One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.

(Lou Reed)


Groups can be complex, confusing and chaotic.

Where three or more people meet to carry out a common task the potential for creativity and productivity is unimaginable.

Alongside this, the potential for conflict and disruption increases exponentially.

Before her confrontation with Steve, Beth‘s perception of her place in the department was blinkered. Her focus was on getting her work done to the best of her ability, completing her hours (and more), and fulfilling the expectations of the firm.

She was vaguely aware that she was being singled out for unfavourable treatment and scapegoated by Steve and, by their silence, the other members of the team.

As she was able to think things through more objectively with the LawCare volunteer she was able to mentalise the one-to-one relationship with Steve and also to think about her place in the department.

‘Interactions in groups are complex to grasp, and identifying specific interventions amidst an almost infinite range of inter-personal and affective communication is such a daunting task as to appear nearly impossible’ [1].

‘Successful mentalisation (i.e., a “true” understanding of one’s own feelings, motives, and thoughts in relation to other minds in specific situations) provides a sense of selfhood, identity, and trust in the capacities of one’s own mind. Its opposite, failures of mentalisation, might induce confusion, misunderstandings, painful and inexplicable affects, a sense of disorganization and fluctuating self-states, and feeling of detachment from others’ [1].

In group therapy sessions patients may be assured that everybody will occasionally experience loss of their mentalising capacities and this might even include the therapist. A common responsibility is to try to identify these instances, to explore them, to understand them, and to restore the ability to think and feel [1]. 

When groups working in conditions of extreme pressure, deadlines, with underlying undercurrents of competitiveness and a need to be seen to be performing better than others, rivalries will rumble under the surface.

Social dynamics can be particularly confusing when conflict is introduced.

It’s a bit like trying to track every moving ball when the cue ball is propelled forcefully into others on a pool table. The interaction of the balls is sudden and simultaneous and can only be seen clearly on viewing repeated action replays. 

Or trying to follow the improvised melody and harmonies and bass line and drum patterns in a jazz quintet.

Tricky, to say the least.

Writing of his experience of captaining the England cricket team and from his later perspective as a psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley says that a captain or analyst’s belief that they are fully aware of what is going on can be a self-delusion: ‘When such interpenetrations are happening, it is hard for someone who is caught up in them to see what’s going on, much less, without such insight, be in a position to help the patient to understand his behaviour and begin to learn the often powerful reasons for it’ [2].

If one has some internal way of ‘pressing the pause button’ to control excessive anxiety and overreaction, this creates a space within which one can see slightly more clearly the reality of what may be going on inter-personally and within groups.

Without this ability, life can get pretty confusing.

Beth’s support from the volunteer enabled her to obtain, not only personal support, but a forum in which to see what might be going on in her workplace.

It certainly helped her to gain a sense of her place in the department and of the unrealistic expectations that she’d been placing on herself.

Mentalising has been explained as ‘the central mechanism of self-cohesion’ [1].

A growing ability to think about her own feelings and motivations and to imagine what might be motivating others in the department enabled Beth to regain a sense of control over herself and her environment.

Talking with a volunteer enabled Beth to think about herself inquisitively, provide alternative perspectives on what might be going on, challenging her beliefs, share her experience, and reflect on what had been happening in novel ways …




[1] Karterud, S. & Bateman, A. W. (2012) Group Therapy Techniques. In Bateman, A. W. & Fonagy, P. Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice (pp.81-106). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing (p.81).

[2] Brearley, M. (2015) The Art of Captaincy: What sport teaches us about leadership. London: Pan Books (p. 350).


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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