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Irith Raveh
                                                         Mind the Gap[1]

Small Steps towards a Global Experience - Current Experiential History

The first online group relations conference began on September 17th, 2006 and continued until November of the same year. Before the beginning of the conference the consultants held lengthy online preparatory discussions. In effect, the conference lasted some six -eight months in all. It was directed by Jeffrey Roth and I served as consultant for a small group, together with another consultant from South America. The novelty of the experience of participating in the first online workshop brought with it considerable excitement.

When Hannah Marder proposed that I respond to Jeffrey Roth's article about the online workshop, I thought: "What can I write about this first conference of its kind? Knowledge of the subject is as yet unformulated and it is not at present clear whether there will be any additional such online conferences". It was a pioneering experience, entirely new and requiring in-depth investigation and understanding. However, it is important to report professional activity, in the same way as archeological findings are reported, so I responded to the request. I thought I would be able to describe the brief history of organizations which use the internet, organizations of the kind Amy Fraher[2] named "idea organizations".

How to switch from one medium to another? How to introduce innovation when the history is familiar and the theories are formulated and relatively solid? The desire to be acceptable to professional systems which are unable to incorporate such novelty so excited the innovators that they went to excessive lengths. Is it necessary to hang on to the old, or even consider the antique[3]? How to be open to professional innovation without losing the legitimacy of what is long established? How to respect founding generations while at the same time opening up new, multi-dimensional worlds whose guardians are the written word and language? One of the difficulties in switching from one medium to another is approaching the language of one as though it is automatically understood in the other. When it is looked into more thoroughly we find that similar words can have different meanings while similar meanings sometimes represent entirely different experiences in different media, differences which the language is not always able to incorporate. In order to encompass such dimensions, new concepts must be created and a suitable lexicon produced, one that evolves from a dialogue between the different languages.

I shall attempt to describe the mental experiential process I underwent in trying to move from one language to another - from the language of group relations workshops to that of the World Wide Web. I will not be able to answer the questions I raised, but maybe just to open more questions provoking more thinking, discussions and qualitative research. Various professional organizations that I initiated over time have served as milestones along this path. Those internet sites were not designed to create group relations workshops, but to examine how the internet revolution can serve the professional goals I set myself. I wanted, inter alia, to export and import (in computer terms) ideas and structures available around the world and find ways to enrich, disseminate and implement that know-how in Israel. I would wish to share the knowledge and the experience with you.

Technical Barriers and Openness to Experience

My internet activity began in 1995. In the evenings, after work, I found I was falling asleep at my computer, which at that time opened websites very slowly; emails I sent were not delivered and returned to my own Inbox. It was almost a year before I became more efficient and found a way to communicate with various friends.

One day I discovered a website about groups - this was a long time after we had set up Israel's first Foulksian group therapy course. The website I found was aimed at group psychotherapists and was launched by Haim Weinberg. Haim formed a large group based on  a 400-member electronic mailing list composed of group therapists from all over the world, which he mediated with impressive wisdom and skill (he received a letter of appreciation from the American Group Psychotherapy Association (AGPA) for the site's contribution to international group work).  I recall the participation of a therapist in India, one of whose group participants had died. I remember the date that the burial service was announced, and the expression of "global" empathy with his grief emanating from different parts of the world. The memorable thing about that was that on the one hand there was the actual physical distance, and on the other an unmistakable closeness. At that time, for me, this was an exceptional experience, a global embrace for that therapist in his hour of pain. Haim Weinberg's guidance was wise, a prime example of the special ability needed in online dialogue, without additional agents beyond the written language.

Haim does it so well that the stroke of lightning, so quick to spark (named 'flame war'), which tends to bar any continuation of dialogue and shuts down the website does not happen. This 'flame war' is a common phenomenon on internet discussion sites. Understanding how fast this flame can be elicited helps to mediate what is not done by body language, sounds, visual perception, lack of memory of what was exactly said, etc.

However, it was a strange experience: sitting in pajamas, holding a glass of good wine, in front of my home computer and being an active partner in an experience synchronized among different people worldwide - an immediate partner in mourning for a complete stranger, separated on the one hand, but close on the other. What is "true" - who do I imagine, whom do I feel close to and who would I like to believe, is out there? There was a triple image - the figure through whom my experiences were channeled into words, the one I visualized as being there, and the person who was actually in immediate contact, a contact different from any other I had previously known.

