Conflicts Within Groups (24th FEPTO Annual Meeting, May 2016)

Νικόλαος Λαμνίδης, Παρουσιάσεις Μελών μας


24th FEPTO Annual Meeting – Marathon Greece 2016
Lecture by Nikolaos Lamnidis (

Conflicts within Groups: To What Extent they are Useful?

This lecture is addressed to psycho-dramatists so I will try to present things in a rather multi-modal way, which, I think, is one of the virtues of your therapeutic approach.

By “multi-modal way” I mean the capacity of a therapist to keep at his disposal and use more than one mode or path of communication. Such directions/paths would be: Patient to Therapist, Conscious to Unconscious, Internal to External, Play to Language, Semantics to Prosodics, Less to More Symbolized, Patient to Patient, Patient to Group etc.

Based on Jacob Moreno’s great contributions, your approach is extremely valuable to our common, albeit vast, field of psychotherapy, which means the great operation of bringing about changes in the human mind by means of symbolic communication: semantic, prosodic or dramatic. Otherwise: Without the intermediation of drugs of any kind.

Let’s now turn to the main subject of my lecture, and see what we really mean by the word conflict.

The English word conflict originates from the Latin conflictus, past participle of confligere (‘to strike together’), which is a direct translation of the Greek word σύγκρουση (‘συν-κρούση’): Two or more elements forcefully striking onto each other.

In spite of this genetic similarity there are interesting differences and a linguistic, historical and cultural distance between these two wordings: In Greek language we still keep the continuity between the material and the human realm by using the same word, σύγκρουση, by which we mean both:

  1. A material collision (1) of two stars (suns) giving birth to a black hole∙ (2) of two geological plates giving birth to a volcano, or an earthquake∙ (3) of two cars bringing about a death, or a injury.
  2. A human conflict [for example a battle (the original meaning of the Latin conflictus) of two or more armies. In this last case we speak about a competitive or opposing action of incompatibles, which finally means a mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary informs us.

Consequently – put in terms of simple, practical, applied linguistics – younger languages (like English) clearly distinguish between material booms-collisions and human booms-conflicts.

The philosopher Nietzsche would comment, on this occasion that using a different wording is ‘a sign of fear’. Fear in front of a boom; in front of a ‘σύγκρουση’. An event that brings about such an emotional turbulence in our (human) mind needs urgently to get ‘analysed’, e.g. separated into differing meanings so as to become less threatening. A boom is a situation that is ‘dangerous’ for the mind. Consequently a defense against this “phobia” is desperately needed by the mind. It is in such ways that the mind stays protected. This is a psychoanalytic path of understanding similar situations, a path first opened by the late André Green.

By booms or συγκρούσεις I mean eventual situations found continuously around us. Usually they are drawing our attention not because they are exceptional, per se. Rather, they are creating inside us feelings, emotions and mental states, and prompt us, as humans, towards reactions or actions.

Through their consequences these booms, or συγκρούσεις, are marked by intensity and by a number of qualities. A thunderstorm brings together a long lightning storm together with an extremely strong acoustic effect, a thunder· all these can be followed by a heavy rain. In such a way natural/material booms acquire meanings. These ‘secondary’ meanings cannot always be linguistically held. In such a case a narrative is needed.

According to Greek Mythology, Zeus is the real agent and owner of all thunderstorms. As my mind follows this path, my fear of the thunderstorm could become my fear of my father. In such a way a (natural/material) boom-collision becomes a (human) boom-conflict.

Our modern world’s scientific framing makes things safer and simpler. Booms remain ‘collisions’. They can still create effects inside us – a baby will always need her mother to calm her down in front of a thunder. But these ‘booms’ are considered as ‘normal’, if they continue to be located inside the so-called ‘natural world’.

The mother will sooth the baby and, later, will give an account (explanatory or just narration) concerning the thunder. It is expected that the more we move towards the psychic realm, the more ‘conflicts’ are acquiring meanings for our mind. This is not always as welcomed as it sounds. A ‘meaning’ can sometimes have a calming, structuring effect. But it can also have an ominous, threatening one. Hollywood scriptwriters and filmmakers know very well this distinction: Watching a horror movie can be very amusing, even hilarious. But watching a film about Auschwitz can be extremely unpleasant, even traumatic…

Mutatis mutandis: The formation of a new black whole somewhere in the universe is hardly something concerning us. It remains an excellent opportunity for scientific observation. But… a collision of two geological plates that is taking place in California (if we live in San Francisco) or in Istanbul (if we live in Turkey or in Greece) becomes an important or even a vital issue for us, earthly humans. A situation taking place extremely often in the universe – a ‘normal’ situation – becomes an extremely crucial issue, demanding actions and re-actions.

