Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
A few months ago, I participated in an experiential conference on group dynamics and processes, hosted by the AK Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems and Center for the Study of Groups and Social Systems. Picture a group of ten people designing and holding a five-day structure for forty other people to explore their individual and group processes. The theme of the conference was understanding authority and leadership in contemporary organizations, and the guiding framework for interpreting group interactions leaned heavily on psychoanalytic theories of behavior. We explored our own projections and fantasies, trying to surface what was going on at unconscious, “primitive” levels.
A lot of our learning centered on the roles we take up within groups: martyrs, scapegoats, kings, and queens. These roles may be ones we naturally gravitate to and/or can be ones that a group projects onto an individual and represent the needs of a group. It’s a two-way dance. I have responsibility over my own actions AND the group unconsciously assigns and interacts with archetypes projected onto me.
It may not be surprising to folks who know me that I took up the role of a livewire. I found that I could not keep my body still during our morning-to-evening routine of back-to-back 90 minute sessions. While most participants seemed content to sit, I stood up and walked and stretched and sat on the floor. I also shared with the group an interpretation of what I was doing, that I was challenging unspoken norms around what is acceptable group behavior. While some people felt threatened by my moving around (“It’s only 90 minutes! Can’t you sit still for 90 minutes?!”), others joined in with me.
There are crucial differences between taking up leadership on your own behalf (“I need to stand up right now”), having the group authorize you to take up leadership (“I’ll join you in sitting on the floor”), and being USED by a group to fulfill their collective needs.
This is a story of my being used by a group.
Early in the conference, we were meeting all together. One person was missing, and as is wont in these intense, collective, trying-to-make-content-in-the-here-and-now situations, we collectively drifted towards annihilation fantasies. What if the missing person is dead? What if he barges through the doors right now and kills us? What if, what if, what if?! The tension was palpable. Given past experiences and my overzealous imagination, it was a no-brainer for me to imagine us all dying. One participant woefully intoned, “We can’t change the tone of this meeting.”
This is throwing bait to a livewire. Live bait. A gauntlet that begs to be picked up.
“Oh yeah?!” I cried out. “I can change it!!!” I shot out of my seat and started dancing, clapping my hands, and chanting “Dance! Dance! Dance with me!” While a few people joined in clapping, everyone remained in their seat.
I plopped back down. A tornado spent.
The dreary conversation continued, although the overwhelming fear within the group went down a notch. I had served as a pressure release valve for the group.
It is in my later reflections on that moment where my learning comes in. While some people told me that they admired my verve, my personal reaction to the incident was one of fear. I had gone too far in freely expressing myself, and I felt like a cartoon. I was working, consciously and unconsciously, too hard to meet the group’s need for movement, light, and air, and at the same time limiting my ability to take up leadership that would be truly valued. If I continued to embody the role of the livewire, no one else in the group would need to confront their own desire to get up and dance.
For the rest of the gathering, I modified my behavior. I reduced the intensity and number of “outbursts” I had for the rest of the conference and more deeply practiced another role I had been embodying all along, as well, that of being present and sensing in. I felt calmer and more in control, and my learning expanded, as well.
So… what might you hold for a group? What roles do you typically play or find thrusted upon you? Are they effective? Do you enjoy them? What can you change to make a better experience for yourself and a group?