Design and Structure The Process of Conference Design

by Eric Miller back to Newsletter 1-2015

It was in the spring of 1992 that I had the privilege of being invited to serve as director of the first German-Israeli conference. A small group of psychoanalysts from the two countries had for several years been working towards an encounter of this kind; now I was to be in charge of making it happen: a privilege indeed, but also a daunting challenge.

My qualification for this role was my experience in the field of Group Relations. I had become involved in this work since shortly after The Tavistock Institute mounted the first “Leicester Conference” in 1957 and I had been joint director and later director of the Institute’s Group Relations Programme since 1969. From the mid-1980s onwards I had helped with the formation of the Israel Association for the Study of Group and Organisational Processes (IASGOP; later OFEK) which began to sponsor similar conferences in Israel, including an annual series of international events cosponsored by The Tavistock Institute. The Israelis taking a lead in the Israeli-German initiative were founder members of IASGOP.

As many readers will know, the “Leicester model” (Rice 1965; Miller 1989) provides a series of settings for the experiential study of group behaviour in the here and now: Small Study Groups (SSG) of about 10-12 members with a consultant; a Large Study Group (LSG) comprising the total membership - typically between 40 and 75 - with 2-4 consultants; an Intergroup Event (IG) in which participants form into groups and study the conscious and unconscious processes that develop between them; and an Institutional Event (IE) which explores the relatedness of the two groups - the membership and the staff as management - that constitute the conference as a whole. In addition, there are Review Groups (RG), Application Groups (AG) and Plenaries (P) to enable members to reflect on their experience in their conference roles and to explore its implications for their roles in institutions outside. During the one or two weeks of such a conference there are several sessions of each kind.

In July 1992, Shmuel Erlich and Rafael Moses each prepared quite a full draft of a brochure for the kind of conference they had in mind and sent copies to Hermann Beland and to me for comments. Other colleagues in Israel and Germany were also consulted. What followed was an intensive interchange of faxes between Berlin, 

Jerusalem and London which continued over several months. Through this we arrived at a shared view of the enterprise on which we were embarking and all of us learned much from the process.

The differences between the Erlich and Moses drafts were minor - for example, whether the length should be four days or five - rather than substantive. One version spoke of members gaining a greater "understanding...of their feelings and fantasies in relation to the complex factors affecting the relationship between Germans and Jews", while the other was more explicit in describing the relationship as one of conflict. They were however in complete agreement that this should be a Leicester-type conference using the same set of events described above and the same methodology.

On this, I had reservations. The design of the earliest Leicester conferences was strongly influenced by theory and methodology derived from psychoanalysis (e.g. Klein, 1959) and extended by the work of Bion (1948-51, 1952, 1961), who had shown that a quasi-psychoanalytic role - interpreting the transference - in a group setting could reveal significant insights into primitive unconscious group processes. Bion’s group-as-a-whole perspective was amplified in the early 1960s by open system theory (Rice, l958, 1963, 1965; Miller and Rice, 1967), producing a conceptual framework later called "system psychodynamics" - a framework that informed the work of Rice, myself and other colleagues in consultancy to organizations. Rice recognized that the evolving designs and methodology of the Leicester conferences, with the emphasis on interpreting the transference of members onto the consultants, were centrally effective for the study of authority: through examining their feelings and fantasies and their consequent projections onto consultants as authority figures members were gaining insights into their own experience of taking and giving authority in leadership and followership roles. From that time onwards, the title of most Leicester conferences became “Authority, Leadership and Organization”, and conferences based on this model have almost always included the word “authority” in the title. Correspondingly, the primary task of the conferences is generally defined in some such terms as this:

"To provide opportunities to study the exercise of authority in the context of inter-personal, inter-group and institutional relations within the conference as a temporary organization".

 My reservation about the Erlich-Moses proposals was that the study of authority was not the central purpose of the German-Israeli conference (though, as they and Beland later pointed out, nor was it irrelevant: for example, in that the constructs of authority and leadership in German culture may have been a factor in the Holocaust). If we could be clearer about the aim and primary task we would be able to draw on the system psychodynamics framework to arrive at a more appropriate design. The framework is plainly used differently in organizational consultancy, and the Group Relations Program had devised other designs for conferences on specific themes, such as men and women at work. This new conference needed to be seen not so much as a “daughter of Leicester” - in my Israeli colleague’s language - but as a “cousin of Leicester”.

