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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-PP11: The “good-enough” consultant: Resurfacing the individual in the psychoanalytic consultation to and study of organizations

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Parallel Papers Session 3

Saturday 1 July 15.15pm-16.30 SAST - ONLINE
Paper Code: PP11
The “good-enough” consultant: Resurfacing the individual in the psychoanalytic consultation to and study of organizations

Presenter: Peter Szabo


“The goal?!” she said in response to my question, nearly choking on her rage. “The goal is water quality for its own sake. Full stop.” She seemed to fill the screen. “You’re being disingenuous,” she spat. Her words pulsed through me like a blast wave, but far more forceful was the impression of her face. For much of the meeting, stony, pale, as if cast in withdrawal. For an instant, flushed and furrowed, then back again to blankness. Recognized instantly, without thought, this was the face I felt I had gazed upon in confusion in infancy, the face feared in childhood, the face that showed me in its reflection everything I needed to know about myself. The effect was deeply unravelling.

By building on D.W. Winnicott’s “Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development,” by drawing upon other relevant writings rooted in psychoanalysis, and by delving into a case study of this complex consulting relationship, this paper will explore the critical role of individual psychodynamics – those of the client individual, but especially the consultant individual – in psychoanalytically-informed consultation to (and study of) organizations. Yes, as consultants, we are instruments for psycho-emotional data gathering. However, each of us is a differently constructed, differently powered, differently flawed instrument. Yes, we act as containers, but “containment” varies with the unique nature of each container, its pores, its cracks, and the like. Yes, our immediate client partners are members of an organization embedded within a system. However, they are people first, with a particular personal history and psycho-emotional make-up. This make-up factors at least as significantly into their behavior as the diktats and dynamics of the environment in which they work.

The work of the individual consultant to organizations exists within a dynamic circularity, a sphericality even – system, organization, group, individual, and I (that is, the consultant). It seems to me that the strength of a consultant’s work with a client depends crucially, to put it crudely, on a self-sense, a sense of self in relation to, and a sense of others in relation to self. In other words, it depends on this last element, the I, and fundamental ideas and questions of psychoanalytic thought. In the realm of organizational consultation, the psychoanalytic begins with I. And yet it also seems, while of course not unexamined, a deeper understanding of this “I” segment, this force in the circle/sphere, has been, relatively speaking, somewhat less deeply examined.

When we work with the psychoanalytic, because of the centrality of the unconscious, we work always in a state of incompleteness. Clarity opens to opacity. Enlivening the understanding of the I in consulting to organizations hopefully can energize a connection throughout the circle/sphere and increase the wattage of illumination we bring to this darkness.

Broadly speaking, this paper also offers one response to the expressions of concern from longtime ISPSO members in recent listserv communications on the seemingly diminished place of the psychoanalytic in our Society and our work with organizations. I put out for consideration the argument that one’s work as an individual working with a client individual is foundational to the practice of psychodynamically informed consultation. To do this well enough, we need to equip ourselves with psychoanalytic knowledge to sufficiently enrich our understanding first and foremost of ourselves, and also of the client with whom we work.

I conclude with some suggestions as to how ISPSO might help advance the work of its consultant-practitioner members. For it is the extent to which our ideas are useful in practice that will foster their infusion into organizations and society more widely, not the degree to which they are interesting.