This holds true for ‘external’, surrounding, outside worldly events. But the same process takes also place in view of ‘internal’, experiential, mental events.

If I dream a tree hollow and a spider coming out of it, I can easily and calmly feel as a naturalist. But if somebody, for instance a therapist, reminds to me that I yesterday was recounting my sister’s birth, then I have a big problem situated at the centre of my mind: I urgently need to deal with these aggressive, disgusting, thrilling images or representations (of my sister’s birth) that I dreamed. I cannot leave them aside anymore.

The stoic philosopher Chryssipus advocated that out of many (internal) phantasies, coming from the inner part of the psyche, some would meet with (external) perceptual traces or clues, coming from the environment. In such a way an alteration (‘ετεροίωσις’) of the soul would come about. This means that our psyche is full of contingencies, of different possibleperspectives, which ‘fight’ with each other, as they strive to get space and to dominate our internal world. This is beautifully depicted in the Greek myths, where the Olympus gods are endlessly quarrelling, so as to gain influence and power over the minds of the mortals: In Iliad, Paris, the young son of Priam, the king of Troy, is drawn by Eris (the goddess of conflict) to judge the 3 goddesses’ beauty. Hera, Athina and Aphrodite compete in front of his eyes. This ‘innocent’ contest, finally leads to the huge bloodshed of the 10-year Trojan War.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer takes up the idea of the different and competing perspectives in the psyche, almost 2 millennia later. The competing ‘goddesses’ are now considered as ‘representations’, or, said differently, ‘living scenes’ in the soul. The final result of their contest is a will, which is instantiated within the (human) mind. Using modern terminology this will/intention is the final derivative of a conflict among many different phantasy ‘directions’… Schopenhauer taught us is that “… the violence that a person experiences, is proportional to the degree to which that person’s consciousness is individuated and objectifying… with less individuation and objectification, there is less conflict, less pain and more peace …” according to Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Sigmund Freud himself learned a lot from Schopenhauer. This same thread was taken up in Freud’s well known psychoanalytic theory: Ego is emerging at a certain (developmental) moment of my psychic life. This moment comes when I separate from somebody I am attached (let’ say, my mother), when I differentiate from her. The moment that I move towards choosing, or, better said, proto-choosing, somebody else, e.g. choosing Aphrodite, instead of Hera or Athina, is the very same moment that I become myself, that I become kind of ownerof my destiny. From now on the objects of my investment are choices motivated by desires. They are not anymore attached parts of my own self. Not anymore extensions of myself. Which means that I can separate from my mother, I can grieve, remember or represent her inside my psyche. She gets attached to internal scenes, representations, living images of my soul. She gets internalized.

Of course, I should never forget that my mother Hera will be never truly satisfied with my choice of Aphrodite.

Consequently the moment of my first choice is the moment of the welcome into the real world. This is the world of conflict, the human realm.

According to Sigmund Freud, our ego is the precipitate of its previous, lost, object-cathexis.

Let’s now turn more towards groups.

In a human system, such as a group, the concept of a central point of view, or vertex, as the psychoanalyst Bion defined it is part of its self-organizing and/or self-generating principle. A group is in search of means to achieve its aims. These aims are moving from time to time, they are differing, but they remain stable for long.

Groups usually move on these central lines or point of views or directions. Various theoretical schools of group theory cherish and hierarchize differently these directions. Such directions or group vertexes are: Coherence; Equalization of power; Therapeutic alliance; Work group; Connectivity; Free floating discussion; Communication; Representational networking etc.

Conflicts among these parallel but still different directions or vertexes are constituent steps of a group’s thriving towards becoming more ‘useful’ or ‘functional’ or ‘alive’. The prominent psychoanalyst and founder of the theory and practice of Group Analysis, S.H. Foulkes, taught us that groups’ level of functioning is continuously changing.