To clarify the primary task I raised various questions. The first, based on the concept of the open system as being engaged in processes of importing, transforming and exporting, was: What is the desired output? To quote from my fax:

"In what role will members be applying their learning? As individuals? As people with a particular nationality? As psychoanalysts? Or what? Or, to put it another way, are we primarily hoping for personal learning or professional learning? In the present formulation [i.e. the proposals from Erlich and Moses] with its emphasis on Israelis versus Germans, Jews versus non-Jews, my inference is that the underlying primary task is some kind of cathartic experience that will mobilize German guilt and reparation. It is also a false polarization... [For example there are] German Jews... and German-born Israelis."

I went on to offer a tentative formulation of the primary task:

"To provide opportunities for participants to explore how feelings and fantasies about ‘German-ness’ and ‘Israeli-ness’ influence relations within and between the two groups in the conference."

This, as I saw it, "would express a broader aim of exploring how these issues relate to individual members’ roles both as citizens and as analysts. If that were our aim we would want members to go away with both experiential learning and some conceptualization."

The response from Jerusalem was constructive:

"Our feeling is that we would want to emphasize first and foremost the personal and experiential learning, and only after that the professional side. The German-Jewish polarization exists, but should not lead simplistically to the mobilization of guilt, reparation and catharsis. The experience will hopefully contribute to a more variegated, diversified and personalized experiential learning in all members. Admittedly, that will be difficult, but this is the challenge of this particular conference."

They approved the definition of primary task but sensibly proposed adding the third identity of "Jewishness". This was also confirmed by Beland.

Now began the debate about design. My basic proposition was that the design needed to recognize both the national difference and also the shared professional identity of the members as psychoanalysts. I had the idea of including some conceptual work as a means of reinforcing that shared identity. It also would counterbalance the strong pull of the perpetrator-victim dynamic, which is something that Beland had reflected on in his response to the original proposals from Jerusalem. I had floated some preliminary ideas about the events of the conference along with my initial formulation of the primary task and in a late-September fax I took them further.

First I reiterated that:

"Whereas, when we are studying authority, the transference onto staff directly expresses the issue, in this case we have to be studying how participants use staff as consultants and as management in their struggle to relate to each other over the Jewish issue. Consequently, although some events may have the same names as at Leicester, the context of the task changes their character."

I went on to elaborate my specific proposals:

  • Small Study Groups (SSG) would have mixed nationalities. There would be six sessions and each group should have the experience of three sessions with a German consultant and three with an Israeli. (The question of staffing is discussed below.)
  • Large Study Group (LSG). Whilst both Erlich and Moses had assumed inclusion of this event (and were to continue to argue for it), I was reluctant: "I cannot see the place of a LSG with this bifurcated membership and this task." That was the rational argument, but I was also anxious. A large group, whether in a conference or in "real life", is notoriously volatile and I saw it as posing serious and risky issues of containment. Instead I opted for an increased number of…
  • Plenaries (P), which would give both members and staff together opportunities to review the current state of the conference institution and their relatedness to it.
  • As an alternative to IG/IE I proposed a System Event (SE), explicitly designed to explore relationships and relatedness a) within and between the two national sub-memberships and b) between them and staff as management. ("Relatedness" refers to feelings and fantasies about one’s own group and the other group whether or not they are interacting with each other.) The SE would open with the two nationalities in separate groups.
  • Review Groups (RG) and Application Groups (AG) would have about six members of the same nationality (the same composition for both) and the AG would be focused on members’ external roles as psychoanalysts.

I prepared a draft timetable incorporating these proposals.

The three-way debate continued. Neither Berlin nor Jerusalem liked the idea of switching consultants in the SGs. To quote Moses:

"While we can see the usefulness of studying the different transferences to the two different consultants we feel strongly that this would introduce an element of instability and restlessness that we would like to see avoided."

