I was excited for the opportunity to interview Haim Weinberg in preparation for our Spring Conference.  Here is a preview of our upcoming weekend.

karenKaren:  Before talking about the conference weekend, I thought I might ask a few questions about your background and interests since they are so unique.  You are from Israel, trained and practiced there until 2006, and have also done a significant amount of teaching and lecturing internationally. I am curious how your international exposure to groups of all kinds has influenced and possibly challenged your thinking about Group Psychotherapy? 

haimphotoHaim:  Yes, I think it has both influenced how I experience group and how I do group therapy.  Originally, when I was in Israel, for many years the Bion approach was most appreciated. Then, after 15-20 years, something changed and the Group Analytic approach became more popular. This method, which was a Foulkesian one, is not well known in the US. I am a group analyst, similar to a psychoanalyst, but I practice in groups. My training as a group analyst required several years of study and going through groups myself. So first, this training influenced my thinking.  But, coming to the US, I integrated some of the American approaches, and what I try to do is combine the Group Analytic with the Relational school. So, I think nowadays, I would say that my approach is a mixture of relational and group analysis, and they are not so far from one another.

But also more than that, I think that participating in groups around the world, being involved in the IAGP (International Association of Group Psychotherapy), where I was a Board member for ten years and attended conferences all around the world, and also in the last year having students in Singapore and Indonesia, has given me a broader perspective because we usually do groups the way we see the environment and the way we are trained. And, it’s difficult for us to perceive that there are other ways of doing group, even if we know that it’s done differently in other places. We usually value what we know and what we were trained as the best. But, there are other ways. I think that I am knowledgeable in many approaches, more than the average group therapist. Not only approaches that are in Israel and Europe, but also approaches that are in South America, that are no less important. But, I try to be modest and not say my way is the best.

Lastly, is the need to adjust group to a specific culture. I am very much aware that the way we do groups in the West is not suitable for Asian cultures, for example. So, we also need to take culture and the group into consideration. These have been some of my experiences and influences that I can readily identify.

Karen:  So along these lines, I see that you developed an International Doctoral Program with a Group Psychotherapy focus through the Professional School of Psychology.  From my perspective, this endeavor is really exciting and a contrast to what I would consider the typical graduate-level psychotherapy training here in the US, which places greater emphasis on individual treatment. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to develop this program?

Haim:  Yes, it’s something that I can talk about for hours! I very much agree with you, that most graduate training programs focus on the individual. There might be one course in Group Psychotherapy, but more than that, programs don’t create a separate professional activity devoted to group. From my point of view, if you want to be a group therapist, you have to learn more beyond individual therapy. That’s one thing that separates American approaches from European ones. The CGP (Certified Group Psychotherapist Certification), for example, requires only 12 hours of theory and I don’t think that’s enough. So, I would say, if you want to become a group therapist, you need to study no less than you would study to become an individual therapist. Especially since there are some phenomenon that are unique to group, for example, scapegoating. You don’t see this in individual therapy and when you have it in a group, if you don’t understand it, you will make mistakes.

So, more specifically to address the question about the PsyD program, it developed from the fact that there aren’t many post graduate programs that you can study only group therapy and that last one or two years. I thought that combining this notion with a doctorate program that is focused more on practical experiences, such as a PsyD, was a good idea, and I suggested it to the Professional School of Psychology. They were very enthusiastic about it. The idea is to take all of the courses that students usually study in a more traditional doctoral program, like Personality, Psychopathology, Psychodiagnostics and see how it applies to group. Also, students learn about what kind of tools and questionnaires are beneficial to screen people for groups, that measure group dynamics and group cohesion, or evaluate outcomes of group treatment, all of which are not typically studied. And, of course, the dissertations and research typically focus on group material. So that’s the idea of the program.

I started the program in Israel because it was close to the time that I moved to the US and I was still well known there as a group therapist and a psychologist. I was surprised to see the success. I sent a message to about 2000 people and I got about 60 responses from individuals who were interested. And I went to Israel over the summer and met with candidates who wanted to enroll, and out of them, I started the first Israel-cohort with eight people. It was nine years ago, and already we have eight cohorts and the people have been so satisfied!  And, after some years, I also developed the program in Singapore and people from Southeast Asia participate in it. We already have two cohorts, which makes me believe it is also going to be successful there too.  So now, in July, I am opening it to the US.

