The tele as inter-psychic process: An analysis of a still mysterious and yet intriguing, original concept in Morenian theory


By Ivan Togni, Giovanni Boria


This article proposes a reflection on that core psychic space which characterises the reality of the Morenian Encounter. This inter space regards the mysterious experience of “being together”, which is the foundation of the intersubjective relational paradigm. The cardinal psychodramatic concepts which typify the phenomenon of the “tele” (such as inter-psyche, co-conscious, co-unconscious and Encounter) are revisited and woven together with some of the key concepts in psychological theory, thus bringing into view the degree of fecundity and legitimacy of Moreno’s theoretical lines in the current panorama of the psychological and social sciences. The “factual” nature of this process takes place in the aggregation or fragmentation of extra-individual social structures, in areas of relational forces and in cohesive or dispersive group dynamics.



Moreno uses the term tele to indicate “the natural tendency to place oneself in an emotional relationship with others” or, in other words, “the energy involved in the flow of affects that feeds the relational exchange” (Moreno, 1943); it is, therefore, the primary factor related to the physical and psychological distance between individuals (De Leonardis, 2009).

The need (phylogenetic/ontogenetic) for an emotional and communicative transmission of life experiences, as well as, obviously, biological, between members of the same species, was clear to Moreno from the beginning. This led him to define the tele as the sociogenic factor, a factor “which serves to facilitate the transmission of our social inheritance” (1953, p. 328), attributing to it not only the generative function of the social nature of man, but also the function of primary component of interpersonal communication.

The mind as a relational space

What most strongly represented the epistemological and paradigmatic change made by Moreno in the study of human relations and which defined his innovative opening towards new forms of thought, was his determination to consider the intersubjective dimension as the constitutive core of life experience.

Moreover, the passage, in the study of psychic dynamics, from an “individual” conception to a relational/group conception was as immediate as it was natural for Moreno. What he refused more than anything else, as Enzo Spaltro points out in his preface to the book “Incontri sulla scena” by Boria and Muzzarelli (cf. bibliography), in Freud and in the consequent psychoanalytic culture, was loneliness: the idea of considering the individual – removed from the relational system of reference and grappling with his internal motivational- pulsatory system – in a clash with a dimension of reality more or less satisfying or frustrating – as the bearer of health or discomfort, was something untenable.

From the beginning, in Moreno’s thought, every possibility of life and spontaneous creation could only reside in the active encounter between men. It was this conviction, as well as the need to distance oneself from a “positivistic” and “individualistic” model of nineteenth- century science, that led Moreno to formulate some of the ideas that were to remain the foundation of all theories of interpersonal relationships.

In his paper “Sociometry and Cultural Order” (1943) he clearly stated the idea that placing the psyche within the body, as a biological concept, was incorrect: he suggested instead that the psyche was outside the body. Verbatim:

“…the resistance against my attempt to break the sacred unity of the individual is rooted in the assumption that feelings, emotions, and ideas must reside in some structure, within which they can emerge or disappear […]. These feelings, emotions, and ideas ‘leave’ the organism; and where do they reside? The study of groups has shown that they find their expression among individuals, in interpersonal and intergroup relations, traveling through the network, sometimes visible, sometimes not, but often without a preventable effect.” (Moreno, 1943, p. 320).

On this natural predisposition to be in relationship, Moreno structured a concept of the psyche as irremediably generated in a space “between” people: in an area that included, in addition to those directly involved, a unique and unrepeatable experience of contact, consumed in the specificity and possibilities of that moment. From here to the need to meet and work with people and in a group or community dimension, the step was short: the assumptions for a sociatric dimension of “care” were now firm.

What could happen in this area between structuring (or de-structuring) and determining the development of psychosocial dynamics of people and groups was still to be discovered. Moreno’s idea that the mind could not be resolved within the individual dimension was truly revolutionary.

It was clear to Moreno that, in the encounter between two or more people, there was something “exceeding” the possibilities of one or the other party and that this was generated by the experience of being together. This “something extra” could not be traced back to the subjective dimension of the encounter (personal experience), but was irreducibly referred to an extra-individual experience, with its own qualities and alchemy.

This interpsychic dimension of experience was addressed continuously by Moreno in his work and thoughts. The very concepts of co-conscious and co-unconscious have their origin in an interstitial space “between.” He openly writes:

A co-conscious or co-unconscious state is not the preserve of any one individual. It is always a common property, and cannot be reproduced except by a combined effort… The logical method of re-actualization “in two” or “in many” is psychodrama. However great the capacity of a single partner in a couple may be, he cannot reproduce any couple event by himself, because the condition between the partners of co-conscious and co-inconscious states is the matrix from which they draw inspiration and knowledge…It is life itself that binds them together, and it is the experience of living that develops between them an “interpsiche,” a structured current of co- conscious and co-inconscious states” (Moreno, 1961, p. 236)

Attention to this form of “sharing” structuring the experience of being together, which would later be recognized as an intersubjective matrix of the relationship (cf. D. Stern), did not take away the value of subjectivity and personal experience as a unique dimension, but brought it back to an interpersonal ground (where it originates), avoiding the risk of imploding within a culture of self-referential individualism.

In this regard, Vittorio Gallese, neuroscientist, who together with Giacomo Rizzolatti gave neurophysiological foundation to intersubjective experience, wrote:

“ the phenomenological field the crucial dimension of intersubjectivity in the construction of subjectivity is emphasized […]; they are two complementary dimensions, but if we leave intersubjectivity out, we risk landing in that image of mind and psychism that has pre-valued and characterized the cognitive sciences during the last 50 years, namely the one that reifies the body” (2007).

The last decades have witnessed a renewed lively interest in many psychological currents for interpersonal relationships as a locus of psychic balance, between the self and the external world. Certainly this took place in the psychoanalytic movement that, to be honest, has never stopped questioning the relationship between the Self and “the object”: think of Hartmann’s concept of “adaptation”; of Fairbairn’s object relations theories; of Bion and Winnicott’s London middle group; of Bowlby’s more recent attachment theories; of Mitchell’s relational psychoanalysis studies; of Foulkes’ group analysis. Or again, in a less psychoanalytic sense, think of Sullivan’s American interpersonal tradition or Washington’s “culturalist” model, or the studies of Bateson and the systemic school.

Moreno, in short, had laid the foundations for a new paradigm that emphasized the relational psyche (what would later be called in various ways the “group mind” rather than the “plural psyche”), founding the very idea of “groupness” and opening the curtain on a field of study and intervention that had been neglected until then, as well as an interest in its possible dynamics.

However, if there were no doubts regarding the “social” nature of man, the laws that governed the attractions or repulsions between people, the debate had yet to develop. It was to be the study of the laws that regulate interpersonal dynamics that would occupy Moreno’s interests and give shape to some of his most fruitful concepts.

The neurophysiological roots of tele

Although Moreno could not know exactly what the neurophysiological nature of telic tension was, he never addressed the concept in metaphorical terms, or in a metapsychological sense. He was convinced that the core of sociality was within human physiology itself. Delving into his observations of the phenomena of attraction and rejection between individuals, he wrote:

It seems to us a valid working hypothesis to assert that at the basis of all social and psychological interactions between individuals there must at one time have been, and still are, at least two complementary physiological organs that influence each other. The principle of bisexuality is only a small part of a larger principle: that of bisexuality. Therefore, we can assume that the attractions, rejections, and indifferences we experience between individuals- regardless of other factors implied by them, such as fear, anger, sympathy, or other collective manifestations-have a socio-physiological basis.

It is known, the tele is structured on two original tensions, that of attraction towards the other and that of rejection of the other and pertains to the perceptual/affective sphere of the relational dimension. But what lies at the base of these tensions, so natural and pervasive? Today, more than ever, we know that there are complex nervous structures responsible for defining “interpersonal contact”. And we know how much the interconnected structure of the mind has support in studies on the neurophysiological basis of intersubjective dynamics, and how the socio-physiological structures to which Moreno referred have a current counterpart that is well verifiable (cf. De Leonardis, 2009).

The “intersubjective school” – which today makes this dimension of interpersonal exchange its cornerstone, as well as shared subjective states (with obvious resonances in Moreno’s concepts of co-conscious and co-unconscious) – has a strong reverberation in the latest developments of the Anglo-Saxon school of Infant Research theorists and Theorists of the Mind. The processes of unconscious resonance (Fleury and Hug, 2008) and affective consonance (Gallese, 2006) activated in relational dynamics and how these structure a shared space in which growth is bound by the social dimension, would appear evident. In other words, our nervous system seems to be programmed to function in harmony with other human beings. D. Stern writes: “…our nervous system is built to ‘hook up’ to that of other human beings, so that we can experience others as if we were in the same skin as them” (Stern, 2004, p. 64).

What happens at the organic level has been brilliantly described by the two previously mentioned Italian neurophysiologists Gallese and Rizzolatti who, deserving of their success and international resonance, speak of “embodied simulation” and “intentional tuning” with regard to certain groups of neuronal cells now known as “mirror neurons”. By embodied simulation they mean that natural mechanism by which each individual “resonates” with the experiences of others. This tuning does not occur through means of a logical or rational understanding, but is generated by the activation within the observer of the same neuronal networks involved in the execution of actions. In other words, when we observe another person act, the same identical neurons are activated within us, leading us, consequently, to within-feel his or her experience (cf. Stern, 2004). This correspondence therefore does not have an “intuitive” or imaginative basis of a cognitive-conceptual order, but has an experiential counterpart. “It is a mechanism that embodies in its own way an abstract representation of action, which, however, is anything but abstract, because it is embodied within our motor system” (Welsh, 2007).

Recent empirical evidence has shown that the activation of mirror neurons (present even if the action is simply “imagined”) is also involved in the analysis and recognition of the intentionality that has promoted some actions, as well as feelings and emotions experienced that, in this way, are reflected in the observer.

The echoes with the methodological framework and with the theory of clinical psychodrama – which draw strength from the simulated aspect and the reflexive circularity, and from the identification or resonance aspects – are very deep.

The rules of attraction

If empathic processes of identification and mirroring are certainly at the basis of a relational approach and the consolidation of human relationships, it is also true that they are not sufficient to explain the drives that guide the affective expansion of individuals. First of all because of the unidirectional nature of the same, which must find a certain reciprocity to be the foundation of a stable relationship that can be defined as telic, but above all for a second reason.

In this regard, substantial and relevant is the observation made by De Leonardis (2009) to the easy and fascinating correspondence found between the possibility of a telic perception of “mutual empathy” and the biological necessity of neuronal structures devoted to the development of such resonance, such as the aforementioned systems of mirror neurons: the phenomena of “mirroring” cannot exhaust the dynamics of telic attractions and repulsions.

De Leonardis returns to the theme of telic attraction in reference to the transformative quality of intersubjective experience. The process of intersubjective exchange, from his point of view, is not composed of resonance-imitation alone, but is also nourished by a transformative tension. Imitative learning or identity acquisition through similarity and/or reciprocity cannot fully explain the creative development of the human path, because it does not account for that intersubjective dimension of encounter in which a creative act can be born. This “transformative” eventuality is attributed, in Morenian terms, to the qualities of the concepts of co-conscious and co-unconscious, understood as those processes that are composed of experiences (conscious and unconscious) authentically shared and co-experienced (in the past, as well as in the present) and that remain present and fluctuating in the relational networks that bind individuals (called telematrices), and that generate potentially creative developments.

The variables that come into play in making a shared experience pleasant (and therefore attractive) rather than unpleasant are innumerable. However, it is conceivable that the tension of approaching or moving away from a given relational situation may be influenced by two dimensions. The first concerns the degree of “transparency” we feel about those people. We have a feeling of clarity about some people; we feel we can understand them at first glance and share their experiences. These relationships give us a sense of trust and serenity because they do not challenge us in an unpredictable way and because they are not perceived as threatening. In fact, we “feel close” to those who can understand us, to those who can read and comprehend our behavior or experiences accurately, as well as to those who are transparent and intuitive for us. On the other hand, we “feel distant” from those who misunderstand us and are not able to give a true reading to our feelings or experiences, or to those who we cannot understand and who seem indecipherable.

A second element of attraction/repulsion concerns the degree and the particular way in which that experience of sharing transforms and changes us. We feel attracted to those who succeed in impressing on us a transformative impulse that goes in the direction of our needs and that, in a certain sense, surprises us, leading us to break some of our crystallizations or limits. Instead, we tend to reject people who imprint in us a movement contrary to our evolutionary needs, forcing us into a role that denies our vitality. In this way, a tension of approach/indifference/rejection takes shape in the relational dynamic, which originates from the possibility of experiencing one another in certain peculiar ways. It is precisely this particular relational experience that the psychodramatic encounter lives, in which being in the shoes or “in the eyes” of the other is a condition to be sought, to be created and to be experienced for the understanding and inclusion of the other, not so much as a form of altruism, but as a possibility, for oneself and for the relationship primarily, to be there. We will see later how the actual dimension of the encounter, of the here and now, as well as the dimension of the reality of the encounter, are crucial in defining the qualities of intersubjective dynamics.

The interpsyche

The child comes into the world ready to expand his affective potential: this innate drive is both a primary need and a form of vital expression. The maternal figure represents the first ‘other’ with whom he can establish a relationship. The responses of the mother and the reciprocity that arises determine the quality of tele. Gradually, the first intersubjective space is constructed within which an interpsychic nucleus takes shape that the child experiences. The nature of this sharing “nourishes” the child and his trust in relationships.

We know how decisive the qualities of this first interpsychic exchange are in the construction of the child’s Self, and how they leave a mnestic trace of his experience of space “between.” The concept of alpha function (and the consequent capacity for maternal reverie) described by Bion (1962) whereby the maternal “response” provides an experience of containment of the elements experienced and not integrated by the child, and then their restitution transformed according to its possibilities of absorption, is confirmation and development. As is Stern’s (1985) notion of attunement, in which the emphasis is placed on the “surplus” in the maternal response beyond simple imitation, in the sense of enrichment on the basis of shared underlying feelings and on the basis of transmodal communication.

In the development of the individual there is a progressive amplification of the tele structure. The growing individual transmits more and more emotional signals and equally receives more. In Moreni’s thinking, however, these signals are no longer reflected only in the mother figure, but in an increasingly large number of people. In fact, the complex of feelings that emanates from a person does not disperse into nothingness: they are directed in a gradually more and more differentiated way to different and specific people, who in turn respond actively with another complex of feelings. We thus have the structuring of a network of reciprocal feelings, that is, of a complex system of canvases. This system can be broken down into unitary structures that Moreno calls social atoms.

The progressive creation (or disintegration) of intersubjective networks is an active and multidirectional process. As Blatner (2006) points out, the forms of telic attraction or repulsion should not be understood in an abstract sense, but rather as a fact, an event determined by the nature of the encounter between people. A fact that implies the inter- action of two active counterparts and that becomes, therefore, a fact of social nature, not individual; and, consequently, not even dependent on the will of only one of the two actors. It is precisely on the generation and quality of these “facts”, or processes, that the nature of social atoms is determined in their structural and dynamic properties.

Conditions facilitating tele development

There are conditions that facilitate the process of affective expansion, which allow the canvass structure to expand, and conditions that limit its development.

The first favorable condition is a state of spontaneity, which works as a catalyst that frees creativity. Only in a state of spontaneity, in fact, does the individual feel sufficiently equipped to deal adequately with the situations that the external or internal world poses to him. Thus, he discovers new ranges of feelings, experiences unknown ways of being, and frees up an amount of energy that allows him to face the risks associated with interpersonal involvement with sufficient confidence. Spontaneity is therefore a favorable factor for the emergence of telic relationships which, by definition, are relationships oriented towards the immediacy of the exchange, its reciprocity and its reality. On the contrary, the unexpected dystonic situations produce the anxiety that leads to distance oneself from the situation, denying it, falsifying it, distorting it or facing it on the basis of old scripts stored in memory, not always appropriate to that moment because they refer to an indefinite past. De Leonardis (2009) reminds us that the possibility of living a telic experience is subordinate to “a sufficient sense of security and personal identity”, a potentiality that is evolutionarily determined and conditioned by the degree of security experienced in the child’s first interpersonal experiences.

A second favorable condition is sharing based on intersubjective exchange. A context of equality, of guarantee and respect for the other, facilitates the emergence of telic bonds. Respect for subjective truth, symmetry and communicative circularity protect the subjective space of the people involved who, in the interaction, do not have to fight for power or control of the relationship, or impose themselves to legitimize their action rather than defend themselves from the interference of others: they freely express their truth and bring their experience in a welcoming context.

In psychodrama, canvassing relationships are of crucial importance: these constitute the decisive factor for therapeutic progress. It could be said that the essence of the psychodramatic process lies in transforming interpersonal relationships from the state they are in at a given moment (stereotypical, inhibited, dependent, destructive, escapist, etc.) into tele-relationships, that is, of genuine reciprocity and understanding.

Tele versus transference

In the affective expansion that sees individuals progressively create relational structures within which to live, Moreno (1947) recognized the action of two psychic mechanisms: the mechanism of projection and that of retrojection. He wrote with regards to this: “…the first is usually defined as the attribution to others of one’s own ideas, assuming that they are objective, although they have a subjective origin. Retrojection is the drawing and receiving from others of ideas and feelings, either to find identity with one’s own (confirmation) or to strengthen the ego (expansion)” (2007, p. 57-58).

