Working with Groups — Wrestling with and within on the First Dilemma

Gagandeep Singh
5 min readJun 12, 2023

Preamble

As my son travels to Udaipur for the Sumedhas Summer program — a great place to learn and grow using process work in groups, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia and some anxiety as a parent. I am also in the process of apprehending dilemmas that have stayed with me. This blog introduces you to a foundational or the first dilemma of a facilitator consultant.

My labelling of perhaps a common and recurring phenomenon as the ‘first dilemma’ may sound hyperbolic at first and I beg your indulgence if you continue to read on this.

To the stranger who has started reading this blog, I have been working with groups, and group dynamics for the past twenty-five years — multiple experiences across process labs, group relation conferences, and change management teams have also triggered questions as well as doubts apart from insights and many an epiphany.

Part 1

Articulating the FIRST Dilemma

“Should I work with the Individual within the group and / or should I work with the Group?”

If the African adage states — “It takes a village to raise a child”, perhaps one can also play with an equivalent notion that “It takes a group to trigger and influence individual behaviour”. This assumption leads to the pivotal question that evokes the dilemma — “Should the lens of my enquiry be focused on the group (as a singular entity) or should my lens look at the individual — his or her valences and psychological role-taking?”

Let me offer an example.

To Work with P or not with P

P is an individual who can be quite abrasive, aggressive, and insensitive within groups. P takes upon himself to be blunt, state what others seem to be choosing to avoid or ignore, and thus assume centrality within the group. While P enjoys this position of power by confronting others, he often feels alone and like a cactus. There is an awareness (even if it is lagging) of putting off others and leaving them hurt. P in the end tells himself that this is the price he has to pay for getting things done.

P belongs to a group that seems to be grappling with conflict and there seems to be an unconscious process of collusion within the group where many others seem to be denying differences, conflicting stances, and the group seems to be in a flight mode most of the time. One of the coping mechanisms, the group seems to be colluding with, is to trigger P (the individual) who seems to have a valence towards working with aggression and conflict. It is almost as if the group energizes (or sets up) P to take up violative stances and where other members emerge feeling affirmed on their sensitivity, gracious-ness, and empathy. This ‘setting up’ is an unconscious pattern within the group.

If you are the consultant to this group including P — what do you work with?

o Do you work with P and explore psychological role-taking, identity patterns, awareness of being triggered by others not just in the group but across all systems? Do you leverage other members’ experiences of P — including that of feeling victimized, hurt, violated etc. as a way forward?

As you work with P, do you look at how P ends up projecting ‘the village’ on to the group — and how the current group is a recurring pattern of P’s world.

o Do you work with the group and explore group processes where “P’s” role taking is also a manifestation of group dynamics and unconscious processes? It does not matter whether the group sets up P or M or Z as much as how the group eschews conflict for the sake of feeling safe or civilised.

As you work with the group, how do you enable the group to explore unconscious processes of projective identification and basic assumption groups? And where members of the group emerge with a deeper understanding of how each member has co-created this group process.

This is what I would term as the ‘First Dilemma’.

This dilemma also influences at how the phenomena of ‘working in the here and now’ gets defined.

In traditional process work spaces such as Sumedhas labs, the content of here and now comprises articulating and working with how the evoked / provoked past in the form of emergent memories may lead to discovering unconsciously held injunctions to self at an identity level. For example P may discover how he has been the aggressor to compensate for a specific past hurt, and the white fear of being hurt again that it provokes.

In a group relations conference, the here and now phenomena would mean looking at the nature of emergent relationships and relatedness that are being co-created within the group and what may be happening at the group level as well as with the individual.

Part 2

What is my stance as a facilitator / consultant to the Group?

“It depends… as long as I am aware of the price the group and I pay with this stance ”

Let me use another example to illustrate what a stance can be …

S experiences herself as someone who feels anxious, vulnerable, and fearful in most group contexts. She experiences herself withdrawing from her context — often experiencing herself as very fragile. In the group, she is unable to discern ‘the oppressor’ (naturally) and is yet entrenching herself into a lament of feeling resourceless, the outsider, and the victim. This process is leaving her feeling lonely and untouched, and she wishes to exit the group.

At a group level, you are also aware of a certain sense of evolving intimacy and excitement that members of the group (except S) seem to be investing into, and perhaps without looking at differences and diverse perspectives — and thus many members are feeling a sense of belonging and safety. You are mulling over whether the group seems to be unconsciously setting up a tribalistic clan by ‘othering’ and ‘excluding’ individual members (and specific feelings that they symbolize or stand for).

What do you do first?

It depends …

Now that is perhaps not the answer you as a reader was expecting. In Sumedhas as well as in GRCs, we try to bound the nature of exploratory spaces — but this dilemma has a way of emerging and surprising you.

However you and the group always pay a price as you take a stance — even if you believe that you can work with both sides of the phenomena and it takes only a moment or two to move from the individual to the group or vice-versa.

If you like this blog, I would be enthused to move to other such dilemmas …

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Gagandeep Singh

I work in the realm of Organization Development and focus on transformation, alignment and culture. I am doing my doctoral research on hybrid social enterprises