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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 6
Sunday 7 July 11.00pm-12.15 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP3

CE Credits Available

Psychoanalytic Understanding of the Effectiveness of Future Search.

Presenter: Jeffrey Axelbank
Moderator: Marisa Guerin

Future Search is a whole-system intervention designed to bring together diverse stakeholders to co-create a desired future. As such, it often intentionally engages participants from clashing “civilizations” and dissidents, each embedded in their “silos.” While it is not a conflict resolution model, anecdotal evidence suggests that Future Search is effective in helping groups with different agendas discover their common ground and create plans to implement the future they all want. However, there have been scant efforts to systematically assess how well Future Search performs this function.

This paper will report on a systematic study of how effective Future Search was in fulfilling the goals of school superintendents who used Future Search in their districts. A large number of school districts in Wisconsin (a state in the USA) have done Future Search, and therefore provided a ready sample. Nineteen district superintendents were interviewed to investigate these leaders’ experiences. The data from the interviews yielded results that strongly support the use of Future Search to engage school district communities. Despite worries going into the process, nearly all reported that the investment of time and money was well worth it; that there was a wealth of positive outcomes; that Future Search provided valuable input to strategic planning; that it was superior to other attempts at community engagement they’d made; and all said they would recommend Future Search to their peers.

The overwhelmingly positive results of this study open the question: how can we explain the success of Future Search through a psychoanalytic lens? And do these psychoanalytic understandings of Future Search suggest aspects that can be applied to other interventions?

This paper will explore hypotheses based in psychoanalytic and systems psychodynamic theories to explain the success of Future Search in helping diverse stakeholders, even those with seemingly conflicting positions, discover their common ground, allowing them to work together effectively. During the presentation at the Sofia Annual Meeting, participants will be engaged to help evaluate these proposed hypotheses and to help brainstorm others that the author had not yet considered. This input will then be used to write a final version of the paper.

Biographical Summary

Jeffrey Axelbank, Psy.D. is a psychologist working for over 30 years in both clinical and organizational consulting roles. He focuses on underlying dynamics to find the most sensible path forward, which might not be obvious when looking at the surface. In particular, Dr. Axelbank enjoys large group, whole system interventions involving multiple stakeholder groups, using such methods as Future Search. His previous training as a consultant was in the Organization Program at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology. Jeff was named 2011 Psychologist of the Year by the New Jersey Psychological Association, and was awarded the prestigious Peterson Prize in 2013 by the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology for “outstanding contributions to professional psychology.” Jeff serves as Treasurer on the Executive Board of The International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations.

For more information visit Jeff’s website: