Handle with Care: Virtual Fragility
Marisa Guerin, PhD – July 20, 2021
Recently I had the very rewarding experience of “meeting” virtually with about 160 professional colleagues from around the world. It was a first for us, a digital-only version of the annual conference I have attended for most of the past thirty years. (The Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations – www.ispso.org)
So, there we were, in “Berlin” – except, really, we were in cities across Italy, South Africa, England, Serbia, India, Russia, Belgium, Chile, Israel, USA, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Denmark, Germany and more. For me in Philadelphia, the real time in which I was “present” for this conference was 4 am through 11 am, a long, full day to have before noon even broke in my town. It was like a strange sort of jet lag.
It was a joy to see so many familiar faces, and to engage with one another on a wide range of intellectually-stimulating topics. The theme was very appropriate for our times, drawing on the unique history of the virtual host city, Berlin: “The Walls Within: Working with Defenses Against Otherness.”
I confess I had very low expectations for a digital conference. I was apprehensive, not sure I could correctly manage both of the necessary software platforms (Qiqochat and Zoom). I anticipated an excruciatingly long, technically frustrating, hard-to-feel-part-of event, but I gamely committed to try it. It had been a loss to have no conference at all last year, and I really have missed these friends and these discussions.
What a pleasant surprise the conference turned out to be! The planning committee had been working exceptionally hard for two years to think about and to address the many challenges we would have to deal with – an older (not super-techy) audience, a real-time meeting across a planet of time zones, subject material that best develops when you think and discuss together.
The group management function that psychoanalytically-informed consultants would call “containment” was handled brilliantly. Each session was “held” by well-prepared moderators, chairpersons, or facilitators who ensured that all went smoothly and no one was left “wandering lost” in the virtual hallways. Each presentation was managed so that after every 15 or 20 minutes of presentation time, there would be about 15 minutes of discussion time in small groups of about 4 or 5; these were Zoom breakouts that were randomly assigned and instantly implemented, which was downright fun. (Of course, that Zoom magic also meant we didn’t have to process the small, developmentally-useful, spark of anxiety that is provoked inside us when we take up the micro-risk of approaching people to speak with who may or may not be willing to choose us, too. Instead, we rode the wave of Zoom power. Let's call it dependency in the service of efficient and creative group configurations.)
Throughout the four days of the symposium, I was able to connect with cherished colleagues, and to meet brand new ones, at least at some level of engagement. As the conference began to wrap up, there was some time for reflection on the experience among us,. I think the consensus would be that the virtual, digital meeting was surprisingly good and would suffice in the future when necessary – but that it wasn’t AS good as it is when we are in the same building, in the same room, in the same city, out for dinners together, and able to catch up on lives and times over coffee or lunch.
The title for this blog post – about the “fragility” of the meeting – refers to one of the comments that came up during that end-of-conference reflection time. The speaker noted how well everyone got along in the sessions, how friendly and polite and accommodating they were, etc. To read that, you would think that this is a group of otherwise cranky people who are hard to get along with!
Not so. Rather, the reality is that in this particular group of people -- academics, coaches, analysts, and consultants, -- have a shared commitment to the study of psychodynamics in organizations and groups. That means that most conference discussions are open to the expression of difficult or intense emotions: challenges, disagreements, identification of real-time enactments of theme material, as well as positive emotions, affection, and appreciation.
When we were asked to hypothesize why this digital meeting was so uncharacteristically polite, the explanation that resonated with me and many others was this one, articulated by several colleagues: our politeness was a defense in the face of the fragility of our contact; we hold back from emotion if there are no “reparative spaces” in which to work through the residue of emotional exchanges.
What that means, I think, is that in a meeting when we are in physical space together, discussions might get hot or get intense, but there is also a way to finish these exchanges and repair any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. “Reparative spaces” might be found when we revisit an issue while standing in the hallway after leaving the session, or continue the conversation over coffee, when we metabolized our reactions in reflection time, or even when we nonverbally signal that the underlying relationship is still whole through the dancing and laughter that occur during evening social time, and through shared rituals.
The capacity to take emotional risks, to put oneself out there with one’s own thoughts and feelings, and the capacity to sensitively notice if oneself or others got run over in the process – those capacities demonstrate the skilled emotional maturity of this group of people. It is the main reason why I have never quit this organization, despite the real frustrations that I have encountered over the years.
I remember one especially brilliant, irascible, plain-spoken colleague who was a psychoanalyst and a coach – years back, we were in a discussion group together in which he took a particularly aggressive, dominant stance on the topic, whatever it was. Later in the day, we found ourselves chatting – maybe over a coffee break – and he looked a bit sheepishly at me and said, “I was quite a jerk this morning, wasn’t I? Sorry, it’s my authority issues again!” And we went on to have a more fruitful version of the morning’s dialogue.
How could I hold a grudge against someone so self-aware and willing to “repair” what he realized had not gone well?
Our practical inability in the virtual space to go deep and then circle back for completion could be one reason why my “Berlin” mates and I appear to have avoided conflict, in unspoken agreement, as we strove to protect our fragile long-distance relatedness. I suppose a virtual meeting could be designed to deliberately contain and safely navigate such intensity of connection, but it would be a different design than this year's event. I mostly think we will have to wait until another time in person to experience the dance of full-on intellectual and emotional engagement, accompanied by the rich weaving of conversations and connections before and after the formal sessions, as we make meaning together and strengthen treasured relationships.
P.S. And by the way – let this be a reminder to us that it is important to use in-person coffee breaks for talking to people, not just for checking messages. If the coffee breaks need to be 30 minutes to allow for both activities to get done, so be it! Interpersonal connections form the strong matrix that holds a thriving human community together.