Interview with George Saiger, MD, CGP, FAGPA and John Thomas, MSW, CGP about the Spring Conference

Karen Eberwein spoke with George Saiger, MD, CGP, FAGPA and John Thomas, MSW, CGP about the upcoming Spring Conference scheduled for Saturday and Sunday April 21-22, 2012.

Both George and John are current MAGPS members and on the faculty of the National Group Psychotherapy Institute (NGPI), who will be presenting A Learning Community: The Dynamic Interplay of Theories and Experience.  George is a past president of MAGPS and has been on the faculty of the Group Psychotherapy Training Program at the Washington School of Psychiatry since 1979. John has served as a secretary and board member of the MAGPS, as well as is the current Chair of the Washington School of Psychiatry’s National Group Psychotherapy (NGPI) Institute.

 KE: What is in store for us during the two days of A Learning Community: The Dynamic Interplay of Theories and Experience?

JT: Perhaps more than anything we hope it’ll be a challenge for all concerned. Most of us do our work with a theory, a set of ideas and beliefs, which shapes our interventions. In this weekend, we intend to demonstrate how the examination and challenging of those ideas in dialogue with others can expand our “field of vision” so to speak. This can be energizing, of course, but it can also be a bit disturbing; a little like finding out that the map, or maybe I should say GPS, you’re using on a trip is inaccurate or out of date.

KE: How does the content of the conference fit into the bigger picture of the learning community at NGPI?

Harry Stack Sullivan

GS: We have tried to put together a program for Mid Atlantic that will capture the essence, although not the exact experience, of the NGPI that’s been running at the Washington School now since 1994. At the NGPI we try very hard to combine experiential learning with a strong didactic component which often has a clear point of view about the role of theory in understanding group psychotherapy–We have tried to put those two together and participants will get some flavor of that this upcoming conference weekend.

JT: I would add to that, when the Washington School was established by Harry Stack Sullivan he wanted it to be, and it has been, a place where interdisciplinary points of view come together. He was interested in getting people from other disciplines like Sociology and Political Science to join periodically and exchange ideas in the effort to better understand the human condition. There’s something of a flavor of that, although I don’t think we’ve ever really put it this way in our literature. One of the things that I think we can offer is the ‘play’ and dynamism of different theoretical points of view in doing group psychotherapy. So, during an NGPI weekend, though we concentrate on one particular theoretical orientation, other points of view are also presented; this is done in part through a “fishbowl” event where faculty sit in a circle for a free form discussion of what’s been presented, with a period following where students in the outer circle make contributions to the discussion, pro or con. In this way we try to make students aware that there are different ways of skinning the cat and that is partly what we want to bring to this weekend. That’s why there’s a fishbowl scheduled for Sunday morning, which will include both NGPI faculty and senior MAGPS members.

KE: How will this conference be different than participating in a weekend of the two-year NGPI?

JT: Well, for one thing in our weekend conferences at the School, we include a Large Group component, but because of time constraints, we simply couldn’t do that with the Mid Atlantic weekend. So that’s one thing that will be missing. And while experiential learning is common to both MAGPS and NGPI weekends, the latter is somewhat more intensive because we have four process groups and three large groups that meet each weekend.

GS: There is another main difference I think that is quite central. The institute is designed to be six separate conferences and although each one has its own topic and, as John said, its own theoretical take, the experience is over the course of two-years, even though we do allow people to attend for only one conference. So, most of the people who are participating have more time in this community of learning and I think that makes a big difference.

JT: Yes, I agree.

KE: That being said, what were some of the challenges the faculty faced in trying to create an environment that will expose us to some of the processes participants learn about and experience during NGPI?

GS: It’s a tasting menu!

JT: I couldn’t have said it any better! And, it was not easy.

GS: Yes, I think it is important to say that.

JT: It wasn’t easy because at Mid Atlantic conferences we usually have a central focus which offers a kind of “takeaway” for attendees in the form, for instance, of possible new interventions; for example Lise Motherwell’s presentation on the role of play in psychotherapy. What we’re bringing to this April weekend is more an attitude or philosophy of learning and the role of theory in it, which is a bit more difficult to demonstrate. Just a different animal.

