‘The Centre and Circumference of Knowledge’: The Use of Poetry as a Tool of Countertransference in Organizational Knowing and Consulting 1
Howard F. Stein
This paper is a study in epistemology and methodology, specifically, the use of researcher or consultant countertransference (‘subjectivity’) as a tool of knowing (‘objectivity’) organizations, and further the use of the arts (poetry) as a tool of countertransference. In his 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow argued that in the history of Western thought there was a deep and persistent chasm between the sciences and the humanities. The sciences had long since triumphed culturally as ‘hard,’ ‘exact,’ ‘objective,’ ‘basic,’ and ‘real,’ leaving the humanities by contrast as ‘inferior’ and hopelessly ‘soft.’ In this paper I shall attempt to partly heal this split by inverting the usual hierarchy and invoking the ‘liberal arts’ – in particular, poetry – as an instrument for a greater (‘scientific’) understanding of organizations and consulting with them (see also Whyte, 1996).
Organizational consultant and theorist Seth Allcorn writes that ‘Perhaps as a craftsman my highest level of achievement is to recognize the problem, locate tools that apply, and hopefully be able to use them to improve upon the problem’ (personal communication, 18 June 2004, quoted with permission). Poetry born of consultant and researcher countertransference is one such tool of intervention (Stein, 2004a). Further, we know from Max Weber’s classic study of religion and capitalism (1904) that for many people their work (employment, job) demonstrates if not proves their moral worth in this world. In this vein, Michael Diamond writes, ‘many, not all, people find much of their identities in their work and thus in their jobs and therefore in their organizational identities’ (personal communication, 18 January 2004). Here, an organizational researcher or consultant’s poetry can be an avenue toward understanding the inner meaning of those identities. Rather than beginning with hegemonic science, I will start with poetry and work from it toward knowledge of the ‘real’ world of organizational experience.
Perhaps the locus classicus of this admittedly controversial position is the 1821 essay, ‘Defence of Poetry,’ by English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In it he argues that
[P]oetry is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.
[Further,] poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts….
I take my cue from Shelley to consider that knowledge of the ‘outer’ world can be informed by attunement with the ‘inner,’ imaginative world, specifically, that of the organizational researcher, leader, manager, or consultant. Michael Diamond, for instance, writes that
…To be helpful [to clients, to organizations] I have found it necessary to pull together as much of my-self as possible as an instrument of participant observation and understanding. Thus, transference and counter-transference issues and all of the projections, introjections, and projective identifications which go along with it became terribly valuable in doing the work of analyzing organizations (relationally and intersubjectively) and assisting in their transformation. Yet, the latter has always been a messy and frequently disappointing affair. (personal communication, 17 June 2004, quoted with permission)
When we study, lead, work in, or consult with organizations, what and who is/are the object(s) of our observation in organizations? Others? Ourselves? Others via ourselves? In what does one’s ‘intuition’ about an organization lie? Can knowledge gained in this manner be other than ‘messy’ and ‘disappointing’? Seth Allcorn writes, ‘I suppose the longer we look at this work [of psychoanalytically-informed organizational consulting], the more we see and the harder it is to explain how we work and what we find, much less how we fix it’ (personal communication, 21 June 2004, quoted with permission). Psychoanalysis is a crucial perspective and process for answering these questions. It can, in turn, be informed by the metaphorical world of poetry. In the next section I shall discuss these issues from a theoretical viewpoint. I then turn to some examples of my own poetry taken from work with organizations. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this approach for understanding and working with and in organizations.
GAINING ACCESS TO PSYCHOLOGICAL REALITY IN ORGANIZATIONAL EXPERIENCE
‘How do we know what we purport to know about organizations?’ This is perhaps the key methodological question in all human research. Epistemologically, the observer is a crucial part of the observation. The internal dialogue of the observer/ consultant is a vital part of the intersubjective dance of observing, listening, interacting, and understanding as an organizational interviewer and participant observer.
Sometimes taking the form of poetry, the disciplined subjectivity of the observer/consultant reveals crucial data about what it feels like to work in the organization, and hence about the organization ‘itself.’ Often countertransference and the forms it takes are the only guide to organizational identity and culture. Poetry and other art forms can serve as a metaphorical transitional play-space for gaining access to these elusive unconscious organizational processes. I argue for the possibility of organizational poesis and organizational knowing via the observer or consultant’s countertransference. This, in turn, raises the question of whose poem is it? The researcher’s? The client or group’s? I suggest that the perhaps unexpected answer is that the poem is the organization-or-client-in-the-observer or consultant.