Through the Israeli Forum for Neuro-Psychoanalysis, a learning organization, I was introduced to a research method known as "The Cube". At this point I would like to provide a description of this research methodology, whose results induce hesitation about the phenomenon of distance and proximity that is so typical of online writing. The "cube" is a kind of large box that assists in creating virtual reality and enables brain researchers to examine, by means of PET scans or MRIs, the brain's reaction to stimuli reproduced on the system's screen. Subjects are placed inside a room-size box where films are projected onto the walls. For instance, in the case of a lecturer who suffers from stage fright and is required to perform a drill via the system, either a regular or a hostile audience is screened before him; during the screening his electrical-emotional brain responses are checked. The stage fright sufferer reacts to the screened audience - and even to an audience of screen played rabbits stamping their disapproval with their feet -exactly as he would to a live audience. Such a finding raises questions about how we respond to the imaginary and the real, and the lines separating the two. What constitutes this interface? There are many theories, many hypotheses, opening up another option for research and discussion.

Organizational Structure via the Internet - Current History

Following the Ferenczi conference, which was held in Israel in 2002, and while serving as a committee member on the Israeli Association for Psychotherapy, I contacted the International Sándor Ferenczi Foundation and offered to open a course to include learning groups in various cities around the world. Participants in the groups would simultaneously read Ferenczi's diary. The conference in Israel included lectures and a few panel discussions which had not allowed for sufficiently open discussion as characteristic of the culture created by Ferenczi's work and writings. I suggested calling the course "Clinical Sandor Ferenczi", and to my surprise, my proposal was enthusiastically accepted. Within a year we organized ourselves in seven different cities: Geneva, Paris, New York, Madrid, Milan, Los Angeles and Ramat Hasharon. Small reading groups of different structures were formed in those cities. The groups arranged monthly meetings and read Ferenczi. Once every six months there was an e-mail exchange of articles marking how far we had come. The plan was to meet in Milan for a gathering of working groups, but for various reasons this did not come to fruition. However, various relationships were formed within the system, articles were written and exchanged, surprising and highly gratifying international professional meetings took place.

This must have been my first experience of creating a working framework within a learning organization based on internet use. At that point, the thinking remained two-dimensional whereas, as I later learned, the world of the internet is multi-dimensional. I needed to move from two-dimensional to multi-dimensional thinking, a process I liken to a switch from listening to the radio to watching television. Time was needed for integration and enhancement of that adjustment from the two-dimensional, as characterized by the use of words only, to the multi-dimensional, involving the addition of visual and experiential means.

In 2003 Haim Weinberg, in his capacity as Chairperson of the Association of Group Therapy, and I, in my capacity as Joint Chairperson of the  Scientific Committee of the Israeli Association for Psychotherapy, initiated and organized a study day on the subject of psychological work on the internet. In a lecture I gave at the study day I tried to identify parallels and differences between Professor Heinz Prechtel's[4] approach to assessment through observation of the fetus and baby, and the phenomenon of self-organization of dynamics in online relations.

In retrospect, I can see the importance of international online communication and how it contributed to my advancement to other global meetings. A short time afterwards, imagination became reality.

The Conceptual Change Required by Internet Activity

Although a few years have gone by since those events, the intervening time actually seems like decades. Internet surfing enables us to reach far distant places in no time at all. Seeing historical events taking place within a single hour of Googling creates an odd experience of racing through time. I joined that race.

The experiences of time and place are not interconnected in internet terms. Being online creates a sensual deception, and this is not the only form of deception on the internet. Such deception, the gap between near and far, relates to central components of dialogue in group relation conferences.[5] In those conferences, the relationship with time, task and territory is part of the necessary unity; research is needed on the consequences of the lack of such unity in virtual reality.

