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September 24, 2014

First Impressions of Six Days of Tavistock On Attending the A.K. Rice Institute's 50th Annual International Residential Conference (June17-22, 2014) by Bill Sewall

<imgAt the opening session of this year’s AK Rice Institute (AKRI) International Residential Group Relations Conference I found myself sitting in a large meeting room with 40 other participants. We were arranged neatly in rows and gazed expectantly at the nine consultants who sat facing us in a straight line at the front of the room.

At precisely the appointed time the director of the conference stood up, went to the podium and talked to us for 20 minutes about the boundaries, authority, roles and tasks of the conference. He talked about how AK Rice conferences had evolved from the work at the Tavistock Clinic in the United Kingdom. His tone was imperious and unemotional. His description was so nebulous that I understood little of what was said and what the conference was actually about. The leader then sat down with the rest of the consultants who looked silently and vacantly at the participants.

I had no idea what we were supposed to do next. The participants proceeded to ask questions that either were not answered by the consultants or were responded to in very nonspecific terms. We had 20 more minutes before the opening meeting was scheduled to end. Silence and growing confusion filled the room. The tension became almost palpable.

Suddenly, one of the participants stood up and said, “Let’s pick up our chairs, make a big circle and get to know each other.” Pandemonium ensued as the room burst into action. Chairs were noisily shuffled and dragged across the room. Within minutes we were looking at each other in one large circle. I felt proud that we, as participants, had taken some ownership of the conference and were exerting direct responsibility for joining together as a cohesive group. If the consultants were not going to give us specific direction, then we had to take the authority.

Or so I thought at that moment. It was only after the conference that I read in Tavistock Primer II, “[M]embers frequently attempt to change the seating arrangement set up by the consulting staff in an attempt to flee from the anxiety the Large Group experience creates in them and to express their fury at the staff for putting them in such a situation” (Hayden and Molenkamp 2003). This type of revelation would be a common theme as I processed what occurred at conference. In the large and small group meetings I firmly believed that my actions and the actions of the group were rational and conscious, only to find later that a common unconscious force was leading us forward or, on occasion, backwards.

If anything, the Tavistock method is designed to maximize the occurrence of unconscious processes, projections and transferences. While the boundaries, authority, roles and tasks of the conference are clearly spelled out, there are no effective rules or rituals to constrain how a participant acts or reacts. When I was a middle manager in corporate America I knew the rules for when to voice my ideas and when to suppress them. I knew I should never act out in front of my boss or openly express unpleasant feelings. The penalties for such actions could be dismissal, missing a promotion or losing my bonus. At AK Rice the only rule, in the director’s words, was “Don’t break the law.”

With no effective restraints, all the issues that I had repressed as a manager came pouring out in an uncontrollable torrent. As the conference materials state, “Participants typically experience some difficulty as they explore issues of authority, responsibility, boundaries, … projection, organizational structure, and large-group phenomena. … Group members inevitably project on the staff their fantasies, fears, and doubts about authority and power” (

Projections flew like knives around the meeting rooms at the conference and I and several other participants experienced high levels of anxiety. Grown men and women acted out like frustrated adolescents. Towards the end of the conference and in the days immediately thereafter I endured several emotional, if not traumatic, moments that brought me to harsh and startling personal revelations.

As a Chaplain Intern in a hospital CPE program, my attendance at the AK Rice Conference has proved to be a critical turning point. Before the conference I could hear only one “conversation” within a patient’s room. During a case study seminar, with the help of my supervisor and cohort, I might be led to understand some of the additional unconscious material in that conversation. After AK Rice, the patient’s room is now a symphony (cacophony?) of projections, transferences and possibilities. The cues and clues are almost overwhelming. It is as if the real work of chaplaincy has just now begun.
Bill Sewall spent 40 years in corporate America in the roles of General Counsel, Chief Technology Officer, and Information Security Officer. Upon retiring in 2013, he spent two months walking El Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage route across Spain. He is a graduate of the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California and will be ordained as an Interfaith minister later this month. He is currently the Palliative Care Chaplain Intern at Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Vallejo, California, and finishing up his third unit of CPE.

Posted by Perry Miller, Editor at September 24, 2014 9:11 PM

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