Vignette three

There was a heated discussion between two group members, with Sheila sitting anxiously between them. In a familiar pattern, Sheila often held herself responsible for such "rows" breaking out, related historically to a fear of rowing parents and the wish to hold the peace. On this occasion, however, she said nothing until much later in the same group: "I've been sitting thinking about the anger earlier and for the first time I didn't feel as worried about it . my heartbeat went up and then I thought ... 'Hold on, this is just two people expressing their views. I don't have to be threatened'." She smiled, adding, "I enjoy this group. We can all have our say and we come back each week with new things to deal with. I think I'm changing because people take me seriously, which never happened at home. Something artificial, booze, always got in the way of my parents and me."

This example illustrates considerable change from the extremes of dissociation which had characterised Sheila's dealings with the world, suggesting an increased ability to embrace more complex segments of experience. Dominant, hegemonic principles influencing her internal horizons could be rearticulated and life populated by richer experiences. Sheila made impressive strides in locating her history, her effective history—traditions, prejudices, if one wills—and thus seeing her past in a different way; past and emergent horizons merged through dialogue, so that the old and the new were seen differently, certainly in less violent or exclusive terms. Her confidence and assertion grew and she was far less afraid to have an impact on others.

Circles of the unsaid

It is probably impossible to capture complex qualities of group life in writing, and, clearly, to isolate particular individuals for purposes of clinical illustration is problematic. It is artificial in that, even though it is individuals who seek group treatment, "individual processes" cannot be conceptualised independently of the group matrix in which they occur. That matrix shifts continually, and effective therapy groups are always on the move, occupied not only by present content, but by that which is not-yet said, continually pushing and bumping the edges of the "circle of the unexpressed" (Linge, 1966, p. xxxii); each group calls forth another occasion, a further conversation, a next time. As a consequence, group horizons expand and allow "corrective developmental dialogues" to occur (Tolpin, 1971). Developmental dialogue "gives us the opportunity to look forward and not exclusively backwards and to bring movement rather than petrification to the patient's experience in therapy" (Pines, unpublished, 1996b, p. 11).

Although movement is integral to any process of change, there is the important question of what gets in its way, of hope versus stagnation. Just as group analysis has been open to the criticism that it is based on a communicative optimism, Gadamer's approach has been criticised for its benevolence, his being a hermeneutics of trust rather than one of suspicion. There are, when all is said and done, many conversations which seem to land nowhere, with no one being the wiser; in the realm of human transaction, con-fusions of horizons are as likely to arise as fusions of understanding. And just as group analysis has to grapple with developmental refusals and powerful retreats, "anti-group process", if one wills (Nitsun, 1996), so too Gadamer's ideal has to deal with "antidialogue", consisting of a refusal to learn and a ruthless non-openness to experience which simply reinforces (unthought) known prejudices. Both approaches have to be acknowledged, including negative dimensions and distortions of power/domination.

In defence of a Gadamerian version of how group analysis proceeds, it would be simplistic to imply that developmental dialogues simply unfold, evenly and progressively. Misunderstanding is constant companion to understanding, with psychotherapy having its productive origins and very effectiveness "in breaches in intersubjectivity" (Linge, 1966, p. xii, my emphasis). Efforts to repair such breaches are central to an analytic process in groups, with its unending cycles of dialogue and exchange premised upon "the continual iterative process of taking in different 'explanations', with its implications" (Thornton, 2004, p. 311).


Peter's simple observation, "You're not finished yet ...", was a challenge to finitude or closure, to how as people we can be stuck around the limited horizon of a particular present. The quiet dominance of any person's organising principles often makes particular life experiences seem inevitable, just as in societal terms, a particular world-view can seem part of the natural order. Sheila and Andrea were suffering because their internal world-views were crippling, but were assisted through their immersion in the unfolding articulations of group dialogue and shared understanding. Although writing as psychoanalyst rather than group analyst, Stolorow (Stolorow, Atwood & Orange, 2001) makes the valuable point that all being involves a "multiply contextualised experiential world . Horizons continually form, modify and transform within a 'nexus of living systems'. Groups represent live contexts within which old problems are recontextualised and new trajectories consolidated" (p. 47). Gadamer taught us well, when he insisted on the continual buoyancy and interplay between spaces of experience and horizons of expectation.

A Gadamerian view of group analysis emphasises the playful and serious intimacy of dialogue and of dialectic as the condition for the expansion of horizons. Dialectic in this view is not premised on any simple schema of overcoming, but on the acknowledgment of the inevitable, mixed up nature of human "throwness" and exchange. Retranslating back to Foulkes words, (Foulkes & Anthony, 1957, pp. 149-150), "Therapy lies at both ends of the communication process . communication becomes plastic, relative and modifiable by group experience, not rigid, absolute and repetitive". Further, I would argue, this time against a Foulksean ideal, that group analysis is seldom characterised by the equivalent of psychoanalytic "free associations" (i.e., "free group associations"); there has never been a "blank group" in the way in which there have been "blank screen" analysts. Rather, group analysis is characterised by the serious work and play of articulation, of group dialogue in which all participants are inevitably affected (constrained and enabled) by the realities of addressing and answering.

Group health is characterised by ever more richly populated horizons, which contain an expanding field of possible experience, moving patients beyond what is present and familiar. In the evocative words of one commentator, "Gadamer's hermeneutics preserves the tension between our finite, practical existence and our desire to transcend it causes us to see Hermes anew. He is no longer just an unknown messenger sent from on high, but our own kin: as understanding beings caught 'in-between' we are the offspring of Hermes" (Barthold, 2010, p. xxii).

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