My internet searches brought me into contact with a new figure who appeared on Haim Weinberg's website: Anil Behal, a native of India and US resident, who founded a website named Orgdyne and later also initiated an online group relations workshop. The idea at first seemed impossible to me and the implementation of such a structure, the limitations, organization of the overall system seemed so problematic as to make a solution altogether unrealistic. Nevertheless, when Anil Behal publicized his workshop, I was among the first to rise to the challenge. I had difficulty then, as now, in seeing how such a program would actually be implemented, but since I felt that my knowledge was no more than embryonic, I joined in the Ogdyne groups and seminars over the following two years and even consulted one group as part of one of the seminars. By the end of the process I felt that my internet skills had progressed considerably. Within about two more years the online group relations conference was being developed. I was already able to overcome the technical hurdles of taking part in a discourse, and I coped with acting as consultant to a group consisting of participants from different places in different time zones. One such participant described the experience of taking part in the seminar thus: "I perceive us as a group of parachutists in the desert, and we are not sure which country we have landed in".

There are many stages in the development of technical internet skills and it is no simple matter to achieve the freedom to integrate into an online discussion and ask basic questions, such as: "which key should I press?" Even asking such a question requires a certain minimal skill in computer use, which perhaps not everyone has. There are many other technical difficulties. Feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger cause many people to give up and leave the arena. Helplessness is reminiscent of the feeling of "locked in syndrome", as clearly illustrated in the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The movie, directed by Julian Schnabel, addresses the condition known as "locked in syndrome" suffered by a stroke victim. The syndrome describes a patient who can experience and understand the world around him, but is unable to communicate with it. What lies in the interface between helplessness and the difficulty of communicating between a seemingly simple system and its operation? What does such an interface comprise?

Further questions arise: In what way are time and space relevant? How is implementation of the online workshop, with its technical communication limitations, expressed in a sense of helplessness, the inherent dependency and the emotional difficulty of finding one's way through the labyrinths of the computer? How can online workshop consultants interpret such phenomena as they would interpret the difficulties of participants in F2F (face to face) workshops? Once we are accustomed to such usage, how can we avoid relating only to external reality, and relate primarily to an internal reality, coping with the anger, helplessness and silence of participants whose technical difficulties overwhelm them?

At this point I had known Anil Behal about six years. I was familiar with his behavior (concerning his approach to authority and boundaries), his dedicated site management, his rare generosity in selling books at rock-bottom prices whenever possible in order that others may familiarize themselves with professional literature, and his occasional desire to disconnect himself from the work load, while at the same time finding it hard to give up the "baby" he had given life to. I knew that he had taken part in a group relations workshop in Baltimore and I knew he had left half way through.

Anthropologists say that in order to know another culture one should observe mother and baby breast feeding relationships.[6] I imagine Anil Behal, the site administrator and initiator of the first global online group relations workshop, together with the team that was selected to direct the workshop, in the role of the nursing mother. Hence, relationships within the team and between him and the leadership merit observation, serious thought and research that has not yet taken place. I do not believe it is possible to reach direct conclusions about the complex online system from the structure of F2F workshops. I am not convinced by sweeping generalizations that "it's all the same" and I feel that detailed, meticulous and slowly evolving discussion is needed in order to embark on such research.

Anil Behal was seeking a manager for the conference he had initiated. I do not recall how Jeffrey Roth was selected, but it was clear that he was skilled in the internet medium, as he describes in his article. Jeffrey Roth suggested a familiarization session between team members, and we met on Jeffrey's website for synchronized discussion, in the course of which quite a few technical problems arose. I was "applauded" for my insistence on holding the discussion, but it seemed that technological development was inadequate to our needs, and it was not clear how we would utilize it in the foreseeable future. Three of us took part in the conversation, including one from Africa who was paying per minute for internet hook-up and could not afford such a high cost. Although he had fast internet connection and our brief conversation was fascinating, he was unable to adapt himself even to our medium level of connection. When another person from Zimbabwe also wanted to join in, we encountered a similar problem. This meant that a synchronized session automatically excludes anyone who does not have the appropriate technology, or for whom the cost of internet hook-up is exorbitant. At a later stage we also had to face the issue of the gap between different time zones around the world - the time in China or India, with Israel being between India and New York or Mexico.

Once the workshop did begin, it transpired that those participants who were inexperienced in internet usage or unskilled in the use of computers found it heavy going. In previous conferences, where I had owned my computer skills, I had already noticed that participation was sparse. The isolation of a consultant without partners and the problem of interpretation gradually led me to the supposition that some members were in the workshop's "corridors" - i.e. they were finding it hard, for technical reasons and other reasons, to find the relevant "rooms", so they would give up and disappear. How could we find a way to connect with such faraway places, to letters and words linking worlds and cultures over such great distance?