Given my own anxieties about containment, I readily agreed. Separate openings for the SE were approved by Moses but questioned by Beland. His experience in his own psychoanalytic institution in Germany was that in meetings explicitly to explore their German past

"we needed the presence of our Israeli or Jewish colleagues in order to be able to feel parts of our own reality which is related the Holocaust",

and he believed that the same applied to Jews. That was an important point. Indeed, it was the recognition that each needed the other that had generated the idea of this conference. But I was not convinced that it was an argument against separate openings for the SE.

My proposals for same-nationality composition for RGs and AGs were also questioned. Moses recommended mixed nationalities for both, and Beland for RGs. My provisional program had proposed that the conference should end with a P followed by an AG. Beland recommended changing this into an RG "which would he designed to understand the last Plenary. I think it possible that the whole conference will come to some sort of solution during this last Plenary, which final result might well need to be reflected on and understood consciously.”

Here I quote in full my response to these issues:

"First, I very much appreciate the point about the discovery and rediscovery of the need for the other in order to get in touch with deeper elements of one’s own reality - I think we are all agreed that we would like our members to go away at the end of the week with new insights into their own realities that they can take home into professional and personal lives in Germany and Israel. I have tried to design into the conference process a series of iterations of that joining together and going "home". That is why I want single-nationality Review and Application Groups. Thus on the morning of the second day, after having been together in the Opening Plenary and then, interactively, in three SSGs, members will be going into a first RG essentially to explore the question: ‘What is the state of my German/Israeli identity now?’ (My prediction is that in any case there will be a tendency between events for same-nationality dyads and triads to get together informally: I want some of that activity to be recognized as part of the work of the Conference.) I see the System Event as a second beginning. Members have first arrived at the Conference in their separate groups bringing with them quite complex motivations and expectations; and we as staff have put them together in the P and SSGs. Now at the opening of the SE they are starting again in their separate groups, but this time, although some staff will he present as consultants, the members have to use their own authority to decide whether and how to relate to the other. I see this as a potentially significant learning experience, because it evokes again the question of why they came to the 

Conference (and by now the answer may already be a little different) and they are put in touch with the mixed and quite probably ambivalent feelings generated over the first 24 hours: wanting to meet the other “out there” and yet not wanting to meet the other in oneself. From then on, I would expect the encounters to take on a new quality. This, then, is my reason for not wanting to relieve members of the responsibility for exercising their own authority in the SE: they need to give themselves the authority to engage in a new experience and to learn. Besides providing consultants, the task of the staff group as management in the SE will be to interpret the processes in the system as a whole, using the dynamics of the staff group itself as a significant source of data. After the SE, in the last two days we have further iterations of mixed SSG and Plenary sessions separated by same-nationality RG/AGs. Hermann may be right in believing that the whole Conference will come to a sort of solution in the final P. I suspect that this points to an unconscious wish that many members may bring to the Conference, for a ‘final solution’ - Germans and Israelis each wanting to get rid of the internalized other. I am hoping that this design will produce more of a cumulative, stepwise and continuing process of learning (though there may he backward as well as forward steps!) rather than a final resolution or revelation. The experience needs to live on within the members, not be left behind."

Writing that helped to clarify my own thinking and the thinking of my colleagues too. I quote part of Beland’s response:

"Thank you too for your interpretation of my hope for a solution. That wish, to get rid of the internalized other, exists and is deep-rooted. It is the negative core of the whole thing, and it has been so, throughout history. If this interpretation becomes an experienced insight of many members of the group, attained by the work of the conference, I would look on it as one of the hoped for results of the conference. Now you put it at the beginning and I see again that the conference has already begun."

That was a wise comment. In this planning phase, it was as if we were a mini-staff group working with an imagined membership and it was a significant learning process.

One product of the process was an agreed design (Figure 1). We also had an agreed title: "Germans and Israelis: The Past in the Present. A Working Conference for Psychoanalysts." Interspersed with our debate on design were practical discussions on date, location and also staffing.