If I would choose to speak in terms of modern psychotherapy research, I would say that all the above moderators and mediators, in other words all these therapeutic ‘pathways’ and mechanisms of change (as the prominent theoretician on psychotherapy research Alan Kazdin would put it) form an extremely complex map, which we (as scientific community) have not being able to depict yet. And probably this mapping will still need a long-long time to get fully developed, if ever this arrives to an end.

But all these pathways still compete with each other for becoming the principal therapeutic moderators and mediators of a living group. Who wins? And how this ‘victory’ helps the group members?

As a general rule we know that many different kinds of groups have their own pathways towards helping their members to change. But, of course, there is a broad array of such pathways, all eventually helpful in their idiosyncratic manner. Does this mean that the dodo bird verdict (proclaimed by the psychoanalyst and among the founding fathers of the psychoanalytic empirical research, the late Lester Luborsky) is valid? The answer is, once again: we do not know yet.

But we clinicians ‘know’ much more than we are aware we know. We are working with our private theories, as the psychoanalyst Jorge Canestri would put it, without knowing them. Sometimes our patients know more about these theories of ours.

While we will try to keep all these considerations and all these constrains and restraints in our mind, let’s make another exit in the real world of therapeutics. Let us consider a 1st clinical vignette:

Among the 7 members of a long living group (more or less 30 years since its inception, with more than 25 members having successfully terminated their treatment) there is a 45 year old woman, who, in the midst of a critical period of her group treatment presents a serious medical situation and gets urgently hospitalized. The group analyst receives a call from this patient, updating him about her situation and telling him that she will not be able to attend the group for the next 2-3 weeks. As the next session starts, the group analyst informs the group about the news. As expected, a very dense and thoughtful atmosphere follows. As this same group had lived the sudden death of a member, 2 years ago, the older members had obsessive thoughts, containing irrational fears about the fate of this group as to its insufficiency to ‘protect’ its members’ lives. These ominous fears were outspoken by one member, and another two confirmed that they had similar thoughts. The issue was extensively discussed and it was somehow linked to an excessive amount of ‘maternal’ deficits of some of the group members. Consequently,  “… if our mother-group cannot protect us we should protect ourselves …” a member uttered, and they began to plan visiting the ill member in the hospital, which was clearly against the group rules, as they all knew. Listening to the group analyst’s affirmation that the rules still hold valid in this group, the members felt slightly irritated but rather calmed down. Of course the group analyst himself felt a lot of fear and counter-transferential anxiety. As the diseased patient had asked him, he visited her in the hospital, under the rubric of his medical status. Another member, the oldest member of this group, also paid a visit to this woman in the hospital.

Finally the ill female member retuned healthy to the group. She said how important it was for her to have the 2 visits but not all the members in her hospital room. As the free floating discussion got further on, members linked this incident with deeper fears: Anxieties about losing loved others, about not being able to say goodbye to the group, at the point of the termination of the treatment, anxieties about their capacities to help themselves and their loved ones etc. The male member that paid the visit during the hospitalization had a dream: … He asked the electrical engineers who serve the big company, he works for, to come and repair his small country wooden house (which, the group knows, is a childhood project, that came true some 3-4 years ago, as he became father himself), which does not have electrical installation… he felt anxious for having committed such a ‘transgression’…

It took not too long for the members to link the dream to the transgression of the group boundaries. All felt relieved as the group-as-a-whole became able to contain these suffocating anxieties.

In this case the conflict, translated in personal terms, could be put as follows:

A member of my group is ill.

I feel threatened and endangered.

My group does not protect me.

I should not follow this group’ s rules.

I should act by myself.

I should break the groups’ rules in a desperate attempt to survive.

This group is not I.

I steal energy from this group to survive.

As these series of conflicts were traumatically aroused, the group members regress towards the clichéd and conventional anti-group ideas:

The group is opposed to the individual.

Group rules are oppressive.

Group constraints are not serving the best of my interest.

From now on I should proceed alone.

I can steal the group resources to survive.

But when, first, all these issues do not remain hidden and, then, they are brought into the open, things change dramatically. Why? Because the powerfulness of these kinds of conflicts is based on them acting in secrecy, in an unconscious manner. From the moment on that they are brought into the spoken and lived communication, they are less able to biasing reality and impeding us to think and act in an optimum, adaptive way.

But conflicts are not always easily communicated. As far as conflicts remain unconscious, disconnected, non-mentalized or non-understandable they continue to impede the group process. Some conflicts can have a truly destructive outcome.

