Opportunities and perspectives of online work. Comparative analysis of working with an offline/online group and an online group
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Accredited Balint Leader, Chair of the Board of Russian Balint Society (Russia,Moscow)
Dear colleagues, I also welcome you to our online event and want to thank all of you for your interest in the theme of our Round Table and for accepting our invitation.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Elena Ivanova, I am a trained clinical psychologist and a psychology professor. I am a leader of Balint groups and the Chair of the Russian Balint Society Board.
I had my first exposure to Balint work in 2012 and I have conducted Balint groups since 2016. Together with the group of my other colleagues from different Russian cities I have received most of my training in the German Balint Society, Polish Balint Society and participated in international congresses and conferences.
Our teachers and supervisors are present here today: Dr. Guido Flatten from Germany, Drs. Bohdan Wasilewski and Ireneusz Kaflik from Poland, Dr. Vladimir Vinokur from Saint-Petersburg and group analysts and psychotherapists from the UK Linda Mary Edwards and Amelia Lyons.
Our dear colleagues and teachers, we are very grateful to you for the wonderful world that you opened for us — the world of Balint work.
The idea of having an International Round Table came to us amidst the pandemic. The very situation suggested the topics for discussion.
On the one hand, the pandemic made the whole world to isolate themselves in their homes and cut off the in-person contacts between people. On the other hand, I had a feeling that people from all continents reached out to each other, started gathering into online groups, supporting each other and organizing shared events.
The work with clients fully shifted online, we also had Balint meetings online. It became a new reality for us al and we wanted to make sense of it, exchange the experience with our colleagues, analyze and summarize it. It became one of the factors for choosing the Round Table topic.
Another factor that made us think about doing Balint work online came to the fore even earlier — in autumn 2019. The point is that during all those years we continued having intense training ourselves and involved our colleagues in this training. We conducted our own BGs but till the very recent time we did not train any BG leaders.
In 2017 we created the Russian Balint Society to promote Balint work among psychologists and psychotherapists because we are convinced that Balint groups offer a unique training format for developing professional qualities of helping professionals.
We, the Russian Balint Society, designed a training Program for Balint group leaders based on our training experience and the recommendations of the International Balint Federation.
Let me briefly summarize the criteria for training Balint leaders:
1.Only an experienced practitioner may become a BG leader.
2.One needs to have had not less than 120 hours of one’s own experience of participating in a Balint group.
3. The candidates need to attend 6 leadership seminars where they learn to conduct the groups under the supervision of a more experienced professional (96 hours)
4.We also included an introductory course in basic psychoanalytic theories that includes the technique of conducting a Balint group. We think that without having at least a general idea of psychoanalysis it is difficult to understand one’s personality and what is going on in the communication between the specialist and the client.
5.We strongly recommend our candidates to get their own individual therapy experience: at least 100 sessions for psychologists and psychotherapists and at least 50 sessions for other helping professionals.
Last year we began to get invitations to organize Balint work in various regions of Russia. And while we could regularly travel to the nearby cities (Kaluga, Bryansk) to conduct Balint groups in person, it is almost impossible to fly to the more remote regions on a regular basis.
Consider this. We received the applications from the cities in the Far East and Siberia: from Khabarovsk (6000 km — 8 hours on a plane), Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk (3500 – 4000 km – about 4 hours on a plane); from the South of Russia — from Dagestan, Krasnodar, Volgograd (1000 -1500 km which equals about 2- 2,5 hours on a plane).
We, the people who could teach Balint work, are not yet numerous in Russia. Therefore it was inevitable for us to consider doing BGs online and combining them with in person work.
My first two visiting seminars were planned for February and March — in February I was supposed to fly to the South of Russia to the Republic of Dagestan (the city of Makhachkala) and in March — to the Baikal region, to Irkutsk, the capital of the Eastern Siberia.
I decided that I will do the work in a mixed format: visiting seminars and working online in between.
The seminar in Makhachkala was a success, the Balint work was most welcome. It was a group of young psychologists and psychotherapists aged from 24 to 35 years old. They quickly grasped the algorithm of Balint work and showed great sensitivity, creativity and professionalism.
However all the work was put on hold in March due to the pandemic. Then I offered the group to continue meeting online. They supported it. Moreover, the participants took the initiative and posted the feedback about Balint work on the social media and invited new members to the group.
There were plenty of people willing to join and we had to form 2 groups — a mixed one, that included those who attended the offline seminar and some new members — 14 participants altogether.
Another totally online group consisted of 11 participants that had no idea of Balint work.
The question of how to start working with the second group made me feel especially anxious. I did not know who would come. I was wondering about how I could create a trusting safe space where one could freely open up with their feelings and be open and creative. I was in need of advice and techniques that could help me in this work (fortunately, Amelia Lyons will share some of those today).
In the first session it was important for me to meet the group members and talk to them about something on the feelings level. It could be a topic that was of interest to everyone. The pandemic became such a topic.
That was exactly how I decided to start the group. We had this conversation, everyone warmed up and relaxed a little bit. Then I shared a little bit about the nature of Balint work, about the BG history and rules. It took us 90 minutes. In the second half we had a Balint group. That’s how the work started.
In the online format the emotional connection does not emerge so easily, therefore, in order to maintain contact we decided to meet every week for a 90 minutes session (usually in offline format I conduct groups twice a month, every meeting is two sessions).
In a mixed group the plan of work was the same but the work and emotional contact in this group emerged easier because half of the members had experience of offline work.
After the session I wrote some guidelines and sent them to the members of both groups. These guidelines include three fragments:
1. Detailed description of the BG, what it works with and what it has to offer a helping professional.
2. The rules and boundaries of the BG.
3. The structure of a Balint session (stages of work)
During the first weeks of work from time to time I showed the group rules on the screen and we discussed them again and again. Sometimes in the course of the session one needs to remind the members of rules when they violate them in order to explain why they should not do so.
The results of the three months of work.
The composition in both groups has changed. In three months the group’s composition got more stable. In my view, in both groups there has been a trusting safe atmosphere and I see how the group members support this space and take care of it.
16 members participated in a mixed group and 5 of them left it due to different reasons.
In an online group 6 members stayed in the group out of the initial 11 (one member left for our online group in Moscow).
They shared the following reasons for leaving:
— «It is hard to work with feelings» — 2 members
— «I am not ready to work yet, I will get back to the group when I start working with clients» — 1 person
— «The format is not a good fit for me» — 1 person
— «I move to a different city, I will come back in the future» — 1 person
— «There is an overlap with my studies» — 1 person
— Someone left without explanations, they just disappeared.
Online format does not replace in person sessions that should be kept as the main basis for our work.
BUT – an online group has the right to exist, it can also be effective, it acquires — over time — the necessary atmosphere and cohesion but it seems to me that it takes a lot of shared effort.
It is recommended to combine online work with in person work.
Novice BG leaders should not work online.