The work of Gordon Lawrence and his colleagues over the past decade (Lawrence, 1998) on what he calls ‘social dreaming’ persuasively suggests that in a group the dreamer may well be the repository of the dream, but not entirely its source. The dream, then, is in some respects ‘in’ the dreamer but not wholly ‘of’ the dreamer. In his book, Who Is the Dreamer Who Dreams the Dream?, James Grotstein (2000) makes a similar case for not confusing the person who ‘has’ and ‘reports’ the dream with the origin of the dream. The ‘reveries’ (Bion, 1962) of the organizational researcher and consultant – and in turn, the poems the reveries inspire – are a product of the intersubjective experience between researcher or consultant and client and organization.
Over the course of my twenty-eight years of clinical teaching and organizational consulting on the North American Great Plains, I have written several hundred ‘prairie poems’ about the landscape, the weather, wheat farming, family life, illness, and the like. Many Oklahoma-born colleagues and friends have taken many of these poems and placed them on their walls, bulletin boards, or in their break rooms. They have often expressed both gratitude and astonishment that I – an outsider from distant, urban western Pennsylvania and also a Jew – could write poems that portrayed and evoked their largely Evangelical Protestant, rural, world (e.g., Stein, 1996, 2004b). The question arises: How does an ‘outsider’ manage to write poems that are recognized and claimed by ‘insiders’ as their own voice and as giving them voice? Certainly these were ‘my’ poems; but they came from prairie people’s world in me (technically speaking, my digestion and metabolization of their projective identifications). I became the repository (container) of their world. In returning their world to them, I helped them to feel understood. Such reciprocity was furthered as they in turn offered me additional insights into their culture. I have long had similar experience in writing workplace/organizational poetry, and often using it as part of an ongoing conversation or consultation.
The prairie and workplace poems are interpretations – but interpretations that I would not have arrived at alone. ‘My’ interpretations are intersubjective creations. The process is, I believe, akin to a psychoanalyst offering an interpretation during psychotherapy, or a psychodynamically-oriented consultant offering an interpretation during a consultation, except that here the poetry-as-interpretation is longer, symbolic, and more all-encompassing and global rather than focal. The poetry-as-interpretation evokes entire cultural worlds. When an interpretation makes emotional sense to a patient or client, it becomes transmuted into part of the patient or client’s own self-understanding. By extension, in putting my poems on their bulletin boards, walls, and refrigerators, my Oklahoma-born colleagues and friends are claiming my words and images as a part of their own world (incorporation), and are further displaying them for themselves as visual reminders of who they are. Further, they are markers of a relationship. The process of mutual recognition deepens the relationship and furthers our work together.
In organizational research and consulting, the poems do not replace traditional modes of data gathering such as open-ended interview, participant observation, and documentary analysis. (Indeed, the poetry of the organization emerges while one is engaged in such conventional data collection.) Nor do they provide ready-made solutions. Rather they broaden and deepen the inner and intersubjective conversation. The poems metaphorically create more emotional space within which to play and work – and alternatively they diminish the space (distance) between people.
Poems used in this way help foster an emotional or affective attunement (resonance) between author and organizational client or research subject. A poem written for, and with material inspired by, another person or group has the psychological property of a containing and transitional self-object, or alternately serves as a concrete embodiment of a projective identification. The poem permits the (temporary) illusion that it is not ‘I’ we are talking about but ‘it,’ the thoughts ‘in’ the poem. Gradually, one works back to the ‘I’ (subject) from the (transitional) object created and placed in the creative potential space (Winnicott, 1967) that includes consultant or researcher, client or subject, and poem.
Stated in terms of boundaries, the poetic idea is first experienced and considered outside the self. What occurred first as transference to the poem (via projective identification) is subsequently reincorporated (via introjective identification) into the mind, and is metabolized into insight, wisdom, creativity, and problem-solving. Finally, ‘this attuned, holding, containing communication in the form of a poem adds something that transcends the written [narrative, linear] word or speech’ (Seth Allcorn, personal communication, 25 June 2005, quoted with permission).
In a paper titled, ‘Imagined Realities: Rethinking Needs, Rights and Capabilities,’ David P. Levine writes:
In thinking about what a university does we cannot, I think, place too much emphasis on the development of and the exercise of the capacity for not knowing, which also calls on, and is really an aspect of, the capacity to dwell in the mind. …[I]f we are to learn from experience, we must not only have the experience, but also remove ourselves from it so that we can think about it. (2004)
Levine’s insights apply as well to problem-solving and decision-making in business, industry, government, and other real-world workplaces. The question is whether we can transpose these insights to workplace research, consulting, leadership, and management. In this paper I am proposing that the researcher or consultant’s poetry (or short story, charcoal sketch, sculpture, music) can serve as a medium for dwelling in the mind, for reflecting and feeling about one’s workplace and, in turn, can be of use in one’s future work within the organization. Poetry helps one to know creatively, not merely to confirm what one already – and often defensively – purports to know. In short, a consultant or researcher’s poetry can be a productive tool of countertransference in organizational knowing.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the poem need not literally be shared with the client or group in order to be of value to the research or the consultation. The very act of writing the poems helps the researcher or consultant to process and to organize the cognitive and affective self-experience and countertransference, thereby making available new possibilities of understanding, interpretation, and intervention. I turn now from theory and methodology to the writing and use of poems in practice.
