ICP Online - Messy Yet Essential
by Sanford Shapiro, M.D.
Last December, while drinking Champagne at a holiday party, Bill Coburn asked: "Sandy, why don't we do an ICP online colloquium?" Bill offered to organize: find a paper to discuss, recruit a discussion panel, and appoint a moderator. "We could post the paper on our ICP web site," I said, "And we could use our Yahoo discussion group for the forum."
Yahoo provides free discussion groups - a "listserve" where any ICP member who subscribes can post an e-mail message. All ICP members and candidates who are already subscribed receive the e-mail automatically and can reply to the message, which then goes to everyone on the list. The only cost is a small advertisement at the bottom of each e-mail. Ken Koenig, our listserve manager, keeps watch so that only ICP members and candidates are allowed to subscribe.
"Our Yahoo group is hardly being used," I said, "We have nothing to lose." Bill arranged for a paper from Phil Ringstrom: "The 'Messy' Yet Essential Nature of Theory: The Wisdom of Steve Mitchell's Relational Perspective." The panel would include Phil, Bill, Judy Pickles and myself. Lynne Jacobs agreed to be the moderator. Members would download and read the paper, panelists would discuss the topic for two weeks, and then the membership would join in. I worried that no one would pay any attention.
In fact, the start was slow, with only one or two e-mail messages posted each day during May, our first month. But gradually the pace picked up, and by the end of the colloquium in July, we hit a peak of 285 e-mail messages per day! Pity the poor member who went on vacation in July and returned home to a clogged mailbox.
Our moderator, Lynne Jacobs, was relieved when August came so she could reclaim her life. But the enthusiasm and excitement generated by this discussion left everyone waiting for next year's colloquium. While our discussion started with Steve Mitchell's ideas, the themes ranged widely. Phil gave us a loving description of his experience with Steve Mitchell and of how Mitchell challenged his students to think differently. Judy Pickles pegged Phil's thinking as "Angelino Relational" - a personal blend of Relational Theory, Self Psychology and Intersubjective Systems Theory. Judy then shared her own experience of study with Mitchell, her appreciation of his openness, and the shock and sense of loss at his sudden death.
I recalled the Self Psychology conference where Mitchell discussed a presentation by Bob Stolorow, and then, one year later, the ICP conference where Stolorow played the "friendly critic" and discussed a presentation by Steve Mitchell. These discussions started a fruitful dialogue between Relational Analysis and Intersubjectivity Theory.
Our moderator, Lynne Jacobs, summarized the initial discussion into two points: a dialectic approach to subjectivity vs. a holistic approach; and the differences in various relational theories based on the contexts and the cultures in which they originate. I introduced a clinical case and wanted to talk about technique. Phil then introduced the use of improvisation in therapy, and he reminded us how "messy" our theoretical ideas are when we try to correlate them with technique.
Bill Coburn introduced the contextualist perspective, and he highlighted the difference between phenomenology and the explanatory. With this the discussion gained momentum, and we played with an expanding number of ideas including:
- Complexity Theory.
- Dynamic Systems Theory.
- The mind.
Initially, members were hesitant to jump into the discussions: "I feel like when I was little and was trying to get into a fast and fancy jump rope game where the ropes were twisting with lightening, blurry speed," one member said. But little by little people did join in, and soon they had trouble leaving."I have to sign off and get to work now, but I hate to leave this discussion," another member wrote.
Our moderator, Lynne, once came back from a weekend conference to find herself overwhelmed by the task of summarizing three days worth of discussion. The next time she went away for a weekend, she used her PDA and cell phone to stay connected with the discussion.
Despite the widely divergent points of view, the tone of the discussions was both playful and respectful, and it generated a feeling of intimacy as many who had never met in person now felt connected on a personal level. The absence of criticism helped members feel safe, and they shared their feelings of vulnerability. As the colloquium ended, people expressed their appreciation: "My own thinking has expanded," said one panelist. "I love seeing how others think and play," commented one member. "I have been addicted to my mailbox," said another.
We felt Steve Mitchell's spirit of openness to ideas throughout this "messy yet essential" discussion. Bill has offered to organize another colloquium for next year. "We can use the same structure again," I said, "But please let's plan it so it ends before people go on vacation."