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Side Effects

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Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips was interviewed by Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library last week. I am an admirer of Phillips’ work and he has just published a new book entitled Side Effects. (Also a title of a book written by Psychoanalysis’ greatest patient, Woody Allen). Phillips’ contention (and one I agree with) is that therapy works by attending to side effects – the stuff we are not paying attention to while we’re trying to attend to the problem at hand.

Both the patient and the analyst are the recipients of these side effects, of all the things said and implied and unintended and alluded to as the patient speaks as freely as he is able, and begins to understand the ingenuities of the censorship he imposes on himself…Psychoanalysis, essentially, is an attempt to redescribe the whole notion of concentration (Side Effects, p.xi).

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Phillips’ suggests that you can only be distracted if you have a plan and in attending to the distractions our plans (ones we may not even be aware of) are revealed. So when people ask me “how I work” and “what I do” I refer them to Phillips because his accessible interpretation of psychoanalysis (and indeed, pscychodynamic approaches to working in general) make sense of the ways in which my interest is captured by “oddness” and incidents and issues that somehow “don’t fit in”. Working below the surface of organisations and with people, means drawing clients attention to their plans – the ones that are unspoken and unconscious. Very often those unconscious plans derail the conscious ones and getting to the heart of that difference (very often exposing it for the first time) is the key to unlocking blockages in the system.
If I am working with a group then there’s the “group” plan; the conscious plans of the individual members of the group and the myriad unconscious plans of the group that nobody may be aware of. Add to this the consultant or coach’s plans – conscious and otherwise and there’s a lot going on. All of these agendas are organised in different ways depending on the life stories of participants and the organisational system in which they work. It’s complex work and finding the right time for a client to hear an interpretation of what’s going on is also an important factor in the mix.
So distractions and interruptions are very welcome intrusions into my work space because they help reveal the agendas and plans of a group and as such are such fantastic resources to work with. Phillips also talked about anxiety – and how anxiety leads people to try and engineer pleasure – distractions may be part of that coping mechanism…so attending to distractions generally means we are getting closer to the issue at hand. But pleasure is such an ephemeral thing – can we engineer pleasure? Phillips doesn’t think so – at one point he talked about dinner parties and how we can’t engineer the perfect dinner party – we can only create the context in which it might happen – therefore anxiety – the calcuation of pleasure is the bridge and negotiation between pain and pleasure and as such a wonderfully rich place to begin to understand our fears and desires in a business context.
I’ll leave the final word on this one to Phillips:

If someone were to invent a drug – say, in this context, a psychotropic drug, one that is designed to improve people’s mental health – and to say that the point of this drug, the whole value of it was its unpredictable side effects, there would be a public outcry. (Side Effectrs p. xii)

The full interview with Adam Phillips (in which yours truly is heard asking about collusion among psychoanalysts and about Woody Allen) is available as an audio download at the NYPL website. Pic of Phillips and Holdengräber from NYPL.

3 Responses

  1. Very interesting – I blogged a few related thoughts here

  2. Not read any Adams for a while. His writing reminds me of a Long Island Ice Tea. It slips down easily & then the full effect hits you about 15 minutes later.
    Parapraxies (slips of the tongue) are wonderful things. And whilst we cannot engineer them, we can attend to them. But everyday life encourages us to pretend to ignore them.
    N.B. Many of my favourite gags come from a character unwittingly revealing too much. May be that says something about my own fears & concerns.

  3. Thanks Johnnie – I replied over at your place!
    Matt – perhaps what’s un-engineerable is attractive to an engineer?