The first online workshop continued for three months, from September to November. In effect, we actually began the workshop in April-May and internet connection became increasingly intensive as the conference date approached. Together we passed spring, summer, autumn and the beginning of winter. There was a war in Israel and my son was serving in the army. There were many days when I would read all the different letters, walk on the beach and contemplate, formulate replies in my mind and sit down to write them until late into the night. The workshop was global and I was a joint consultant. My co-consultant was in South America. To my initial greeting of "Shalom", he replied "Salaam", thus instantly creating a complex dialogue about the space between Shalom and Salaam, in the context of the whole conference- and membership.

For my South American colleague and myself, there were moments when we clashed and moments of closeness. There were times when I had to be careful not to press Enter, since we realized we were replying at exactly the same moment despite the difference in time (8 hours difference), culture and lack of acquaintanceship. The synchronicity that arose beyond the huge distances, beyond time differences and beyond the fact of not knowing one other was extraordinary, strange, surprising and exciting. On one occasion a discussion developed among consultants about the presence on the team of some people who did know each other face to face, and others who did not. We found ourselves attempting to investigate and translate this medium and the great potential inherent in it. We were able to suggest interpretations and interventions not only in words, but also by work of art imported from other sites. Technical difficulties made it impossible to include songs, but with no possibility of sound, we did use poetry. We were reviewing and summarizing the work each week; a format of this review can be seen at the end of the paper.

At the end of the workshop I described some of my own experiences - walks on the beach in Netanya, Poleg and Shefayim. As I talked about the changing seasons during the conference, about the helicopters flying to the north and returning southwards, about the beautiful scenes I had seen on the beach, and the parallel with what was happening in the workshop - as well as the tall, nudist man who had approached me pleasantly, saying: "Isn't it more comfortable to be like this (naked)?" - my consulting partner replied: "I didn't know that nudism was permitted in Israel. I am used to practicing nudism, and enjoy it very much. Maybe I'll come for a visit". He pointed out that he was happy to hear how gentle the nudist had been.

This was a surprise. The online workshop taking place in one's home, with no coffee cups or bottles of water, none of the usual signs of participation, facial expressions, body language - all these were replaced by verbal (written) communication, the rhythm of such writing, mistakes, fast responses, continuity and repetitiveness of words, the link between the sentences that made up for the lack of actual contact and my own sensations. These became no less tangible, synchronized, near or far, and most definitely intriguing.

The unconscious reappeared and it seemed that the longing, the proximity, the distance, the absence and the synchronicity created a reality - as often happens in group relations workshops. Those terms and others, woven into my writing from my personal experience, create a texture that I imagine is also created in international face to face workshops. Yet I also imagine that when we actually speak, with the development of dialog, we will notice the fine differences that such fascinating experiences enable.

My thanks to Jeffrey Roth for his article and to Hanna Marder for the invitation to respond to it.


References

1.    Guttman, D. (2003), Psychoanalysis and Management; the Transformation, London: Karnac Books.

2.  Prechtl, Heinz F.R. (1984), Continuity of Neural Functions from Prenatal to Postnatal Life, Spastic International Medical Publications, Oxford; Blackwell Scientific Publications Ltd., Philadelphia; J.P. Lippincott Co.


An Example of a Team Report Done by Co-Consultants:

Small Group Teams report no. 2,  8th October, 2006

SG-B Report:

All members present in SG B during this week.

Direct confrontations among the members in the first two days, stating feelings generated in the here & now towards each other. Women more direct with one another, men more cautious in their engagement with each other.


Making sense of the experience of one another threatens the fragile connections that members have already developed with each other. Lately members seem to have slipped back into a more intellectual way of engaging with each other. There is fear of losing each other (evidenced by anxious enquiries about where the members who may have been quiet for some time are) and yet a fear of connections based on the emotional experience of each other.


No evidence of direct work on any of the consultations. Consultations are ignored or directly opposed. Assumption seems to be that one is using one's personal authority only by ignoring, negating role authority (members as learners, staff members as consultants).