Staffing in fact turned out to be an important element in the design. My obvious qualification for directing this conference was, as mentioned earlier, my track record in Group Relations. A second, less explicit, qualification was that I was non-German, non-Jewish and also not a psychoanalyst. In relation to the German-Israeli polarization, I represented a third, an ‘other”. (Beyond that, as a Briton, historically I represented an enemy of both: of Germany in two world wars and of the emergent state of Israel during the British occupation of Palestine.) I saw the role of the "third" as important in holding on to some degree of detachment and providing sufficient containment to enable the members to work at the difficult issues that would arise rather than acting them out, and I did not want to be alone in this role. Accordingly, we recruited Kathleen Pogue White, a black American psychoanalyst from New York, as associate director and another British woman, Evelyn Cleavely. Ideally I had also wanted the presence of both Germans and Israelis in consulting roles, so that the staff group itself would be able to reflect and work at some of the issues that would be preoccupying the members, and fortunately we were able to achieve this. So we finished with a staff of four Israelis (including the administrator, Jona Rosenfeld, who was well experienced in Group Relations work and who also acted as a consultant to a RG/AG), three Germans, and three “neithers”. To help them join “the conference that had already started” they all received copies of the interchange of faxes.

A year after the first conference most of the staff were able to meet in London to review the experience. Although questions about the design were raised, it was subsequently agreed to make no changes for Nazareth II either in the design or in the staffing. In the event, recruitment did not justify such a large staff, so each of the Israeli, German and "neither" subgroups was reduced by one.

Evaluation of a conference has to be largely subjective. Did the process of moving from event to event feel right? Did it provide members with opportunities to engage with the primary task? Did it enable them to learn? Some of the answers to these questions may appear in other contributions to this volume. One other question is: Did the staff learn? Speaking for myself, I certainly did.

Supplementary Comments on Design and Structure

Shmuel Erlich

The challenge presented by the German-Israeli conference was a doubly difficult one: it called for a conference designed for two distinct nationality groups, rather than the usual open and mixed recruitment. Even more difficult was the fact that it directly addressed the two groups entangled in the most devastating, onerous and asymmetrical conflict of the twentieth century. To put a group suffering from persecution, victimization and annihilation together with the group carrying the burden of responsibility for perpetrating these sufferings was a formidable task, and required everything the Tavistock Group Relations model could offer. There is no doubt that Eric Miller succeeded in pulling this off very impressively. His work on the structure and design of the conference is no less than ingenious. It represents a masterful application of the essential parameters of Group Relations theory, technique and accumulated experience to a novel and most unusual situation.

The best proof of the strength and viability of the design and structure which Eric Miller created is that it actually worked very well and continued to do so for three successive conferences – the first two in Nazareth, Israel and the third in Bad Segeberg, Germany. Nonetheless, there were certain hitches and flaws in the design which in time called for rectification and change.

The most striking and controversial issue was around the Plenaries. One of the significant deviations in Eric Miller's design from the usual or typical Group Relations structure was his decision not to have a Large Study Group in this conference. This was a premeditated choice on his part, motivated by anxiety and apprehension about the potential explosiveness of the encounter between the two nationality groups of Germans and Israelis. Despite all the precautions, such as aiming (and at first limiting) the membership to psychoanalysts, on the assumption that they might be better equipped to contain the difficult emotions that would be set off, the fears and anxieties generated by the prospective encounter were undiminished. This was definitely true of all who were connected with the project before the first conference. But the anxiety and destructive fantasies did not subside even by the third conference. A poignant illustration of these proliferating fantasies ha s to do with this conference, which was held in Germany: The female German conference administrator suggested to her Israeli male co-administrator (German born and German speaking) that she should accompany him to town so as "to protect" him from potential assault and unpleasantness.

The impact of these fears and fantasies on Eric Miller’s design was to opt against the inclusion of a Large Group as one of the conference events. Since Large Group dynamics are extremely volatile and unpredictable, it was felt that this event should be avoided at all cost. Instead, the design made use of five Plenaries spaced over the duration of the conference: an opening and closing plenary, and three additional ones interspersed in between.