Thus, in the construction of interpersonal bonds, projection is reserved for a dynamic subjective space, which of the real encounter with the other operates a distortion; the assumption (or not) identificatory of this projected experience by the relational counterpart defines the nature of the exchange, as unbalanced on a plane of reality rather than on a plane of phantasmatic distortion. In the projective dynamic, therefore, others are unconsciously invested by our fantasies in the personal presumption that there is, on the other hand, an objectivity in our perceptions; evidently, in this undue attribution we do not meet the other person for what he or she is, but we meet him or her spoiled by the lenses of our phantasmatic productions.

The projective dimension is not negative in itself; it is generated by fantasy and by our subjectivity; it also supports other psychic experiences, such as the experience of play. The psychodramatic moment owes its dynamism precisely to the simultaneity between this dimension and the share of reality that instead pertains to the people in interaction. It cannot be denied, however, that the projective mechanism contributes in generating an illusion of the realm of appearance.

We discover for ourselves how serious this mixture is in our daily lives and how much it can potentially weaken the evolutionary nature of relationships. Some interpersonal experiences can be influenced by the uncritical repetition of relational models characteristic of our psychic matrices and not generated by the real situation; an unconscious associative factor then enters into the relational dynamic, which, for example, from the crystallization of past roles, leads the Ego to repeat itself in experiences, denying the specificity of the moment and the creative possibilities of the encounter, in favor of an absence (crf. Pani, 2007).

The word transference historically indicates, in psychotherapeutic language, the mechanism by which the patient experiences feelings, desires, fantasies and defenses towards the therapist that do not fit the situation, as they are the automatic repetition of behaviors that originated with significant people in early childhood and that are unconsciously transferred to a figure of the present. Two aspects of transferential behaviors should be emphasized: that they are a repetition of the past and that they are inappropriate to the present situation.

It can be said that every human relationship contains, to a more or less significant extent, elements of transference. This is defined as positive or negative depending on whether it determines attraction or rejection towards the other person. The therapeutic instance contained in the transference is to help the patient to discover the causal link between early life experiences and current symptoms. The psychoanalytic approach, for example, favors the amplification of transference mechanisms (transference neurosis) precisely so that the patient becomes aware of the inadequacy of his behavior and sees the connection of this with past experiences. The end result of psychotherapy is essentially to dissolve the transferential phantasms, thus allowing the person to discover more realistic and functional ways of satisfying his psychological needs. The dynamic of transference is therefore an expression of “…a relational element, tending to be disgregative, because it does not belong to the individuals who are the protagonists of the relationship in the here and now but, by associative means, it is referred to other people and other social atoms that are not relevant to the contextual ones” (De Leonardis, 2009, p. 69).

We can rightly conclude that the projective mechanism (and the dynamics of transference) is influenced by the degree of spontaneity of the interacting individuals and by their possibility of having a real experience of their encounter, rather than a distorted experience. The process of retrojection, on the other hand, can be equated with the mechanism of affective attunement that has already been written about. Moreno (1947) writes about retrojection: “These individuals assimilate with extraordinary capacity the experiences of others […] recognizing these experiences as similar or identical to their own, they insert them into their Ego; for this reason they are able to expand it to vast limits” (2007, p. 58). This process is also liable to vice, to the extent that the perception of others can be de-formed by our own subjective experiences or phantasms. According to Moreno, it is the particular movement between a centripetal movement of retrojection and a centrifugal one of “extrojection” that frames the expansive possibilities of the ego, within an interpersonal, socio-cultural and, even more, cosmic dimension.

He frames the transference in psychodramatic therapy in a very special way, given his belief that the “healthy” element in the psychotherapeutic relationship is the experience of human contact as direct and genuine as possible offered by the therapist and group members in that network of mutual emotional relationships permeated by what he calls tele. He identifies the strategy for overcoming transference – of which he emphasizes the characteristics of stereotypy and inadequacy to the situation – in experimenting with new, creative and appropriate forms of relationship with oneself and with others, which can be purposely constructed on the psychodramatic stage. It can be said that he contrasts and privileges the “real reaction” with the “transference reaction”. In this regard, he observes that, at the same time that the patient unconsciously projects his fantasies onto the therapist, another process is active: a part of the patient’s ego is not drawn into transference regression, but rather feels emotions towards the person of the therapist “here and now”. This part of the ego judges the therapist and intuitively appreciates him or her for the kind of person this person is. Feelings toward the therapist’s real self are an expression of the tele-relationship: they will gradually expand, replacing the transference relationship.

The experiences of the “real” relationship are triggered by the specific and genuine humanity of which the psycho-dramatist is the bearer. The psycho-dramatist does not act as a mirror, as an echo of the patient; he does not perceive himself as a neutral and indistinct reality: he gives the patient “real” stimuli and reactions. Naturally, in order for this behavior to obtain the desired benefits, he must have a sufficiently harmonious, spontaneous, and creative personality structure, now freed from heavy transference conditioning (or, as it is currently called, counter-transference, i.e., transference responses to the patient’s transference). The active and propositional attitude of the psychodramatist is at the antipodes, for example, of the neutral attitude of the analyst. This difference is not so much due to differences in the therapists’ characteristics as to different theoretical foundations: the psychodramatist considers his transparent and subjective attitude towards the patient to be the element that initiates the therapeutic process, while the analyst’s non-transparency is justified by the need to favor transference neurosis.