ORGANIZATIONAL POESIS OF RESEARCHER AND CONSULTANT
In this section I will offer examples of poems I have written in my roles as organizational researcher and consultant, and discuss how these poems were ‘used’ to deepen my relationship with clients and organizations. My discussion of them will be less deconstruction as evocation of the intersubjective workplace meanings and feelings they embody. The first poem is titled, ‘Badges.’
We wear badges at work
So that others will know
Who we are and that we belong here –
And that we are of no danger to anyone.
Eventually we come to wear
Badges at work to remind ourselves
Who we are and that we belong here –
And that we are one of the good people.
We put our badges on before we arrive
And panic when we have forgotten
Where we put them at home or in the car.
We feel naked, vulnerable. We might be
Mistaken for the enemy – or begin to doubt
How harmless we really are.
This poem was inspired by an actual event. I was driving to my office one day in 2004 and discovered, to my horror, that I had forgotten to put on my identification badge. I did not want to return home to retrieve it. I used my cell phone to call my department, explained the situation, and was told that it would be acceptable for me to come to work without my identification tag today. I was relieved, but not entirely. In countless American workplaces since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the American Pentagon on 11 September 2001, there has become an obsession with knowing who belongs and who does not belong. Mandatory wearing of badges has become a commonplace solution in organizations. Identity, identification, and cultural boundaries are all part of the highly emotional equation. For a while, I felt that in forgetting my identification, I had at least temporarily lost my identity.
I further associated my mistake of forgetfulness with a much earlier event in my Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. In the first hours following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, countless Americans were ‘certain’ that Middle Eastern Islamic Arabs had perpetrated the heinous deed. A decisive us/them split divided the world into good/evil. During those first hours, I walked down a long corridor in my department and crossed paths with a faculty physician colleague I had known for over a decade; we counted one another as friends. As we met, he jokingly said to me, ‘Now Howard, you look like a lot of those Islamic Middle Easterners. Are you sure you’re not one of those Arab terrorists who bombed the Federal Building?’ We both laughed – nervously – and continued to our respective destinations. At one level I knew he was ‘only kidding,’ but at another I also knew that my appearance triggered his fear and his anxious humor. Although none of us wore badges at the time, my physique (which included a full beard and an aquiline nose) was itself a kind of identification badge that declared ‘You don’t look like one of us.’ His boundary of safety had been violated. In turning me – even humorously – into an alien Other, he helped to restore (repair) the boundary’s integrity.
I further thought that the badges were a symbolic way that we who wore the badges could regard ourselves as the ‘good’ people who were in danger of being attacked by ‘bad’ people without badges. If felt like a paranoid-schizoid solution to persecutory anxiety. Through the solution of badges, ‘we’ could disavow our own aggressiveness and project it upon the imagined enemy. In sum, the experience taught me more about the emotional significance of badges in the American workplace than I had bargained for, and helped further sensitize me to the dynamics of contemporary organizational identity than I had yet considered.
My next poem is titled ‘Stay Beneath the Smoke.’
‘Stay beneath the smoke,’
The firefighter urged us
In his talk the other day.
‘Down there you’ll breathe
And not choke.’
The more intense the fire,
I thought, the shallower
The band of breathable air.
How transportable a metaphor,
I further mused, to take to meetings
Where the talk was thick
With threat and innuendo,
And where I had to crouch low
Toward the floor of my soul
To avoid asphyxiation
From the heavy smog of words.
Organizational executives, managers, and consultants often use the metaphor of ‘constantly putting out fires’ to evoke what the role is like to be responding to organizational crisis after crisis, and rarely having the time or luxury for reflection or looking at the ‘big picture’ of their workplace. The symbol of executive, manager, and consultant as heroic firefighter is widespread. By contrast, as consultant and employee, I often hear clients and colleagues talk about how organizational meetings are thick with emotional smoke and smokescreen, ‘smoke and mirrors,’ and smoke stacks through which leaders, managers, and consultants attempt to deceive and manipulate group members by mobilizing anxiety and dependency on them.
