Thank you all for your comments on Fish and Fowl. Food for thought…. A rock, an elephant, a fish, specifically a Manta Ray, a seagull, an albatross, a bird of prey, a cat, a dog, and finally, appropriately positioned as last in the menagerie – a human being.
Interesting reasons too – freedom, wandering, soaring, vision, all associated with the bird; fluidity, perhaps also mobility and agility with the fish. The elephant links with health, wealth and good fortune and also solidity, stability - perhaps the rock comes in here too? Certainly the rock is associated with song lyrics, with creativity, and the albatross perhaps with poetry too. The cat and dog are there for an easy life. Only the human remains - perhaps there for the challenge of being who we are and who we are meant to be.
Yet my question – my question! – remains unanswered. Just to remind you, my question was and still is: ‘what group would you rather be in?’
For me the important word is ‘group‘.
I am fascinated by groups. Throughout my entire life I have wrestled with groups – perhaps the heritage of being an only child. I have always had an ambivalent relationship with, and an indeterminate presence in, groups – since whenever. Maybe this is because I found myself in a group of adults from way back when; and at the same time my mother was keen to be in a group with the children, me and my friends, also from year dot. So there was a bit of confusion about group boundaries from the beginning, who was in and out etc. When I did my counselling skills training I was the shadow of the group – I said all the hard stuff that no one else in the group was prepared to say. When I attended a week-long course on Group Relations I broke the rules of the group and the lead facilitator told me to forget the week as soon as I could (I have never forgotten it).
But this post is not intended to be about me.
I posed my question to explore the power and nature of groups. Different groups look different, move differently, have different relationships with each other and so on. To me the fish look swirling, fluid and flexible; they are moving in circles and spirals. They are dancing in water. They are spontaneous yet purposive. The birds on the tree are still in that moment, they are positioned hierarchically, and there is an angular and static feel to that picture. There is a lot in the contrast for me about how members of a group can choose to relate to each other.
I have seen groups disable themselves for many years – and, very occasionally, be self-enabling. Wilfrid Bion, one of the most unreadable authors I’ve come across, talked about the power of groups to paralyse themselves in the name of Making Things Happen. Wikipedia helpfully summarises his thinking as follows:
‘Bion argues that in every group, two groups are actually present: the work group, and the basic assumption group. The work group is that aspect of group functioning which has to do with the primary task of the group – what the group has formed to accomplish; will ‘keep the group anchored to a sophisticated and rational level of behaviour’. The basic assumption group describes the tacit underlying assumptions on which the behaviour of the group is based. Bion specifically identified three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and pairing.When a group adopts any one of these basic assumptions, it interferes with the task the group is attempting to accomplish.’
In my experience most groups adopt at least one of these basic assumptions, and so there is an unrecognised, unacknowledged, below-the-surface conflict between what they say they are there to do and what they are really doing. My role is usually to help them achieve what they say they are there to do. And that requires surfacing what they are really doing since this is so often at least part of the reason they are not doing what they say they are there to do. Individuals and groups have such a battery of sophisticated defences to prevent themselves from delivering their espoused purpose – at least 40 defences by my recent count, and I am indebted to the great thinker and wise observer of human nature, Will Schutz, for this nearly exhaustive list.
Many psychologists and observers of human and group behaviour have described the different stages of group behaviour, and a common model moves from dependence through independence finally to interdependence. For me the birds in the picture represent independence, the fish the possibility of interdependence. There is a sense of nearly visible order in the swirling of the fish, as one discovers with ants or bees in motion, and a common enterprise. The birds ended up on the branches, maybe they are travelling together but one senses it’s a pit stop, perhaps a pause in the fight-flight journey or a stage in pairing as they check each other out to pick the likeliest and most attractive partners. The fish are going somewhere together – even if it is to a shared death, to be the snack of something larger in the food chain. In their terms, they are making something happen, together.
At the moment I am working with a group who have been stuck in fight-flight mode since I met them. This group had a recent breakthrough. I asked them how they could now take responsibility for serving themselves, and they inched their chairs metaphorically away from each other again and back towards me, falling back beyond fight-flight into dependency. I wait with interest to see what happens. I was with another group this week who are split in two, uncomfortable in their fight-flight shared enterprise, the more senior members at odds with the less senior - hierarchy always offers that opportunity. I had frank and separate discussions with each half. Will they be able to not glue but seamlessly transcend their split? Time will tell.
Too many groups are like the fowl – a bunch of birds on a tree, an apparent organisation structure, with a different bird at the top. They’re kind of working together but really they’re not. No shared vision, just co-located. Where are the connections? You can draw a picture, an organogram, but it’s hard to make meaning out of it. Maybe that’s why so many organisations have given up, abandoning their organograms and job descriptions and just getting on with things. But this rarely works because they carry the unconstructive habits of mind and behaviour with them into this new world of liberated disorder. They are not making things happen, together.
I’ve had the fascinating experience of being part of a group recently myself, a member not the facilitator; and that’s given me huge insights. How difficult it is to be one of those fish – I’d rather be a bird on the tree. We in the West are so individualistic and I’m no exception. Maybe I’m not a team player – but I love to play with teams!
And then there are virtual groups, a growing phenomenon in our time. I wonder what Bion would have to say about these. Maybe being part of a virtual group is an easier option than being part of a real group – safe in a room, hiding behind a pc. I’m drawn back to the lyrics of ‘I am a rock’:
‘I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.’
Well, that’s what Simon and Garfunkel said, presumably in response to John Donne who held a different view:
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Even if I feel like Simon and Garfunkel, I know I am really as Donne says – we are all connected and I can choose to be and feel independent but ultimately I feel that is irresponsible and interdependence is not a choice, it is a fact of life. But the behaviours of interdependence, responsibility, care, concern, community – these are all choices. I know I don’t always make them, being a flawed and immature human being. Do the fish make them? No idea!
I was enchanted by this video which was recently drawn to my attention (soon after I joined Facebook, ironically) - Do Re Mi in a Belgian train station:
People coming together, from all walks of life – meeting in a train station, a crossroads, a melting pot. Arriving there for a purpose and gradually coming together in synchrony, in delight, a vision realised. People choosing to be in formation, nothing forced about it. Breaking the norm and getting strange looks from others - and not caring. And then the gradual dawning of incredulity, huge energy, participation and support.
Making something happen, together - isn’t that what life is all about? What stops us but ourselves? I happened to read a great post by Glenn Berger when I was writing this earlier today and he talks in it about tuning in to the artistic sensibility:
‘What is this elusive artistic sensibility that I speak of? It is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a sensitivity and responsiveness to the highest levels of quality and feeling. It is an approach to life and work that involves aspiring to the most penetrating insight into truth. It demands that we be willing to put all of ourselves into everything we do with total passion. Simply being in the presence of that approach to living and work inspired me and taught me how to be.’
We have this resource in us, each of us – whether fish, fowl or human – perhaps even a rock does. All we have to do is tune into it. Ruth Sofia also sent me an interesting blog post by Rick Hanson about embracing fragility which ended with these words from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:
‘Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in’
What a beautiful image and what a great message – it’s the cracks that let the structure breathe. So teams and groups and individuals that can welcome and own their own fragility, their vulnerability, their weakness, integrating their shadows - these are the strong ones, the ones that can make something happen, together, and inspire others to make things happen too.