The ‘here and now’

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

The other feature of my early learning was about the ‘here and now’.

The social work course began with observation of mother and baby, and it was also my introduction to the intense world of non-directed group experiences – groups whose task was to examine the here and now of group behaviour. This was an experience that derived from the observations of Bion who identified in the midst of the complexity of personalities in a group, some underlying shared assumptions and behaviours. These patterns were:

  • Dependency – group members idealised the leader
  • Pairing – group members sought counter leaders or support from intimacy with another group member
  • Fight/flight – group members either withdraw into silence or engaged in arguments with the group leader

These unconscious patterns of behaviour were revealed as the group leader interpreted what he observed and prompted the group to look closely at how people behaved and spoke as well as at what they said, and also suggested different ways of understanding what people said through looking at layers of possible meaning.

The group would for example start with the leader defining the group task as seeking to understand group behaviour through observation of the group itself. There would then be a shocked pause as the group – in dependency mode – waited for the leader to start some kind of lecture. As it sank in that this was not going to happen, some group member would gamely start to  raise the question of how this task was to be approached and in the absence of comment from the leader, would look to other group members for support – the pairing mode. Most of the group would sit in silence – flight mode – whilst some would get angry that the leader was not doing their job – fight mode. The leader’s comments, such as they were, would direct us to these patterns. So they might say in the dependency mode – ‘the group seems to be expecting me to say something more’.

This kind of observation experience also drew me to pay attention to how my emotional response to people provided  as rich a source of observational material as what we see and hear. This all had a more immediate and convincing vitality than the rather speculative interpretations of how people’s early experience may be causing current behaviours.

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