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Shahar Kedar
Shahar Kedar

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TIL: What is a Balint group?

Yesterday, my wife casually mentioned a term I wasn't familiar with - Balint group. A Balint group is a method of clinical supervision for doctors, started by the psychoanalysts Michael and Enid Balint in the 1950s in London. The aim is to help doctors better understand the psychological and emotional aspects of the doctor-patient relationship. In a Balint group session, a doctor presents a case involving a challenging patient. The group discusses the emotional dynamics and tries to understand the patient's inner experience and motivations, rather than focusing just on medical solutions.

It wouldn't be the first time I learned something new from my wife. What was surprising to me was that, without really knowing, I had participated in a form of a Balint group for two years and led one myself for the past year as part of an initiative called Downleft. I just never realized there was a professional term for what we were doing.

In Downleft, we form peer groups (e.g., tech leads) from different tech companies that meet on a monthly basis and share dilemmas from their work. Each session, a different participant presents a dilemma or a challenge they have, and a lot of what's happening next is not discussing solutions (which is something tech people love to do), but rather surfacing the organizational and personal dynamics that underpin the situation.

The meeting format is as follows: the presenter gives a 5-10 minute overview of their dilemma, then we go around the table and do a "questions round". During this round, participants are allowed only to ask questions and not give any other input. Once the round is over, we do another round where participants can give their input, share their experiences, or offer tips.

I've noticed two kinds of dynamics that are super interesting to see. Firstly, the questions round is no less useful than the second round. I've seen presenters starting to deeply reflect on their situation and come up with meaningful insights only by answering questions. Secondly, other members of the group often share their own similar dilemmas, validating many of the feelings and frustrations the presenter is having. I'm always amazed by how powerful this peer-validation process is.

I'm pretty sure that when Downleft was conceptualized by Oren Ellenbogen, he was not aware of Balint groups, but the similarity is so striking that I would have to ask him if he was inspired by it. Surprisingly, Downleft is pretty unique in the tech industry. One would expect that such a simple and powerful format would be more widely adopted, but I'm pretty sure that is not the case. If you're reading this and familiar with similar types of groups, please leave a comment!

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