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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Anxiety, greed and narcissism: Three threats to the consultants neutrality

According to Laplanche & Pontalis's (1973) summary of Freud's approach to technique, analysts must be neutral in respect of religious, ethical and social values - that is to say, they must not direct the treatment according to some ideal, and should abstain from counselling the patient. They must be neutral, too, as regards manifestations of transference (that is, 'do not play the patient's game'); finally they must be neutral towards the discourse of the patient: in other words, they must not, a priori, lend a special ear to particular parts of this discourse, or read particular meanings into it, according to their preconceptions. Freud saw neutrality as a qualification not of the actual analyst but of his/her function; it was an ideal to be aimed at rather than an absolute injunction. In other words, in Freud's view neutrality is a discipline and a 'stance' rather than a position that reflects the person's own world view. Moreover, it is a posture to which one aspires and never quite reaches, rather than a 'natural state' that is intuitively easy to adopt.Mawson (1994) writes that the sense of security in a work group is greatly encouraged by the consultant's restraint from judging, blaming, 'knowing' too much too soon, or seeming to believe in quick solutions. He argues that the group often depends upon the consultant's ability to stand up for the value of struggling for understanding, rather than rushing into the solving of concrete problems to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings. Restraint from judgement is a particular conceptualisation of the consultant's role and may amount to approximately the same as 'neutrality'.This paper explores 'neutrality' as a position where consultants may process internal and external pressures to collude. Ideally in this position they can think about an organisation's difficulties and how to work in the most helpful ways with staff. This position, however, is not easily held, as the consultant experiences strong pressures to collude with the organisation or part of it. The paper describes psychodynamic parallels with neutrality which have implications for understanding the constant negotiation of boundaries in the relationship between consultant and client. The tasks involved in negotiating the consultancy relationship are accompanied by fears, confusion, doubts and uncertainties in both parties (Neumann, 1994). It is sometimes difficult to determine what behaviours are legitimate 'joining' the sponsor and winning/keeping a contract and what are 'selling out' and losing one's power to consult effectively. These ambiguities alone can explain difficult beginnings and confrontations. In the jockeying process, both client and consultant are prone to mobilise various psychological forces and processes in order to defend themselves against unwelcome anxiety.Even when the negotiation stage is complete, and consultants enter an organisation to work on a change project, they may still experience pressures to join with their clients in ways that adversely affect the outcome of their work. Organisations may commission consultants to assist them to change, whilst paradoxically defending against such changes by various means. When these means skew the boundary with the consultant, they are referred to in the paper as external pressures on neutrality. Consultants also bring their own conscious and unconscious desires to the work which may equally skew their judgement about what is to be done. These desires are referred to in the paper as internal pressures on neutrality. Neutrality is not an 'all or nothing' process. To be commissioned for a job in the first place, consultants need to build relationships with the referring person. To operate successfully thereafter, they need to have a relationship with the client group. Consultants inevitably 'collude' to some degree as they involve themselves in a constant negotiation process with the sponsor and the group. The paper investigates the ill-marked border - a point where 'joining' becomes 'collusio', and neutrality suffers. Unrecognised forces from the sponsor, the group, or from the consultant can erode boundaries, leach clarity of purpose, and imperil the work. By means of several case examples, the paper will describe how the invitations coming from external and internal sources produce dilemmas for the consultant. These illustrations highlight three sources of subversion: anxiety, greed and narcissism.