The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Learning and teaching

During the last few days, I’ve been attending a group relations conference. One of the reasons I attended was to study the causes of organizational distress and to see how they impact group members.

Group relations conferences belong to the rare events that focus more on the group as a holistic system than on the individual. They invite participants to look at the irrational processes that happen in groups from a different angle than the one of searching for a scapegoat. It is an approach I’ve found useful to integrate into my work.

The way these conferences operate is that the teaching is done by creating an experience and observing how it unfolds. This can be tricky as participants are shaping the experience along the way and may thus be subject to the events in the group.

Being subject to the experience makes it more difficult to read what is happening. Even more so, when participants have been used to learn via teaching. It sets their expectations to being told what they should be learning. Whenever this doesn’t happen they find it hard to switch gears and become attentive to other areas where learning can be found.

An approach many had during the conference was to look for intelligible conversations. That is a conversation in which content was being conveyed and discussed. With the topic “race and belonging in organizational life” a lot of participants had hoped for an opportunity to be told more about the subject.

Instead, we experienced ourselves being confronted to being in a very diverse group showing different needs, perceptions, and expectations. It is by observing how they were expressed and reacted upon that we shaped our learning. How the participants had hoped to be treated by the organization as a whole became visible. We could also observe how it dealt with the despair in the organization that expectations weren’t met.

Another approach participants used was to experiment with their roles in the system. By taking up different roles they started to shape the organizational culture. Those concentrating on individual behavior found themselves stuck in seeing patterns they didn’t appreciate. Those focusing on the here and now as well as their awareness of it started to discover how they were reacting to the organization. Experiencing the way people interacted with one another gave them insight into when it was difficult for them to speak up.

The fascinating thing about having to learn from one’s own experience and shared experience is to discover how much there is to learn from just being there.

However, this can only happen if one lets go of the expectation that learning requires teaching. It means to see the teaching in what is happening around us and within us.


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