In psychodrama, therefore, the director tends not to favor the transference towards him by the protagonist: this, however, does not mean that the transference mechanisms are not specifically considered in psychodramatic therapy. They are present and must be treated with an instrument typical of psychodrama: the stage concretization of the images of the protagonist, with the participation of the ego-helpers. On stage, they embody the ghosts of the protagonist, they become a living screen that welcomes and reflects the transferential feelings of the protagonist. The protagonist acts out his transference mechanisms through the characters who play the role of the figures he has inside himself and whom he finally meets outside himself. This encounter stimulates in him that insight which allows him on the one hand to become aware of what is unrealistic within himself, and on the other hand to recover the elements of reality that still exist under the transference mechanisms.

Therefore, fantasy and reality, projection and retrojection, interdependence and intersubjectivity, are dimensions that fully belong to the psychic dynamics of a psychodramatic group. The Morenian conviction that sees in real human contact between people the healthy element of interpersonal relationships should not lead us to consider the unrealistic-transferential counterpart of the exchange as “degenerative” and therefore to be “escaped” in the psychodramatic clinic.

All the more so because the transference dynamic, in its traditional meaning of “current reproposition of past models”, is part of a wider imaginative and phantasmatic production. Internal resonances related to the experience of the moment, are “translated” on the dynamic acted out, and are not necessarily the reproduction of past mnestic traces, but can be generated in a current imaginative dimension, even if not adherent to the contextual demands.

Rather, this unreal component, unresolved and unconscious, finds its own expressive channels (especially in its version of the “lateral” transference) and a dedicated thematization, in the calculation of the scenic representation. Pani writes:

“ the absence of such potential space, the dialectic between reality and fantasy collapses either in the direction of fantasy, which becomes the substitute for external reality from which it can no longer be differentiated, or in the direction of reality, which becomes a defense against fantasy or robs it of its vitality, or even in the direction of a dissociation between reality and fantasy, up to the state of non-experience in which meanings cannot be generated by emotions.” (Pani, 2007, p. 145)

Certainly the qualities of the psychodramatic setting do not provide for the production of a conscious or saturated analytical “discourse” with respect to the emerged contents, but they let themselves be nourished by the “interpretation” of the scene in an actor’s sense, as a current possibility of being-there. Each actor “interprets” his or her role (as well as the group itself) in the very moment in which he or she lives it, acts it and observes it. And the richness of an action developed in the dimension of semi-reality lies precisely in the coexistence of reality and fantasy.

Tele as a therapeutic reference model

The director of psychodrama does not nourish the transferential elements of his relationship with the protagonist and with the other members of the group (transference favors the patient’s solipsistic fantasies and prevents a reciprocal relationship with the therapist): he, through his own spontaneity, stimulates the canvas, creates situations in which people feel stimulated to expand, to perceive as much humanity around themselves as possible. The director also tries to transform the negative canvas into a positive one, helping the protagonist to put himself in the other person’s shoes, through role reversal; that is, he tries to bring people together. The positive tele favors intimacy and trust between people: a group cemented by the tele qualifies as an auxiliary world in which everyone, feeling safe, finds the favorable conditions to go forward to explore interpersonal feelings, internal conflicts, their pain, their joy and has the opportunity to release the desire. If, therefore, reality and fantasy make up the psychic dynamic of the psychodramatic group, it is also true that, in Moreno’s thought, what ultimately makes the experience therapeutic is undoubtedly the encounter with reality.

In the second volume of his manual, edited by Rosati (1996) Moreno wrote: “The encounter is the true basis of the therapeutic process. Transference, countertransference, projections and distorted perceptions are secondary overlapping elements”. The telic encounter is the element that keeps groups and individuals together, that determines their cohesion, reciprocity in relationships, communication and sharing of experiences. The tele is the ultimate relational model of reference not only in psychodrama, but in every therapeutic experience. In later quoting Dr. Allport:

[the tele] is really the basis of all therapy, as well as of all healthy human relationships. […] only at certain moments is it obscured by an irruption of the transference and it may occasionally happen that it breaks down completely with the result that the therapeutic relationship ends. Usually, however, I repeat, every healthy human relationship depends on the presence of the telic and therapy differs in this respect only because the patient’s (or therapist’s) anguish causes his internal needs to be emphasized, with the result that projections, transference and hostility sometimes momentarily obscure the basic telic relationships“.

According to G. Leutz (1971) the interactive and operational process that develops in the psychodrama session conveys interpersonal dynamics according to a rather regular scan, in which empathy, tele and transference follow each other in order. Although these dynamics have, according to their nature, a development that is anything but scanned, the psychodrama methodology provides several “moments”, each of which is intended to accommodate different relational forms. In this sense, the projective moments related to our subjective needs, find a dedicated space and time on stage (as well as body), as well as retrojective and telic moments.

To better frame the different types of relationships in which the protagonist is involved in psychodrama, it is worth considering the three phases of a session distinctly: the time of the group, the time of the individual (protagonist), the time of participation. In the first phase, the psychodramatist aims to capture the needs of those present and to prepare someone for the role of protagonist according to an empathic movement of listening and acceptance. During this phase the protagonist can transfer images of important people in his life to the psychodramatist; but this transference is short-lived. The psychodramatist does not allow the protagonist to develop such feelings in the relationship with himself, but encourages him to transfer them into action, thus initiating the second psychodramatic phase. He asks the protagonist to choose members of the group who can play the role of father, mother, wife, friend, etc. The protagonist, while choosing these I-helpers, already transfers his memories and feelings onto them. During this process, the psychodramatist is perhaps not even perceived by the protagonist; he is certainly not the object of transference. He follows the course of the psychodrama with empathy and mastery. In the concluding phase – the participation of the audience – the transference onto the I-audience is interrupted. The protagonist, the director and the members of the group see and treat each other for what they are: the tele-relationship is in place, which allows for the return of the projections and identifications assumed, in favor of a personal unveiling in the reality of the relationship. This is the ultimate form of interpersonal exchange promoted, the model and reference of every therapeutic act.

