group dynamics & the importance of [ social-emotional ] skills

I spent the past three days at an experiential Group Relations conference, hosted by The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, and I feel forever changed. This conference consisted of three 10 hour days of experiencing and analyzing the dynamics of groups, with the goal of better understanding both group dynamics and how you as an individual function within groups. As explained by Tavistock,

The learning at the conferences, which are educational and are part of the Tavistock Institute’s professional development stream, emphasizes increased insight into irrational, or unconscious, processes we get involved in as we take up our roles in various groups. The basis of group relations theory is that ‘groups’ move in and out of focusing on their task and back and forth between a number of different defensive positions based on unarticulated ‘group’ desire and anxiety.

Each day was divided into 75 minute intervals,  and within each interval we had either small group work, large group work, community work, or reflection. In small group I worked alongside 8 colleagues in unpacking the covert processes in our own group. In large group the entire 60 person conference attempted to have a conversation about our group relations and the subgroups and alliances in the room. In community, we formed our own small groups and worked together on intergroup contact. Last, in reflection we’d reflect upon each days experiences and what we’d learned.

Within the bounds of the conference, we stripped away many of the social niceties of day-to-day life in an attempt to truly explore the covert factors that are often at play. We brushed upon issues such as racism, sexism, desires, longings, the need for attention, anxiety over ambiguity, and many other undercurrents that so often affect how groups interact with each other but are rarely mentioned. We divulged secrets in attempts to form trust and bonds. We talked about how to make a space feel safe.

There was something amazingly free-ing about being authorized to spend three days reflecting and looking inward to discover how my own personality and thoughts are affected by and affect groups that I work with. I haven’t fully unpacked what I’ve taken away from the experience, but I definitely feel such a sense of accomplishment for doing this conference and from my current emotional exhaustion I suspect I’ve learned more than I realize. I explored my desire to “save” people from emotional or anxious experiences, even if those experiences may be beneficial in the long run. I recognized that I respond to white male authority differently that other authority, which is something I never would have suspected. I acknowledged how I often project anxiety onto others, particularly people that I’m close to or trust. I also formed really strong bonds with people who were strangers on Day 1, some that at first I didn’t even particularly like.

While my own life lessons are something I will explore on my own, I believe that a larger take-away from this conference has been the importance of cultivating social-emotional skills. The social emotional learning (SEL) movement began in the mid-1990s, and places an emphasis on emotional intelligence and social competence. SEL has a variety of benefits including improving emotional skills, improved behavior in the classroom, and has been shown to foster adult success.

While most educators do believe in the importance of education towards the betterment of the “whole child,” and the goal of creating a good citizen, I worry sometimes that education towards social skills or emotional awareness is lacking in our education systems. Educators often assume that students will pick this up along the way, and many do, but even the most self-aware and emotionally healthy students can benefit from explicit social emotional learning. At the conference, I met so many psychiatrists, psycho-analysts, social workers, and other similar professionals who were there to better understand their patients but also to better understand themselves. If a highly experience psychologist can learn something from explicit social education, any student can too.


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