In a number of ways the structure of Plenaries is significantly different from that of a Large Study Group: In the latter all members participate, but only a few (usually 3-4) members of staff are present as consultants, and the conference management roles are therefore not represented (members may of course attempt to mobilize staff in their management roles). The seating arrangement reflects this –participants are seated in some kind of circular pattern, and consultants take seats among the members. In the Plenary, on the other hand, all members as well as all staff are present, and the seating is much more structured and formal: the staff is seated as a distinct and well defined group, facing rows of members. Furthermore, the role of staff is not as clearly defined in the Plenary: they tend to speak as individuals, but from their "staff role". This typically results in a more interactive, rather than consultative posture and atmosphere.

Eric Miller's preference was clearly for employing Plenaries instead of a Large Study Group. This decision may well have been wise at the initial stage and may have helped to contain and control the anxiety about the prospective explosion, but it proved to be problematic as the process developed. Members acted and expressed themselves in the Plenaries as if they were actually in a Large Group, but it was considerably more difficult for staff to take up a clear role, and they oscillated between an interactive and a more reflective stance, injecting a note of unclarity into the work. More importantly, the defensive stance underlying this strategic choice did not help to allay the anxiety and confusion, and may perhaps have added to it. Moreover, as with any defensive maneuver, it contributed its share towards augmenting and amplifying the anxieties that were about.

Once again, the proof was in the step eventually taken and its consequences: from the third conference on, a Large Study Group was introduced, which contributed greatly to the work of the conference, without having any ill effects. The five Plenaries were reduced to one Opening and one Closing Plenary. It must be remembered though that a notable developmental shift has taken place from the first conference to the fifth, each conference building and expanding upon its predecessors. It is indeed difficult to compare and judge the anxiety that prevailed before the first conference with the relatively far greater certainty and self-assurance that developed later on.

Another issue connected with the original design was the notion of two clearly defined nationality groupings. This notion was a basic assumption of a kind, and the foundation for much of the pre-conference thinking and planning. Once the conference started, however, it became readily apparent that this was more of a state of mind or fantasy on the part of the planners. Most members easily fitted the two clearly defined categories of Germans or Israelis. But equally obviously, there were individuals who did not neatly fit these definitions and their presence challenged the claim that the world could be divided in this way. For instance, there were Jews who lived in Germany, whose identity was quite complex. There were persons who answered to more than one European citizenship and primary identity. There were some who were the offspring of mixed marriages; and so on. Among the Germans there was no uniformity in a number of ways (including their psychoanalytic identity and allegiance), and the Israelis were also a mixed and varied group. The Primary Task of the Conference specified feelings and fantasies about "German-ness" and "Israeli-ness/Jewish-ness," and of course such fantasies could exist and be pursued without regard to clearly defined identity lines. However, the evidence of the existing complexity within the membership group was a formidable challenge to the underlying binary division the conference design envisioned.

It should be added that the adverse effects of ignoring these complexities was already present at the pre-conference stage. It was openly and angrily stated by a group of German-Jewish analysts living and working in Germany, who felt excluded by the conference stress on "Israeli-ness". This justified complaint led to the publication of an Open Letter in the Psyche addressed to the German-Jewish analysts during the pre-conference stage (Erlich, 1999).

The need to address and include Diaspora Jews became increasingly prominent with time and led to the first real shift in the conference definition and title. Nevertheless, the conference formal design continued to work with and stress the two main nationality groups, in a sense ignoring the evident complexity. In the conference dynamics, however, there was a shift toward expanding the major reference groups.

A final point on the vicissitudes of the structure and design of the conference has to do with the issue of staffing. It is noteworthy that Eric Miller's initial notion of a staff made up of Israelis, Germans and "Others" (or as he called them "Neithers") proved to be a remarkably robust insight for the structure of the conference. It reflected the bi-national composition the first three conferences directly aimed at. At the same time, it provided an important "third" and otherness to the matrix. This added richness as well as containment was directly connected to the staff group and its internal dynamics, and gradually infiltrated the conference as a whole.

In retrospect, this aspect of the design may perhaps be regarded as more significant than the particular choices and arrangements of groupings and events. The significance of this element cannot be overestimated. It is safe to reflect that it enabled the eventual shift that took place from the fourth conference onward, which openly and expressly addressed the "Others" in the conference title as well as in the dynamics unraveled within the System Event. At a deep unconscious level it may even be seen as incorporating Eric Miller's presence as "The Other" into the conference structure, following his untimely death after directing the third conference.