Tensions Around Role of Consultant as Container

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Title: Tensions Around Role of Consultant as Container
Year: 1999
Authors: Piterman, H.

This paper is about tensions experienced in the consulting role, particularly when one is involved in a process of discovering the organisation by engaging with its emotions. My paper today highlights some of the difficulties inherent in the consulting role. I present a case study of my experience working as a consultant to a powerful and highly conflictual international organisation.

The therapeutic world has long established that our emotional interface with an organisation is a source of data to be explored and worked with. Feelings of anxiety experienced in the consultant system can alert and inform the consultant of powerful forces operating within the client system. Through an exploration of transferential and countertransferential issues that arise between the consultant and client system, one is able is to develop hypotheses about organisational life.

In order to work with the transferential issues, we need to become involved in a way that enables us to gain access to both conscious and unconscious data. We need to be open and available both intellectually and emotionally. Bion's (1961) metaphor of the 'container', where the consultant system takes in the anxiety projected into it and returns it in a modified and more bearable form, is an apt way of exploring the consulting process.

However, engaging with organisational emotions can expose the consultant to a precarious and tension filled arena. As a consultant to an organisation, one is potentially the recipient of organisational projections, irrespective of the nature of the consultancy, one is involved in. This is particularly so if organisational members are under stress and the organisation is experiencing pain (as is so often the case in today's rapidly changing environment). When one is working in the domain of the irrational (as opposed to the so called tangible and rational facts and figures arena) the potential for such projections is even greater. Working with our feelings as a tool to understand the organisation can inform us about the organisation. But it can also be a potentially painful and highly anxiety provoking process.

Moreover working with emotion exposes one to one's own emotions. Dealing with organisational vulnerability predisposes one to one's own vulnerability. The process of working through what we have introjected, making sense of the data and feeding it back in a constructive way is the task of the consultant. Working in this way is neither smooth, nor linear, nor does it follow a causal path. It involves working with ambiguity, inconsistencies and uncertainty. Events, motives and behaviours that may make sense in hindsight may feel extremely confusing at the time.

The following case presents my experience in working as a consultant to an organisation. In particular it reflects the tensions and struggle I experienced trying to find and take up my role. As I was to discover my difficulties in finding role paralleled those of the organisational members. Rather than present aspects of the case to highlights the points I am making, I have chosen to present the whole case, and invite the audience to go through this journey with me.

Keywords: Tension, Consultant, emotions
Language: English

Date: 6/15/1999
Location: Toronto, Canada
Name of Event/Conference: 16th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

Submitted by:
Elizabeth Novogratz

Corresponding author:

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