Deng Xiaoping once said that managing the economy was like “Crossing the river by feeling the stones” — working with individuals and groups in process work settings, resonates with this metaphor — except that there can be multiple rivers and many of the stones get increasingly unfathomable as the journey extends across days in a behavioral lab.
My first blog of this series was on how one maps group dynamics and yet works with individuals in group settings — the blog began with a simple question — “Do you work with the individual as who he or she is including identity and role-taking, or do you work with the individual as a container of group’s anxieties, projections, and processes in the here and now?” The first blog also referred to the ideology and methods deployed in various institutions including Sumedhas.
This blog brings offers another dilemma for the facilitator of the group and may be useful for those who work with groups, change management teams, organization development and coaching.
Articulating the SECOND Dilemma
“When and why do I Affirm the individual, and when and why do I Challenge him / her?”
The other day, a friend was defending a growing perception in some circles of process workers and OD consultants, that I am a rude and terrifying person to work with — my friend was, and much to my intrigue and endearment, using a metaphor of the teddy bear, stating that beneath my role-taking lies a loving and generous human being. There have been similar judgments made in the past of me — some of these seem unfair, but that people have been impacted by my ‘need to challenge them at all costs’ is a reality that I cannot escape.
While it has taken me years to express affirmation, tenderness, and even love for members in a group in process work settings, the dilemma is unescapable — in the way I have defined it. It has to do with both the timing (when) and the assumption (why). It remains a dilemma for there is a sense of either/or at the opportune moment as a facilitator or even a member, and that the choice unleashes unintended consequences.
Each institution has a way of capturing these thresholds where the facilitator or the consultant is sitting on dilemmas around making an apt intervention. In the Sumedhas folklore for example, V. Kartikeyan, had in his mirth and creativity, unleashed a series of epiphanies about each Sumedhavin process worker, and the dominant facilitation style.
Structured around the phrase — “when In doubt…”, he used pithy verbs or adverbs that captured our respective stances, our role-taking propensities, and our styles on this dilemma. Kartik created these abridged ‘haikus’ and with tremendous nostalgia, I quote some of these, as accurately as I can remember:
“When in doubt, blindfold …”
“When in doubt, flute …”
“When in doubt, hug …”
“When in doubt, lash …”
“When in doubt, slash …”
“When in doubt, enact (a role-play) …”
“When in doubt, mother …”
“When in doubt, sing /recite (an ode) …”
While these memories may bring a smile on the reader who is familiar with Sumedhas, Kartik’s use of ‘when-in-doubt’ was quite telling for all of us — who are process workers. It was clear to all of us that while working with groups, a facilitator would often experience ‘doubt’ amidst moments of ephemeral clarity. So much so, that experiencing ‘no doubt’ was an alarming signal of losing touch with the individual and group reality.
And this brings the question of ‘why’ and ‘when’.
It is an easy defense to maintain that as a facilitator or as a consultant, one was caught in a ‘flow of spontaneity’, or trusting one’s subjectivity or the gut, or that one just responded to the group dynamics without over-thinking or ‘over-analysis’. I have seen this happen a lot in most process work spaces, where the facilitator unleashes his or her unresolved issues and residues on the group. There have been numerous times, when I have made a challenging confrontation that is an ungracious attack or completely inappropriate, and then defended myself in the consultant sub-system, stating that the group dynamics warranted it.
It becomes even more difficult when some of your colleagues unconsciously or consciously choose to collude with your defense, for there is further work to be done in such meetings around tasks and demands of a lab. Running a program or a lab has its fair share of tasks.
So, I guess, the dilemma rests quite solely and sorely, as the burden of the facilitator and needs to be worked with the co-facilitator or even with the group who has witnessed the process and the intervention. Often, a courageous de-briefing by the facilitator in the subsequent session with the group, frees both the facilitator and the group of residues and actually open new explorations — except that hubris comes in the way.
To Affirm and /or to Challenge
“Examining Consequences and yet Investing into Action”
Affirmation is best when the individual or the group is feeling fragile, unloved, caught in the throes of despair and sorrow. Affirmation comes as a salve that brings the individual and the group alive especially when the individual and the group have forsaken the ability to look after selves. Many of the members or participants who come to process work spaces and settings, bring in their individual and collective desolation and aloneness — it is as Ashok Malhotra (co-founder of Sumedhas) has put it — in search of an oasis to combat existential aloneness and dryness. There have been numerous times, individuals offer their hurts, their nightmarish episodes of being violated, their victimhood and sorrow, and into this sharing or catharsis, seek a touch of healing, tenderness, offerings of hope, and intimacy.