The Encounter

According to Moreno (1914) an Ego and a Thou establish a true relationship of reciprocity only when each of them is able to imagine and feel in the shoes of the other. In this way they realize the encounter, that is, being together, finding each other, being in physical contact, seeing and observing each other, sharing, loving, understanding, knowing each other intuitively through silence or movement, word or gesture.

Here Moreno’s thought converges with that of Martin Buber, a German philosopher of Jewish origin who in 1923 published the text I and You. According to Buber, the fundamental meaning of human existence is to be found in the ability to be in total relationship with other men, placing oneself in an “I-Thou” relationship: the authentic man is defined as a person who in the I-Thou relationship becomes aware of himself as a subjectivity. Moreno agrees with Buber that knowledge from the outside, in which the subject remains a simple observer, characterizes the relationships between an “I” and a “that”, where the “I” receives perceptive data from the object (the “that”) with which it comes into contact and does not arrive at a situation of reciprocity (unlike what can happen in relationships between people). Certainly, many relationships between human individuals reproduce the mode of contact that characterizes the I-this situation. And this, instead of leading to an encounter, leads to the manipulation of the other, to dominance, to subordination, to dependence; that is, it leads to an asymmetrical relationship that does not promote the humanity of each of the two elements of the relationship, but produces withering and – often – results in a real psychological pathology.

Jose Fonseca, a pioneer of the Brazilian psychodramatic movement, recognizes this idea as the paradigmatic foundation of all “interpersonal theories”, i.e., those theories that consider the two-way interaction (as opposed to the unilateral one) between people (e.g., the therapist and the patient; or between members of a group) as the basis of the healing process. He underlines how the point of convergence between Buber and Moreno is given by the concept of the Encounter, as an extraordinary moment in which spontaneity/creativity is suddenly and intensely released in an act of intimate contact, where, in the re-union and intersubjective sharing, we discover the realization of our identity.

The construction of this exceptional moment is achieved, precisely, through the ability to play the role of the other, giving up the projective distortion of personal experience in the name of full reciprocity and mutuality. It is the possibility to first “feel” the experience of the other, and then to reverse roles and experience the other that creates the prerequisites of the encounter:

The role reversal stage is the concrete manifestation of tele; it is the pinnacle of tele development. One might correctly say that reaching this stage is an indication of maturity and psychological health. It could also be said that it is often through the psychodramatic technique of role reversal that one discovers the transference charge that the ego deposits in the you, of the way the ego relates to itself, to its own internalized images, rather than to a real you.” (Fonseca, 2012, p. 36)

The telic relationship is an indication of psychological maturity, as it presumes a dimension of reciprocity, and therefore an experience in which subjectivities can meet on an equal level. Each actor involved, at the moment of their encounter, recognizes his or her own singularity and needs, just as he or she recognizes the singularity and needs of the other, without distorting or repressing them. This human contact benefits from the awareness of the people involved in the exchange that they are two separate and well-identified actors, each carrying their own subjectivity, each spontaneous enough to commit themselves to the Encounter with the other and venture into that intersubjective terrain without fear of losing their specificity, but with the serenity of having the experience of an encounter. And at the same time the experience of a game.

The degree of conjunction/disjunction between individuals is subordinate to the possibility of getting to know each other, not so much in abstract terms, but in terms of an inward feeling, of experiencing the other directly, in the flesh. The psychodramatic experience leads exactly in this direction.

This contact must presuppose a certain degree of differentiation between individuals, who never come to merge in the relationship, but who come into contact while retaining their subjectivity, as two conscious agents in a mutual exchange, driven equally by a sense of identity and a desire to compromise, in accepting the challenge of knowledge, discovery and transformation, according to a creative and generative act: a movement that is both centripetal and centrifugal, conservation and creation.

In the eternal and never completed tension towards the search for the composition of the original Morenian fracture, one finds oneself between oneself and the other, in the construction of that intersubjective space that leaves the right of action to both actors and brings them closer in their authenticity.

Tele and Otherness

The intersubjective dimension to which Moreno refers, in its conservative and evolutionary components, finds its foundation in the encounter with the other: an encounter that has a biological nature, a somatopsychic tension and a relational and socio-cultural development. At the biological level, Gallese (2009) reminds us that “…intersubjectivity, at its base, is first of all intercorporeality. Intercorporeality that allows to map the relationship of identity with others while preserving the otherness”: it is a form of exchange played on a ground of reciprocity and resonance really experienced, which generates cohesion. This neuronal resonance feeds a drive for affective expansion.

In relational exchange, following the energy flows (positive and negative) generated by contact with others, this drive realizes at different times the natural needs of man, in the space of relationships. In this sense, “…the tele is the basic tool of what I called the need for otherness, different, new, which is the head of the whole motivational system of exploration of the person and that realizes the evolutionary path” (De Leonardis, 2009, p. 74): within a social dimension, inevitably. The Morenian encounter is therefore a moment of openness, of active confrontation within a relational model of inclusion, which does not deny a dimension of conflict or contradiction, but supports the right of existence, beyond repression.

E. Spaltro wrote about the contradiction between expression and repression in the text already cited, regarding the organizational culture of a group and a community. He reminds us how psychodrama should be placed historically in the years of European dictatorships, where the contradiction between “fantastic expression” and “dramatized authoritarianism” reaches its highest level. In the time of harassment, of economic and social disparities, of civil and world wars, of social differences and disintegration, of interference and abuse of power, psychodramatic culture offers a possibility of encounter. An alternative possibility that, from the prevailing “Habsburg” authoritarian model, directed, orthodox, individual and tied to the past, founds a culture of being created on the expression, drama, the canvas, plurality, the group, the link with the future.

Tele, the fields, the current, or the sixth sense

Fonseca (2013) speaks of a “teletransfer system”, as a complex process between individuals to which, according to different gradations, the relational qualities of telic and transference contribute. It is comparable to an “energy field”, and has a functioning quite similar to that of other fields that, in nature, belong to different disciplines of study. He writes: “…just as in nature there are electromagnetic fields, thermodynamic potentials and quantum fields, relational networks are considered to establish “energy” fields that express the variations of the teletransfer system in time and space” (Fonseca, 2012, p. 110).

