Who do we think we are?

Getting to know yourself in groups

Julie Allen, Associate Member OPUS, July 2017

I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about a young woman I met last December. It was the week a man was stabbed at Forest Hill station in London by an attacker shouting ‘Death to Muslims!’. The young woman talked about the fear she felt each time she left home wearing her hijab. She talked about her thoughts that morning as she’d looked along the line of passengers in the London underground carriage at a woman in full veil and how she had wondered if a man looking to kill a Muslim would pick her first. And she had asked herself if she felt threatened would she remove her hijab?

I didn’t know her name but I remember her words vividly because I heard her speak from inside the large group of a Group Relations Conference (GRC) — one of the most intellectually challenging and emotionally heightened spaces you might care to step inside.

There’s an air of mystery surrounding GRCs. The design was created over 70 years ago by the original Tavistock Institute for Human Relations and they run from a few days to a week to the internationally-renowned ‘Leicester conference’ which is residential over two weeks. If you look on the Tavistock Institute website they describe a GRC as ‘an accelerated learning experience or ‘real time’ learning laboratory and reflective space’. Tavistock Consulting (related but separate to Tavistock Institute) explain that a GRC is an ‘intensive experiential development programme…[which]… looks to deliver new insights into the unconscious processes that affect the participant’s leadership.’ You are also discouraged from attending during personal and/or emotionally difficult times.

They seem to be saying it’s unusual and deep but they are also saying we can’t tell you everything because you have to be there — or that saying too much might spoil it. At the start of a GRC you’ll hear people complaining that they don’t know what’s going on; they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing; they can’t see the point. During the process, members complain that the staff and the consultants at the conference aren’t supporting them; in fact, they seem to be making things worse. And, by the end, members feel that something deeply profound has happened, something too difficult to put into words.

So what is a GRC? Well, it’s a carefully constructed group event without talks or workshops or presentations. No powerpoint slides (although the Director of the GRC in December opened the conference with slides — quite a radical act). Instead, conference members join a large group and then form small groups and interact with each other while trying to make sense of what is going on in the moment. How do they think and feel about themselves? How are they relating to others in the group? What roles are they taking on: leader / follower / saboteur? How are they connecting (or not) with other groups? How do they communicate with the staff organising the conference — that is to say, how do they relate to authority? And in the small review group, which is the space allocated at the conference for reflecting on your personal experience and applying it to your life, you attempt, with the help of the group, to make sense of it all.

That might still seem rather vague but in the intense atmosphere of a GRC there can be incredible moments of clarity, of self-awareness, of a new way to reflect on the group outside the conference – a fresh way to understand society.

At Group Relations Conferences I have joined, I have experienced joy, wonder, lost my ability to speak, found my voice, laughed without restraint and I have also felt furious, frustrated, confused and deeply sad. In other words, I’ve experienced the full range of human emotions. But what is unique about a GRC is that to experience this with other people who are having their own individual response but who, by being part of the group, create the experience can be hugely enlightening. And memorable.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about the young woman from the GRC in December. Her courage to speak honestly about her experience meant that when the attacks happened in Manchester and London this summer, I was unable to forget that Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK are equally at risk (a risk that is tiny in reality but large in our minds) of being the victim of a terrorist attack. And the attack outside Finsbury Park mosque highlighted the impossible situation that many Muslims find themselves in: facing Islamophobia and under suspicion or feared for the very thing that they too abhor and are afraid of.

Politicians, newspaper editorials, TV and social media declare that terrorism will not divide us, but unless we seek to understand each other on a deeper level, the divisions which already exist in society will continue to grow. That is why I believe that Group Relations Conferences, 70 years on, are more relevant than ever. It is essential that we seek a better understanding of ourselves and a better understanding of the groups we belong to as well as the groups which we are not part of. And we must try to understand the society this creates. And of how we might make it better.

To try a Group Relations Conference for the first time, how about the OPUS ‘Making The Difference’ workshop — a four day event over two weekends on 28/29 October and 4/5 November 2017.

To find out more about other Group Relations Conferences, go to:

Tavistock Institute

Tavistock Consulting

The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust

There is no definitive list of events around the world, but this is a starting point
(or google your country plus ‘Group Relations Conference’)