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Ritch Addison
Emeritus Councilor
2013 - present
I always knew what I wanted to do before I knew what it was called.I remember always being fascinated by interactions between people, listening to their thoughts and feelings, wanting to understand. In college and graduate school, I studied psychoanalysis, psychodynamic psychotherapy, existential psychotherapy, existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, critical theory, and then later medical sociology (ethnomethodology and grounded theory) and medical anthropology. I focused on the doctor–patient relationship and the theory of transference, how people change, small group work, as well as qualitative research.

I remember the first small group I participated in at the University of Michigan. I was so shy, I don’t think I said a word the entire semester. No one who has been in a group with me now would believe that was true; but it is. I found the intensity and complexity of the small group process absolutely fascinating and still do.

Therefore, in 1982, when I decided to study the doctor–patient relationship for my PhD dissertation, all the stars were in line. I was enough of a critic of conventional research and its limitations to eschew self-report survey research. I wanted to see what really happened as individuals finished medical school and began their residency, practicing as family physicians. So I followed residents for three years in every aspect of their professional and personal lives, taking endless notes, recording interviews, and eventually generating a grounded interpretive account of their professional socialization.

One of the things that grew out of this research was the importance of bringing the residents together to hear each other. They each felt like the worst resident ever, but they weren’t talking to each other about these feelings.. This was the beginning of Personal and Professional Development Groups. These groups laid the foundation for a culture of connection at the Sutter Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency, in Northern California, and provided a much needed antidote to the isolation of medical training and practice. At the end of my research, I wound up staying on as faculty at the residency. I’ve been there ever since.

Attending the International Balint Congress in Oxford in 1998 was a real turning point for me. I loved the diversity of voices and the different ways people approached Balint work. It was there that I decided to take a leap and become more involved in the ABS.

My favorite Balint activity was and is teaching at Leadership Training Intensives. One of the goals of an intensive is to provide a place where Balint leaders can work on the complexities of leading well. We have organized and hosted many Leadership Training Intensives in Santa Rosa, California. I also served a four-year term as Intensive Coordinator for the ABS, helping others organize and host Intensives. It was a joy to do so.

Just as I believe there is no one right answer to any case, I believe there is not one right way to do Balint. Balint work must embody a multiplicity of experiential reflections on possibilities in order to grow, develop, and survive. Leaders need to be flexible and creative to avoid a dogmatic doctrinaire approach, which will surely turn people away from Balint.

I fell I love with the group work in the residency after studying residents, and I fell in love with Balint after studying it. I loved its emphasis on possibility and imagination; the importance of tuning into one’s emotional experience; acknowledgment and acceptance of the complexity of feelings; space for the presenter to just listen without having to respond; and the power of a heterogeneous group working to unearth the less conscious aspects of the helping  relationship.

As I look back, it is quite clear to me that I was also falling in love with the people and the communities I worked with. I treasure my Balint relationships—being connected in such an important reflective experiential endeavor—one that is not always accepted as mainstream in the education of healthcare professionals—but one that holds great potential for finding meaning in our work.

For a narrative of Dr. Addison's work with the ABS, consult his Emeritus Nomination.

 "Restoring the Core of Clinical Practice: What is a Balint group and how does it help?" by Laurel Milberg, PhD and Katherine Knowlton, PhD. Available in paperback or ebook Order Now

The American Balint Society
, is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to improving the therapeutic relationships between healing professionals and their clients/patients. The American Balint  Society is a member society of the International Balint Federation