All too often leaders and managers who portray themselves as workplace firefighters are the same ones who ignite emotional fires and produce much smoke. When I ask clients and colleagues, ‘What’s it like to work here?’, a common response is in the idiom of fires, smoke, and firefighting. I have found this poem helps people to feel understood and not discounted. Further, the metaphor becomes a kind of transitional space (Winnicott, 1953) in which to explore the psychological reality of the workplace.
My next example is a poem called ‘Acronym.’ I should say by way of introduction that in American biomedicine as in many occupations and professions, practitioners and teachers employ various abbreviations and short-hands to refer to common workplace situations. This poem illustrates one such usage.
A textbook perfect pregnancy
For both doctor and patient.
Well into her ninth month, she
Suddenly could no longer
Feel her baby move inside her.
Phone call to the clinic. Emergency ultrasound.
Worst fears confirmed. Could the test be wrong?
Induction of labor. Delivery. Dead baby.
Intra-Uterine Fetal Demise.
Granite-cold words to define the event.
Anger. Tears. Sobs.
For both mother and doctor,
Obsessive picking through
The debris for hindsight.
Relentless second guessing.
Repeated rehearsals for the past.
Replays of what had already played out.
Anything to diminish the apparition
That would not depart.
You did everything you could,
And so did we, the doctor
Tries to reassure the bereaved woman
So abruptly torn from motherhood.
We may never know why your baby died.
Grief bathed in horror.
The doctor said he will never forget
The mother's face. I will
Never forget his.
This poem was inspired by an actual clinical case. About ten physicians and I were sitting around a large conference table discussing the patients currently on their hospital service. The presentation of the above ‘case’ was filled with emotion and was devoid of the more frequent detachment customary among many physicians. As I listened to their storytelling – which included their unsuccessful effort to tease out from the case what went wrong so as to avoid it in the future – I attended to them as well as to the ‘case’ they were narrating. This led to the sudden shift of focus in the final lines of the poem. I remember writing the poem within several days of the conference at which they presented it. I immediately e-mailed it to all the physicians who had been in the meeting. Several of them expressed gratitude for it and for the double recognition it offered, not only the bereaved parents, but also themselves. I speculate that the physicians directly involved with the delivery had experienced the uncanny (Freud 1919), in which the animate suddenly becomes the inanimate, and the boundary between life and death becomes blurred.
Occasionally when I am part of a conference at which a particular vexing patient or problem of relationship is discussed, I will soon afterwards write a poem and give it to the people who were part of the ‘case.’ Although it does not become a part of the official medical record, it serves as a kind of mirror and container for the emotional currents the case has evoked; and it becomes a point of departure for further discussion and even problem-solving among the participants. It helps deepen my relationship with them and between them.
My next poem comes from a group of physician trainees whose conversation about difficult clinical relationships I regularly lead/facilitate twice monthly, named for Michael Balint. The poem is called ‘Conflict Avoidance.’
Was it her words
Or sunken eyes,
That led me to think
Of words’ disguise?
‘I don’t want to rock the boat,’
She said, not once but twice,
As we spoke of disagreement
Among her fellow doctors on the ward.
‘I prefer to let things ride,’
She pressed the group in a shy aside,
Which led me to wonder more
About her choice of metaphor
Years before, she fled her country,
Traded war for open sea,
A raft, a log, a boat, a dare,
A hope for safety anywhere.
Here, for once, no cliché,
No mere façon de parler,
But today, on a hospital ward,
The old terror came ashore.
Conflict avoidance is a largely unspoken rule in the profession of American biomedicine. Physicians learn quickly not to question one another’s judgment unless it is an egregious error. This is even more true for apprentice physicians (called interns and residents), who are often intimidated to ‘learn their place in the pecking order’ (social hierarchy of practitioners). As I observed the woman physician described in the above poem, I first thought this was a main source of her quietness in the group. Perhaps, too, I wondered, her Asian-ness and Laotian-ness, might help account for her seemingly passive and reticent role in the group. But I sensed that something beyond culture was involved as well, something I could not for a while identify. I listened when she did speak; she would invariably talk about not ‘rocking the boat’ and ‘letting things ride’ when conflict in her work-group or on the hospital service would arise.
Not wanting to embarrass her in the group, I visited with her privately and asked her about her choice of phrases and imagery. Her word-choice was even more personal that I had imagined; it was a clue to the great menace and danger that the possibility of open dissent had for her. It turns out that she had been a ‘Boat Person’ who managed to escape with her life from Southeast Asia during the Communist takeover in the late 1970’s on a very fragile craft. The story was poignant beyond words. I told her I admired her courage – from her flight at sea to her very diligent work as an apprentice physician. Shortly after this visit, I wrote the poem above and I gave it to her. She was grateful; she felt understood, that a secret, hidden part of her self and her history was safely known, that she could be more whole.