Just by observing a real system, in the “camps” (refugees), Moreno had the intuition that there were “currents” of attraction, repulsion or indifference between individuals. Moreno was therefore led to the identification of this sociality-producing element by observing the phenomena that can be seen in real groups. His work in the Mittendorf refugee camp during the First World War had led him to focus on and take into account the interpersonal mechanisms of attraction and rejection within that community. A few years later, he would make similar observations within the small group of actors who collaborated with him in his theatrical experiments. In The Theatre of Spontaneity he writes:

On the conventional stage the five senses seem to suffice, but in spontaneous inter-presentation a sixth sense, that for the feelings of the companion, is increasingly developing. A trained companion can gradually dispense with all the communication techniques I have explained and rely only on the medial factor that guides his mind in predicting the ideas and actions of his companion. There are actors bound to each other by an invisible correspondence, endowed with a kind of exaggerated sensitivity to each other’s inner feelings. All it takes is a gesture, and often they do not even need to look at each other; they are mutually telepathic and communicate by means of a new sense, as if it were a medial understanding.” (Moreno, 1924, pp. 180-181 of the Italian edition).

This force directed to the social dimension, which is essential to the well-being and life of individuals, thus seems to have an organic substrate, an innate programming. Moreno refers to a process that is perceptive, communicative and at the same time an affective understanding of the other, in line with what has been said above. A process that preserves the primitive nature of this tension, its immediacy, and that originates from an even proto-affective and pre-social dimension of relational interactions, confirming its conative aspect, even before the cognitive one (cf. De Leonardis, 2009).

For Moreno, the canvas is the main tool of the therapeutic process and of the encounter between people, but also the cement that holds together every social group. For this reason, it is, at the same time, a guarantee of psychological well-being in personal relationships and of social solidity in the groups to which they belong. Canvas is the factor responsible for the cohesion and spontaneous and creative functioning of groups. Unlike the phantasmal distortions that, in the event that they ground the vitality of an exchange relationship, lead sooner or later to the disintegration of the group, the telic processes are the basis of social aggregations and catalyze their cooperative and productive power. It was precisely the neglect of social tensions and psychological aggregative/disgregative factors in the organization of refugee groups in the Mittendorf camps that had triggered friction and discontent; and had convinced Moreno to work on the forces that governed the equilibrium of social structures.

The social atom

The quality of the emotion that passes through this invisible bridge, gives, as we have said, the bond, the characteristic of attraction or rejection, recognizing a certain gradualness in this social “tension” (cf. De Leonardis, 2009) that from a maximum goes towards a minimum resulting in indifference, which expresses the absence of canvases. In the process of individual affective expansion and in the construction of telic networks within the social dimension, extra-individual structures are formed within which flows of psychic energy of a certain telic tension flow. In these terms, the assonance with certain physical concepts pertinent to the electric and magnetic fields is very evocative (more on a plane of structural logic than explanatory) with the concepts of positive and negative pole of the electric current, the concept of voltage, electric potential etc..

In accordance with the idea that every social structure cannot live in isolation from the rest of the system, but must necessarily be inscribed in a multilevel dimension (“fractal”, one would write), Moreno decided to call the smallest nuclear composition of affective relations “social atom”, suggesting that no interpersonal structure cannot be conceived in terms of isolation and closure, but must be included in a complex network of multiple memberships. Biologically no “atom” has the qualities of self-sufficiency, if not inserted in a molecular structure, then tissue, organismic, social, community, cultural, planetary. Moreover, the electrochemical composition of the atom, with its positive, negative and neutral charges (protons, electrons and neutrons) offered from the physical point of view an exact replica of the theories on social forces in interpersonal tensions.

Structurally, in Moreno’s thought, aggregative forces are organized in this way:

A social atom is thus composed of a large number of tele structures; in turn, social atoms are part of larger patterns, the sociometric networks, which unite and divide large groups of individuals according to the ratios of their tele.
In turn, sociometric networks are part of a more conspicuous unit; the sociometric geography of a collectivity. The collectivity, finally, is an integral part of the maximum structure, that is, the sociometric totality of human society” (Moreno, 1953, p. 36).

The social atom is the non-further divisible social unit in which an individual participates to satisfy his or her need for affective expansion. Each individual can recognize himself in an indefinite number of social atoms, just as the criteria by which he can specify the social atoms to which he belongs are indefinite. It may be the family, the work environment, the sports club, the parish group, the weekend friends, and so on. Myriads of social atoms cross, intersect and multiply in the course of a human life; each of us is the protagonist and author of the formation, growth, multiplicity, fading and rebirth of all the social atoms that compose and decompose in the kaleidoscope of the human universe.

A social atom can be said to have arrived at a meaningful structure for a given individual when mutual emotional relationships have been established between that individual and the other persons present in the same social unit. A social atom is not a simple construction of the mind: it is a real network of energy that radiates from each individual, and returns to it in a continuous movement determined by the changing forces of attraction and repulsion present in every moment of its existence.

As with the physical atom, the contours and structure of the social atom are not self-evident. It is necessary to discover them using the tools offered by sociometry. Thanks to sociometry, it is possible to visualize – thus making it clearly perceptible – the position of an individual at a given moment in the constellation of forces of attraction and rejection that refer to him. That is, it is a matter of quantifying and qualifying his tele-relationships in a given social unit. The analysis of a social atom can also highlight potential but unactualized relations in that social sphere, defining these “non-relationships” as indifference.


