most of the group?

    May 18, 2015
  2. DC #

    I’ve just come across your interesting website. Thank you for your reflections on an event that I also experienced and that has also stayed in my memory. It was certainly weird!

    Just before you arrived on the first day a member of the group had tried to “make the group a safer place” by introducing himself and inviting the rest of us to do likewise but he was immediately silenced by the Tavistock person (I can’t call him a facilitator). After that, silence reigned, as you describe. Not everyone in the group was much older than you, though; I was 25. And I wasn’t scared and uncertain, I was angry and frustrated.

    The absence of agreed purpose and boundaries, and the silencing of anyone who might have proposed any, disempowered us as individuals and scuppered the group. Jo Freeman’s article ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’ comes to mind.

    Three days is a long time ‘out’ in a rule-bound institution run to a strict timetable. I saw those three days as a wasted opportunity for a cross-section of Borstal staff – normally fully occupied in our separate jobs, working behind locked doors – to take time to think and work together, to get to know each other and to try and improve life in the Borstal.

    Your account reminded me that the three days took place off-site, not in the Borstal, as I had (mis)remembered. It was the only time I felt imprisoned while I worked there.

    I agree with you about the need for “an emotional education, an education of the affect”. All education, training and professional development should be ethical. I thought at the time and I still think it was unethical to place us in what felt like a psychological experiment we had not consented to take part in and from which we could not opt out.

    I’m glad that you’ve been able to reflect on your experience to good purpose now, although if the aim of the event was to engender such reflection, I have to say I think 40+ years is rather a long effect-time. peterjvilliers’ question is a good one: where was the learning, for most of the group?

    March 4, 2016

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