A large part of medical socialization (and identification with often intimidating superiors) is the moral lesson that ‘you keep your thoughts, feelings, and past to yourself’ in order to be ‘professional.’ I had inadvertently allowed her to heal a split that was not quite a dissociation. The poem and the conversation helped cement and deepen the ‘working’ relationship and led to many future clinical conversations. Paradoxically, by voicing her dread, she came to need it les. She more freely participated in later group discussions.
My final poem in this paper is called ‘Watchman’s Prayer.’
What will happen on my watch?
Will my child sleep through the night?
Will my patient’s fever finally break?
Will my ship prevail in the storm?
Will my quiet city rage and burn?
If You can, then spare us,
If not, then prepare us –
Is never far.
I walk the ancient widow’s watch.
My lover fishes far out at sea.
My awe of high waves doeth contend
With my steadfast trust in Thee.
This poem was inspired by the deadly fire in the abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 3 December 1999, in which six firefighters were killed. Subsequently, I was invited by the Worcester Institute on Loss and Trauma to participate in planning and speaking at a conference dedicated to helping the many communities involved work through the loss – and fear of future fires. I dedicated the poem to the then-Fire Chief and Psychologist of the Worcester Fire Department, Dennis Budd and Dr. Hayden Duggan. Although the Worcester fire was the precipitating event for the poem, the poem is not only about leadership, responsibility, hope and fear among firefighters, but among all people who are metaphoric ‘watchmen’ of others: from parents, to physicians, to ship captains, to mayors of cities.
Organizational consultants, too, are watchmen of sorts. Although they are not official leaders or executives of organizations, they bear the ethical responsibility for being the watchmen-of-the-watchmen. They serve as the ‘container’ (Bion, 1970) and ‘holding environment’ (Winnicott, 1965) of clients’ anxieties, helping those with whom they work to feel safe, understood, and able to play with unthought alternatives to current solutions. Over two decades earlier, when I visited the New England coast of the United States, I was struck by the ‘widows’ walk’ that was on the roof of countless homes that faced the sea. These were originally built for the wives who were anxiously awaiting news of the fate of their fishermen husbands far out at sea. There are thus two protagonists or voices – two types of watchman – in the poem: the more active leader or manager, and the one who powerlessly waits. In some consultations, I give this poem to clients who feel overwhelmed by responsibility (both the actual responsibility and by their sense of it) in leading or managing their organization. It helps them to see themselves, and to feel understood. It helps them to be able to go on with their work, which often includes the further work of the consultation with me.
At this point I invite the reader to consider several questions in relation to the poems and my commentary on them. What do the poems feel like? What do they mean? Toward whom and what do the poems point? Who and what are the poems about? Can the reader utilize this method in his or her own organizational research and consulting? What might it look like?
At the beginning of this paper, I identified it as a study in the epistemology and methodology of studying and consulting with workplace organizations. I inverted the culturally usual ranking of ‘objective’ science and ‘subjective’ art and argued for (1) the usefulness of the humanities (e.g., poems) as an instrument of the subjectivity of the researcher or consultant (indeed the intersubjectivity [Ogden, 1989]) (2) in the service of understanding and working with organizations. I used several of my own ‘organizational’ poems to illustrate this process.
I have suggested that poems such as these might be used strategically by the consultant as a means to help deepen both the client’s self-reflectivity and the client-consultant relationship. In the least, the consultant can use these poems as organizational data (the organization-in-the-mind-of-the-consultant) to supplement data gathered by the more conventional methods of participant observation, open-ended interview, study of official organizational documents, and the like. The organizational researcher and consultant can help clients gain a deeper experience of their own organization via the researcher and client’s inner experience. Offered in the spirit of earnest play, these poems, and the relationship that contains them, can help the client and organizations to feel acknowledged and understood and can serve as a springboard for further exploration and reflection. Finally, this approach can help clients and their organizations to become ‘unstuck’ from dysfunctional perspectives and rituals, and to imagine and entertain new thoughts and solutions.
1. This paper is based on a presentation made at the Symposium of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, 18 June 2005, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. I am much in debt to Seth Allcorn, Ph.D., and Michael A. Diamond, Ph.D., for their ideas in our ongoing conversations.
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Address for correspondence
Howard F. Stein
Department of Family and Preventive Medicine
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
900 NE 10th Street
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA.
Telephone: 405-271-8000, extension 32211
Tel. +44 (0)207 607 8306