Susan is a Psychotherapist and Group Trainer, Co-ordinator of the Constructivist Research Centre at the Institute of Constructivist Psychology in Padua, and is one of the organising team for the ‘Alpine Tales’ winter schools in Personal Construct Psychology.
We met recently at Alpine Tales 2017 where she was continuing her elaborations and experiments with new types of Open Space learning.
MF: You have a busy variety of roles Susan!
SB: Well actually there is another one, which is very new! I am part of a project called ‘Effecinque’ and the focus is on refreshing our ways of working with group training. It’s named for the F5 ‘refresh’ key on the computer.
MF: A brilliant name!
Shall we start by exploring your interest in tools and methods?
SB: Working with groups, I am always looking for participative ways to work. I want to use serious methods which focus on our core constructs, but in a lighter way. I try to create a less threatening atmosphere, not too heavy, where people can decide for themselves how much to put in.
I’ve also been inspired recently by working with the communications department from the university who work on public relations and things like that, so I’ve been thinking more about how we might communicate PCP more widely and more usefully to the rest of the world.
MF: In your experience, what are the most distinctive features of a PCP approach to group training compared to other ways of working?
SB: The big difference is that there is less emphasis on teaching. It is more experiential, and a much more individual first-person approach.
There is also a different way of helping people become aware of what is happening in the group. It is totally non-judgmental. It is a process of asking or describing what seems to be emerging and how the group is working, and there is no right or wrong attached to this.
MF: It sounds like an encouragement to curiosity about the group, and about our self in the group?
SB: Yes, and to hear different views also, all of which are valid in their own way.
MF: So when did you first meet ‘Open Space Technology’?
SB: I was involved in OST first as a participant. I liked the way it offered people the opportunity to work on what they felt committed to, and to start where their energy was. It was a very good experience for me, and some operational groups developed out of it. We went on to do good work together, so it had a life beyond the training event which was unusual and very useful.
Since that time, I have felt it is naive to give groups specific topics to discuss and work on. It’s much more helpful to come up with a broad topic, and then let people explore where they want to go with it, and which are the most important aspects for them. They are usually much better at pinpointing the key issues because they are exploring their own worlds.
MF: I have enjoyed your experiments at ‘Alpine Tales’. How did you choose to work in that way?
SB: I think that the spirit of Alpine Tales reflects the spirit of ICP and the School of Psychotherapy. What I appreciated most about the school as a student was the commitment to doing constructivism in a constructivist way, and not just talking about constructivism. I am very grateful to the teachers, and feel a lot of affection for how we worked together. We wanted to work in the same spirit in Alpine Tales.
We knew that we wanted the workshop programme to be proposed by participants so that everyone could contribute, but we also wanted to have some kind of structure and make some contribution ourselves. We chose to build in regular OST, around the question: ‘What do you need to grow professionally as a constructivist?’
MF: I remember the session very well, and it was such a good start to three days of living and working together. The point where we each read out our own questions based on yours was a fantastic way to get to know people very quickly right at the start, and find commonalities.
SB: I loved how it went at the first session, and also the sorting questions into themes in the ‘marketplace’ – ideas confronted other ideas, and we needed to find superordinate ideas to cluster them.
MF: It was a very creative challenge – and interesting how we each responded to the need to dilate and include other similar, but also different, angles.
SB: I always love the start of OST – I did it recently with children in a classroom and it was such a great experience! But looking back at the experience after the first Alpine Tales, I was more doubtful because the groups lost momentum over the days.
MF: Yes, there were fewer people each time, and slightly less focus. But AT is a very intense experience, and I think perhaps the open space time was where people made space for themselves?
SB: I think so. No-one wanted to miss the workshops, or the communal times like meals, so there wasn’t much space and OST was the thing to give up. For the second Alpine Tales we wanted to put some more structure in place, and I remember speaking to you about it to try to find new ideas.
MF: Yes, and we may have created too much structure!
SB: Each group had a sheet to make notes of the main themes explored and their progress, and to suggest a fresh question for the group re-forming next day. I think it was too tight, and people didn’t always complete the forms.
MF: Talking with you now, I realise the differences for OST between ‘working groups’ and ‘workshop groups’. Working groups, like the one you were a participant in originally, had a shared future. The discussion, and the operational changes you subsequently made, would probably have been located in that investment in a shared project. By contrast, ‘workshop groups’ like Alpine Tales have those three days together but no joint projects beyond that – in fact, we might never meet again.
SB: We definitely needed a clearer goal to work on together for this year, something more specific to work towards as a group. Our colleague Chiara Lui proposed that each OST group might develop a practice activity based on their discussions, which we could all participate in. This would help us understand and explore each group’s themes in a new and original way. Additionally, this would be something we could use with our own groups and clients in the future – something like a technique, or a method, to take away from the event.
MF: It was an inspired idea! The energy and commitment was really high, and the groups were buzzing each time we met. It was a very creative challenge. I think what I valued most was that it reflected the creativity of working with PCP. We have very few prescribed methods or techniques, and the art of the PCP therapist or facilitator is develop something in collaboration with, or in response to, the clients. George Kelly himself said he rarely used the same method twice, and that makes perfect sense in terms of the requirement to work within the construct system of the other.
SB: It was very powerful to try out the various techniques on the last afternoon.
MF: Does any one stand out for you?
SB: I think the very simple basic task about how we shake hands. I was really surprised that something so simple could be such an intense experience emotionally. It raised many things for me – constructs of dependency, core role constructs – things l have thought about a lot, but not experienced in such a direct and practical way.
MF: Yes, it was a very rich exercise. All the activities proposed and tried in the group were fascinating, and as we tried them out, we were developing even more ideas and variations.
But this is now a long way from OST. And I have often heard people put off by seeing ‘Open Space Technology’ on a programme and saying ‘I’m no good with technology’ not realising that it will be a series of creative conversations.
SB: The starting point is still based on OST, but we have developed something very different this time, and we are calling this method ‘Experience Factory’
MF: You have a great way with names!
You used some open space methods in last year’s EPCA conference as an alternative to keynote speakers, and it changed the conference atmosphere completely. It was much more engaging and inclusive from the start, with no-one left out, or left alone. That’s very unusual in a conference setting.
SB: It was a strong wish from the ICP Director Massimo Giliberto to have different kind of conference, something that embodied constructivist principles more coherently and put us in a different kind of relationship with each other.
It was expected in the tight timetable of a conference that commitment to the group sessions would vary, but the feedback sessions were useful and productive, and one of the outcomes of the conference for me has been to reinvest more energy in the Research Centre of ICP.
The topic for the conference OST was that most theories are only used to 30% of their potential, and so what about the other 70%? It’s a good question, but I was even more interested in what actually is the 30%? What are we already doing, but not knowing about and not having ways to share?
It is a thing of mine, to see what we can bring together, what we can share, and how communicate this creativity and invention beyond ourselves. In the Constructivist Research Centre, we are already making a list of PCP resources and methods and would like to gather them together with some clear proposals about how to use them, and suggestions about when they might be useful.
MF: That sounds excellent – another new project!
SB: Yes, another creative innovation!