‘I am finally all alone' seems to be the position of many members in the group. Learning channeled through articulating one's dilemmas and self-centered explorations rather than engaging with the Other.


Consultants and observer: Sense of more comfort and intimacy among the three. Observer feeling more easy and effective in role.


SG Team: More connected as a team, beyond the SG-A/SG-B boundaries. At times, the SG Team Forum appears to be the refuge for the SG staff members against the sense of feeling deskilled and overwhelmed in the General Staff Forum space. As if the latter (General Staff Forum) feels akin to the LG experience, while the SG Team Forum parallels the relative ease of the typical SG!


SG-A Report:


All members of SG-A wrote one or more entries during this period; men (13) posted more slightly frequently than women (10). Marcia and Roberta (two women) were the most infrequent participants and posters.


The main themes have been: fear and longing: fear of being misunderstood (essentially a projection because many members express little understanding of the sources of their own feelings and behaviors in the group); fear of emotional engagement with the Other; primitive and irrational expectations (for example, that they will be able to understand the Other and the consultants WITHOUT any work, thought, effort, time, experiential study); dependency and the provocation and expression of dependency as ways to feel connected and useful; hibernation as a way of living off of stored fat and supplies (for example, referring to VERY early postings as if nothing had intervened since those postings had been made), rather than active searching for new supplies (interactions); intellectual engagement or statements ("I can't understand your English") as a substitute for more feared emotional engagement ("Your unusual, wind-blown hairstyle in the photo stirs up [unnameable] feelings in me").


Fear ("Will I survive or be overwhelmed?") seems to explain enormous difficulty in "joining", both with the group and with the consultants. Largely unnameable fears, related to nurturing and addictive (bottomless pits) desires, lead to conceptualization of the group as something attractive and fearsome and thus kept at a distance. Joining is retarded and the denial of the passage of time is characteristic of SG-A. Flight to work, other commitments, other priorities, is prevalent and facile (in or because of this internet-based medium). Flight from the consultants and what they represent or offer by usurping them, taking on their assumed role is common. Also frequent is flight from their own (previous, in other conferences) GRC experience and acting as if they are undifferentiated novices in this work, as a way (?) of compelling nurturing from the consultants.


There is longing for friends, attachment, connection, fading hopes, previously held but unrealistic expectations of what the conference experience could provide/be. Two dreams (same person, same dream day) were expressed...and interpreted almost as "group" dreams, expressing all's feelings, fears, longings.


Consultant and observer work: often a sense of good work efforts, with minimal results. We have not been able to teach about projective processes nor have we been able to encourage a focus on the consultants as important authority figures affecting members' actions, feelings, and thoughts. System-as-a-whole interventions are made, but are not successful in turning members' attention to the system-as-a-whole. Consultants and observers are very self-analyzing (as individuals and subsystem, in the SG Team Forum) but in SG-A such behavior has not "caught on" among the members. Consultants have "broken the ice" with each other, so trust is growing but still some caution exists (mirroring? or reflected? in the SG-A group).


Members' state of mind (a very simplified image): still waiting for mama to pick them up from the nursery at the hospital, to recognize them as her own children, and to educate them. Preoccupying, fearful ambivalence, at time provoking disinterest in the group processes.


Team functioning: Some generally necessary and functional negotiation of differences in technique and expectation for the work and the roles (co-consultants, observer). Dedication and commitment all around. Tolerance and trust developing. Time-consuming work that is satisfying, but little feeling of mastery among the team members.



[1] "Mind the Gap": A warning sign on London's underground (subway) trains referring to the distance between the edge of the platform and the actual train. (The word 'mind' has no parallel in Hebrew; the unity of body and psyche implicit in the word is untranslatable and must therefore be addressed as a mere "play on words".) There is a "gap" between group relations conferences and the "fast train" that is the internet workshop.

[2] Amy Fraher (2004): A History of Group Study and Psychodynamic Organizations, Free Association Books.

[3] The term "antique" is borrowed from the world of collecting and refers to something which is already valuable.

[4] Professor Heinz Prechtel: http://www.general-movements-trust.info/-

[5] David Guttmann writes in his book about transformative experience and the need to be strict about time, task and territory all of which help withstand the emotional experience at the transformation stage.

[6] From a conversation with Jeanne Megagna.