KE: So, with regard to the content of the weekend, there are two separate demonstration groups planned…

JT: Right, two separate demonstration groups, with different participants in each.

KE: …I am wondering if there are common themes that we should be aware of or thinking about when watching those two, separate experiences.

JT: One of these will be led by Steve Van Wagner from a Modern Analytic perspective. The other small group will be led by Mary Ann Dubner who will work from a Relational and Intersubjective perspective. So, attendees are going to get a chance to see how groups are run with these ideas in mind. Most of us do a certain amount of borrowing, theory-wise; I don’t think there are many who practice a pure type of group psychotherapy; certainly neither Steve and Mary Ann does. But for our purposes this weekend, they’ll be purists, or something approaching that.

GS: That’s absolutely right and that’s why we did these two demonstration groups with these two leaders, but I will actually address your question more directly, Karen. Clearly there are very basic issues that will be duplicated in both groups—issues of joining; issues of modesty and showing off; issues of relating to authority; the similarity of human beings coming together in a group. The things that we all see in our group work all the time. The reason we have done it this way is to try to sensitize people to how the group facilitator looks at it. If he or she views it from “X” point of view, what difference does that make in the content of the group and how they develop.

KE: Most of us are well aware of yours and the NGPI faculty’s influence, which spans well beyond our immediate community. As members of MAGPS and through the NGPI, you all have been involved in making significant contributions to our learning, personal growth, and development as group psychotherapists. So, who were those teachers who have contributed to your learning?

GS: Wow, you give us a wonderful opportunity to do appropriate honor to three people whom we’ve lost and who are giants in the field in terms of my own personal learning—Sy Rubenfeld, Morris Parloff and Leon Lurie, all of whom have died in the past year.

JT: Amen to all. Sy was the founding director of the NGPI. I don’ t know when you first encountered him, George, but for me it was 35 years ago, at a workshop Sy ran on family sculpting; a gestalt-like approach, where the people in the workshop would use their fellow students as human statues to create tableaus representing the dynamics of their families. It was very challenging and I came away from the experience with an important insight about my brother that I’d never had before. It was typical of Sy that he would investigate a new idea like this about the work. He had a wide-ranging intellect and was able to synthesize concepts from diverse fields in order to help others grow in their understanding. And, Leon Lurie was my individual supervisor when I went through the group psychotherapy training program. I learned an awful lot from Leon, including maybe more than anything else, never to get stuck in one way of seeing things, but to challenge my perceptions and my decisions. That was invaluable to me.

GS: I once gave a paper at the institute, which I dedicated to one of my teachers who was Hugh Mullan. He tried to meld existentialist philosophy with group therapy. It was an extraordinary experience to learn from him and to fight with him (laugh), which he didn’t always like.

JT: You have always spoken of your experience with him in a way that made me envious that I never knew him.

KE: It’s touching to hear you speak about your teachers and their influence; and, very obvious how much you appreciated them. Lastly, what do you hope we will get out of the learning community planned for the conference weekend?

GS: In a most general kind of way we want people to have an appreciation for the interplay between experience and theoretical understanding. Secondarily, we both would like people to be enthused enough about that interplay to have a beginning appreciation of the process, and perhaps to want to join the institute one of these cycles.

JT: I think that’s fair to say. We like what we do (laugh).

KE: That’s very evident (laugh). Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you would like us to know?

GS: One thing, I am past president of Mid Atlantic and have been a program chair for five Mid Atlantic conferences during my time—I have a hope for me and my colleagues at the school that this will be a challenging experience for us. That the membership of Mid Atlantic, which knows its own soul, will make us think and rethink, and re experience the way we currently conceptualize our institute for the benefit of the institute. That it will be better because of them. That is my goal.

JT: Absolutely.

KE: Thank you very much for taking time out of your schedule to answer some questions about the upcoming conference. To use your metaphor, I believe we have a lot of good appetizers…

JT: ..for the tasting menu.


Editor’s Note: You can register for the conference at