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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Negative Capability, Dispersal and the Containment of Emotion

What is it that enables someone to contain - and to work with - the emotions that inevitably arise in organizational contexts? To explore this question, I shall look at two related ideas. The first is the containing frame of mind, for which Bion used Keats' term, 'Negative Capability'. Negative Capability indicates the capacity to contain emotion for the sake of the work and, as a result, to use emotion as information for understanding the work. The second is Needleman's description of the opposite: dispersal. Insufficient Negative Capability, leads to dispersal into 'explanations, emotional reactions or physical action'. Thus, people use a wide variety of forms of dispersal to shut out the new idea or emotion, or 'to closure off', as Bion says, 'What they do not want to see or hear'. Families, groups, teams and organizations tend to have a predisposition for one or other form of dispersal which, as a result, comes to define key characteristics of their cultures. Basic assumptions, for example, and the notion of social systems as a defence against anxiety may both be understood as examples of the way in which dispersal emerges and becomes built into systems. Both are defensive responses to anxieties that are inherent either in the work itself or indeed in any meeting between humans and therefore in the very processes of organizing. The roles of, amongst others, therapist and organizational consultant provide an 'external' Negative Capacity by means of which others can come to know their own particular modes of dispersal.