Group Relations Conferences in China:

Studying Authority, Boundaries, Tasks and Roles in a Group Relations Conference

By Jeffrey D. Roth, MD and Seth Harkins, M.Ed.


Group psychotherapists in the US have many opportunities to learn about group and organizational dynamics using an experiential model, including institutes at our annual AGPA meeting and IGPS conferences, as well as group relations conferences offered nationally and locally.  Group relations conferences have been particularly useful in the study of these group and organizational dynamics.


We may sense that the groups and organizations that we belong to relate in dysfunctional ways.  Seldom do we have the opportunity to systematically study these dysfunctional patterns as they unfold in our group and organizational lives.  One model for studying group and organizational dynamics has been developed by the Tavistock Institute in London.


The educational task of a group relations conference is to learn through experience about group process in small groups, large groups and the temporary institution that is the conference itself.  What distinguishes these conferences from any other form of training about groups is their format; learning occurs through study in the here and now of what occurs in the group.  The educational model radically departs from the more traditional didactic approach that locates wisdom in the authority of the teacher.  In fact, the staff of a group relations conference functions as consultants rather than faculty. Learning emerges from the group itself, and the role of the consultant is to comment on the group process as it emerges.  The basic idea is quite simple:  if we attend to our boundaries, tasks and roles we are able to learn about the exercise of authority.


While this model has been practiced internationally, the first group relations conference open to the public in China was held at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing last May 21-25, 2014.  The conference was co-sponsored by the China Association for Mental Health, Division of Group Counseling and Group Therapy.  Fifty-nine members from geographically diverse regions in China were selected from ninety applicants to attend the conference with one member from the US.  The theme of the conference was Authority and Leadership in Recovery from Mental Illness and Addiction.  The conference languages were Mandarin and English; the American staff of thirteen trained a team of eight cultural interpreters to work as part of the consulting team.


This conference was significant for the international community of group psychotherapists and group relations organizations and practitioners for five reasons:

First, the Beijing Conference was the first group relations conference (GRC) in China. China is an untapped market for group relations, as this country further develops as a market economy in an era of globalism.  A significant challenge was establishing the infrastructure to support this complex, cross-cultural endeavor.


Second, the conference was conducted in English and Mandarin, employing cultural interpretation rather than exact language translation to facilitate learning across cultural boundaries. This was accomplished through the training of eight Chinese cultural interpreters, six of whom had no previous conference experience. This cultural interpretation would not have been possible without the work of Dr. Ruthellen Josselson and Dr. Molyn Lescz, who have been training group psychotherapists in China for a number of years.  The conference was also supported by the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance (CAPA), founded by Dr. Elise Snyder.


Third, the Conference occurred within contemporary geopolitics and a historical-cultural context of imperialism and colonialism that shaped authority-in-the-mind by staff consultants and members. Within this context, Chinese society faces challenges regarding mental illness and addiction similar to other countries. The issues of authority, leadership and unconscious phenomena were particularly influenced by the cross-cultural contexts and expectations of staff and members.


Fourth, the Conference was an experiential learning model in a Confucian Heritage Culture in which the didactic teacher-student pairing is paramount in learning.


Fifth, the conference integration of Twelve Step recovery meetings and Tai Chi (practiced in noble silence) provided further opportunities for experiential learning about shared leadership and collaboration.  Importantly, China has little exposure to Twelve Step recovery as a mutual aid organization in the treatment of addiction.  The integration of these groups provided additional opportunities to examine authority, leadership, and group phenomena.