Let us consider the following demand: “I am looking for a group treatment that is going to offer to me, in a minimum of time, the following: (1) A permanent relief from my specific symptoms and my general suffering; (2) A capacity to secure happy conditions in my life, without any bad-luck-incident; (3) A valid and lasting theory of mind, explaining all my previous suffering; (4) A capacity to prevent any future suffering; (5) A weapon to beat all my enemies etc.

We can easily imagine that such a kind of Faustian demand has an ominous similarity with the search for the ‘perfect flash’ that we can find clinically in the mind of patients suffering from drug-addictions.

Although hugely exaggerated, this hypothetical demand gives an idea of the kind of conflict it would arouse in a group, if openly expressed. Of course this is never expressed in such a straightforward way. But there are lots of instances in a group process where similar omnipotent demands arise.

Let us consider a 2nd clinical vignette:

Another group-analytic group consisting out of 7 members: 2 men, 4 women and the (male) therapist. The group is a slow open one and has more than 25 years of history, with as many as more or less 20 patients having successfully terminated their 3-10 years treatment.

During the previous year the group ‘lost’, due to successful termination, one female and two male members. This created a big problem especially as one of the male members and the female member that left, were usually serving as ‘leaders’ of the group, due to some traits of their character, as well as due to some special features of this specific group.

The group was grieving heavily for having ‘lost’ such valuable members. The group-analytic situation was so full of relevant phantasies that 2 group members did have, more than once, feeling states of ‘listening’ to one of the departed members’ voice, the very moment they entered the group room. As they are not psychotic and they do not have systematic delusions, the idea of the phantom-member has been discussed, with the story of Hamlet as a guide. The group analyst was (partly unconsciously) looking for a ‘solution’. A new male member was introduced and finally, months later, the other members felt that this new member ‘became one of us’.

When another new, female member was introduced to the group, a kind of excitement reigned among the members. All ‘recognized’ the ‘qualities and virtues’ of the new member, as somebody that would ‘heal’ the mourning and would ‘lead’ the group with her openness, her active stance and her positive ‘energy’.

Regrettably these expectations unconsciously (and somehow malignantly, as the late analytical psychologist and group analyst Louis Zinkin would put it) mirrored this young woman’s living internal scenery of her ‘arrival’ to her family as a baby, a baby that would ‘heal’ her parents’ difficulties. She became very anxious and in spite of her initial active participation she finally expressed her wish to leave the group, without any clear reason, except ‘arguments’ around time and money (while, at the same time, she asked for individual treatment from this very same group analyst).

The group felt threatened and while all members tried to empathize and mentalize the utterances of this woman, they also felt relieved in view of her departure.

It would become a very long and complicated presentation to analyze this second category of conflicts, which seem extremely difficult to get resolved; sometimes these conflicts seem totally inaccesible, at least within the realm of our frame of reference, our horizon: How should the therapist proceed? Should he/she try to understand what makes the members so dismissive, even if this collective stance seems to serve the group’s ‘coherence’? Should he follow the group’s ‘wisdom’ and consider the new member as not good enough for this very group?

It seems that the work needed for elaborating such kind of conflictual dilemmas is so difficult and long, that a kind of ‘covering’ of the situation is unavoidable. But, on the other hand, this kind of traumatic ‘solutions’ will always burden the group’s future life, and will get inscribed in the group’s culture and dynamic matrix.

One could ask: Aren’t there any conflicts that could be resolved by catergorical/administrative/political/moral means? By simply deciding: This can be done! Whereas that cannot be done! I would answer, reluctantly, yes. There are such instances. There are domains of our human world where we feel simply incapable and weak, in front of colossal forces that we have to confront. And it is in these instances that we usually find reassurance in an ethical and moral stance: We need humbleness and humility in front of a world that is beyond our understanding and our mental strengths.

If the first category of (resolvable) conflicts demands courage, strength and skill, so as to deal with them, the second category (of irresolvable conflicts) needs humility, humbleness and, last but not least, the so named negative capability, as the poet Keats and the psychoanalyst Bion put it: We should be able to stand the fact that our rational capacities are restricted by our partial views of the world, as well as by our mortality. And we should rely on our intuition, even if it does not ensure full certainty.

But we can still contribute to the supreme human knowledge base by communicating our partial, still valuable share of clinical and personal experience.