A very unique feature of the program is that it is a hybrid program based on distance learning, with face-to-face workshops from time-to-time. So, once a year people come together for a week or two for the face-to-face experience, which is usually more of the experiential part with process groups. Another important and unique feature of the program is that it is based on distance learning that is synchronic, not asychronic. Instead of distance learning that is reliant on emails or forums, where communication between the students and instructors is not at the same time (asynchronic), we do it through the Zoom application, which by the way I introduced to AGPA (laugh).  The application creates a video conference so students can be in Singapore, Indonesia, I can be in California, the instructor can be in New York, and other students can be in Israel.  Although the time difference can create some difficulty, we can have a class where we see one another and talk to one another as if we are all in the same room. Of course there are limitations, but it creates the feeling that we are not so distant.

Karen: So, now shifting to a our conference, which is titled “Impossible Groups: Absorbing a New Paradigm for Group Psychotherapy?”  Before introducing us to the new paradigm, can you share what kind of impossible group situations you will speak to over the conference weekend? Are there plans to do a demo group about the Impossible?

impossible_groups400x300Haim:  Of course I would like to do a demo group, and more than one!  Having demonstration groups is the best way to learn. I can talk and talk, but… Yes, I would love to do a demo group! And, I am always shocked about how powerful a demo group can be. One of my examples of Impossible Groups is the demo group because if you think about it, it’s impossible! People watch you and the boundaries are so loose. You have one hour, sometimes even less. And, you are in an milieu where your colleagues watch you, so it’s important not to be ashamed, but you have to self-disclose and be open. It’s impossible actually! And, the magic is, how does it happen? It is magical how people do really connect on a deep level in these situations. Sometimes I feel so touched in a demo group! So, this is the idea of an impossible group.

And, there are groups, that according to all of the textbooks, should not work well or advance to deeper stages of understanding, and still, they do it. So the question is: How they do it? So first, what I want to do is present the basics. For example, it’s written everywhere that in order for a group to make progress you need it to be safe. Creating a safe environment means having very clear boundaries that are not too loose. However, I can give many examples of groups that do not go with this recommendation and still they work well. By the way, internet groups are another example of them. The boundaries are so loose, especially around time and space, and still, in internet forums I see examples of wonderfully touching interactions. People connect as if there is the illusion of the small group although it actually is not one. I discovered that you are a member of the Group Psychotherapy Forum, am I right?  So you, too, have seen it from time to time, of course not all of the time.  So, this is another example of an Impossible Group, if you think about it because of all of the limitations and still, it functions.
I have many other examples. Some of the other ones are culturally dependent. I will also talk about a group I observed in Brazil where the boundaries seemed so loose that it could not work. They called it a Community Group, and it was a group of people from the favella, the poor neighborhood. Children were coming in and out, there were no boundaries, and still a woman was talking about being sexually assaulted, which is so sensitive. And, I thought, “How can she do this?” So, this is what I want to talk about, with many examples. And, I will use the demo group to show that it does happen. In the end I hope I can bring in some assumptions or speculations of what allows such a group to function well.

Karen:  What has it been like to tolerate the ‘impossible?’ My immediate impression is that you must have a tremendous ability to tolerate anxiety! And, what have these unique experiences taught you about yourself?

Haim:  I agree with you, you need to tolerate anxiety and ambiguity. One of the ways that I explain it is through creating an imaginary group in your mind, which has nothing to do with the therapy group. I will explain it more, but I must leave some for the conference. These Impossible Groups always surprise me.  I am always amazed at the power of the group, because what I have experienced is so surprising and unexpected, I usually feel very touched, lucky, and grateful that people are willing to take risks and that I am a part of it.

Karen:  Finally, what do you hope conference attendees will take away from this weekend?

Haim:  I hope that the participants understand that they can do good enough groups even under circumstances that don’t seem like they are providing safety.  A lot of times people ask questions like, “I will be absent for two weeks, will my group survive?” I want people to understand that there is something in a group that is so powerful, that if you provide a presence, members will believe in their ability to overcome a lot of difficulty.  Another thing, I hope that participants take away some of my style and integrate it with some of theirs’. I hope that I will be able to be not too anxious to show how I am trying to be more present and create the right conditions in the demo groups. And, I hope to add some theory that people can take from the presentation as well. So, a combination of theory, of the demonstration group and experience, and of being more assured about our ability to do groups even under difficult conditions.

Karen:  It sounds like we are going to have a great weekend.  I am really looking forward to it!