However, there are times, when the facilitator or the consultant feels extracted upon for the unsaid contract is of ‘non-negotiable renewal and replenishment’ — and where the individual and the group created dependency on the facilitator(s) and then suck(le) away the nourishing nectar of affirmation and touch. If this becomes a dominant process, and where the group or individuals renege on their abilities to look after themselves, the group engages in a scene quite reminiscent of vampires feeding on the breast of the facilitator.
Some process workers are willing to work with this emerging toxicity of human sorrow showing great courage, fortitude, and gentleness — without drawing a line. There are times when there is even an unconscious competitiveness within the consultants on who can dive deeper into the ocean of ‘dukha’ or sorrow and emerge victorious, having enabled individuals and groups to express and work with it.
But in all of this, there is one consequence that is disquieting — the process-work space becomes a space of catharsis and renewal, except that the individual has not aptly or appropriately created a practice within self and becomes dependent on the institution or a particular healer (who often becomes a ‘loving guru’ figure)
To ‘Challenge’ is to offer insights, provocations, working hypotheses, and troubling questions that confront an unconscious scaffolding that has lost its purpose — the scaffolding instead of enabling the participant or the group has become as Pink Floyd puts — ‘the Wall’ and becomes a resistance to the new or emergent realities. The wall could be buttressed with processes of denial, projections, hurts, … the list goes long.
While challenges are pertinent to specific individual and group processes, there are times, when I as a facilitator get pulled in by the group to be incisive — the picture in the mind is that of enabling the participant to look at the resistance, engage with the intensity of sorrow that the wall wishes to insulate one, and to discover new ways of relating with the past and the emergent.
The process is replete with many an emotions — there is huge self-doubt as one prepares for the task, there is guilt for one is sensitive to the accompanying violence that the challenge brings with it, there is the seduction of feeling omnipotent — as if you are the only one who discern the wall and the only one who can tear down the wall so that clarity emerges for the participant or the group in there, and lastly there is the need to be ready to embrace the hate, hurt, and rage that comes at you.
The Challenger is as much a MARTYR as the Affirmer … when it comes to soaking up the toxicity from the individual and the group.
One of the disquieting consequences of being the challenger is that of ‘being alone’, and ‘the untouchable’ — both the consultant and the participating group have to deal with this consequence. Very often the group resorts to villainizing the challenger by offering compensating touch that resurrects the same old resistance, and at that moment, the capability of the group to work as a system is non-existant. No amount of affirmation would restore it.
Worse still, if the challenge is not relevant for the individual participant or the group and where the consultant has been blind to the unresolved issues and concerns that he or she is bringing into the group. In my earlier years, I would often carry these ‘displaced’ issues from other subsystems, and end up becoming quite dysfunctional in groups.
The Way forward …
Lest doubt imprison you as you read this blog, the biggest hope that process work offers is that it is a journey for all concerned. Except for the closing ritual that becomes a time boundary, all process spaces are spaces for you to invite and invest into a review of what may be happening for you and for the group. It is these reflections that give you hope, for the group and the individual participants can work with themselves on their own and that you are not as omnipotent as you may want to believe.
As long as there is a commitment to explore what may be happening in the here and now with the group and the consultant sub-system, the dilemma of affirm and / or challenge is a reasonable burden to carry. Often this dilemma opens up new doors for self and for the group.
Juxtaposing the two dilemmas
“What lies ahead”
Design of process work spaces is as critical as deploying oneself in the role of the consultant or facilitator and reviewing one’s own / group’s dynamics. The following construct may help you as a reader …
I think it is a useful practice of a de-brief with a colleague on the nature of role-taking for yourself as well as the stance of affirm versus challenge. I have treasured my experiences and my conversations with my teachers as well as my colleagues — the de-brief enables one to look at multiple dimensions of what may be happening in a group.
My initiation and continual investment into process work is owed to one such teacher and colleague — Ashok who enabled me to look at a larger picture in a de-brief across a four-hour drive from Agra to Delhi Airport, when I emerged out of my first lab as ‘broken’ resource person who had no clue of what happened within the group.
There have been several such conversations over the past 25 years and I offer my tribute to Raghu Ananthanarayanan, K S Narendran, Sarbari Gomes, Rosemary Viswanath, Ganesh Anantharaman, Gouranga Chattopadhyay, Amit Desai, Antoine Legrand, Leonardo Veneziani and many many significant others …