Sociometry, invented at the time of Mittendorf in the thirties and subsequently perfected, came to constitute for Moreno a parallel interest to that of psychodrama: there would be recurrent overlaps between them. Moreno (1953), in the introduction to his reference text on Who Shall Survive?, argues that no therapeutic initiative will succeed in being adequate in any relational system if, of the community composition, its organization is not known. He argues that groups are arranged in space according to a “law of social gravitation”.

The idea that it was possible to map the aggregative or disaggregative flows within the life of a community and that it was possible to make them manifest was the basis of sociometry. A social atom presents, in every moment of its existence, a network of connections between each member and each of the other members. These links express the forces of attraction (positive canvass) and rejection (negative canvass) between the members of the group and also show the areas of indifference (absence of canvass), “a real network of energy that radiates from each person and returns to it in a continuous movement determined by the changing forces present at every moment of indivi-dual existence” (Picchi, 2006).

Between the elements of the atom, as we have mentioned, “magnetic” tensions are established, evidence of the vitality zones of the system and of the inactivity zones (similarly, today, for the diagnostic surveys of the brain area, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is used in medicine, an imaging technique that allows to map the nature of the cerebral discharge flows; also in this case, the active / inactive areas are detected).

The set of techniques and tools that allow to make perceptible and representable this structure of relationships within a group is called sociometry. This term recalls the mathematical, or rather geometric, nature of the investigation. In its first version, sociometry boasted the possibility of presenting results according to the methods of scientific inquiry. Moreno used the term “graphical sociometry” to refer to this particular form of group composition study.

Graphical sociometry leads to the construction of sociograms, that is, diagrams in which the forces of attraction and rejection and the situations of indifference present at a certain moment in a group appear quantified. Moreno distinguished two main types of sociogram: the intuitive and the objective. The first derives from the intuitive recognition of the sociometric structure of the group by a person external to it (the leader, the therapist, an observer). The second is the result of the application of a formal sociometric test to the group. This requires each member of the group to indicate the names of a certain number of people in that group who would be chosen by him or her and a certain number of people who would be rejected by him or her in view of a hypothetical experience to be lived together. The elaboration of this sociometric test leads to quantify, for each member of the group, the number of choices and the number of rejections received. The people not chosen and not refused are indifferent people. The diagram constructed on the results of this test is often represented with sociometric maps. Depending on the criteria used and the type of investigation to be conducted, different results can obviously be crossed.

Often, in this type of survey, group members are not directly involved in the knowledge process. The descriptive nature of the analysis is easily linked to objectives of a diagnostic, research, project framing or demand analysis nature in social interventions.
The overlap between psychodrama and sociometry will lead to the transition from sociometric methodologies based on the predominant use of mathematical tools and graphics to methodologies that use mainly psychodramatic representation (action sociometry).

Action sociometry makes it possible to represent the structure of social relations in a group using psychodramatic techniques. Instead of paper, pencil, graphic symbols, numbers and segments, action sociometry uses the space of the psychodramatic stage and the people who make up the group as instruments of detection and representation. It provides for the direct participation of those involved, in a research process that sees them engaged in the awareness of their own sociometric position in the group dimension, in view of an eventual change. Typical areas of application of action sociometry are research- intervention and all work in which a reflection on group dynamics becomes central (corporate restructuring, moments of transition/change in work groups, team supervision, psychotherapy, etc.).

The evidence of the structure of the relationships within the group of belonging, with the aggregative and disaggregative flows that cross it, allows the subjects involved to get involved in a responsible sense, on the basis of their perceptions and telic on the basis of spontaneous resources of the moment. A social atom cannot therefore be conceived simply in a structural sense, but must be understood from a processual point of view. From the point of view of sociometry, the social atom is not a concept, it is “a social fact”, liable to creation, negotiation and a constant share of activism and responsibility.

It is to be noted, in conclusion, that “projected, or one-way feelings are not relevant to sociometry. This needs complementary or reciprocal feelings, sentiments.” (Moreno, 1953, p. 36). Therefore, so long as one is concerned only with the individual, his internal experience, his relationships, and his positioning within the group, an inquiry about group strengths is not possible. Sociometry, on the other hand, begins when one is able to study a social structure as a whole and, at the same time, in its parts.

Telic expansion, positive and negative

Within relational networks, what guarantees cohesion, stability and vitality at the same time, is a well-organized telic structure. The quality of affective flows, based on reciprocity and mutual knowledge of reality, feeds the energy of the system and determines its dynamics in a functional sense. Each participant in the group, and the group itself as a whole, finds in telical relationships the primary motivational force of presence and participation in interpersonal exchange (Blatner, 1994).

This is the reason why the very efficiency of a group can be limited by a failure to re-focus on the telic nature of active exchanges.
The performance of a working group is, for example, influenced by the quality of relational exchanges, in the same way that an organ or a body tissue is influenced by the blood supply that feeds it, and moreover in a time in which the volatility of structures and organizations, the speed of exchanges and the mobility of data, resources and opportunities is multiplied exponentially by an impressive potential of connections. Adapting to networks and reformulating one’s own positioning within relational structures requires a competence that cannot be the prerogative of individuals alone, but that resides in the intrinsic possibilities of the processual dynamics activated between individuals.

Attention and care to the construction of the relational plot and the dynamics of contact and connection between the members of a group, or between different groups, is therefore essential. Changes that are sought, necessary, imposed or suffered, have a reverberation at the group level, as well as at the individual level, which can undermine the group’s (or the individual’s) chances of survival, as well as catalyze its vitality. Think of the merging of headquarters or departments within a company, the territorial relocation of companies, intergenerational succession and restructuring. Think of the closure of entire companies, mass layoffs, and the constant need to renegotiate our social atoms.

Every movement in the relational sphere imposes a socio-emotional relocation within new extra-individual structures; “taking care” thus becomes not only an organizational need, but a healthy form of participatory experience in the vital and energetic dynamics of the group. Similarly, the well-being of a “social body” is defined by the degree of expression, presence and well-being (cf. Spaltro) reserved for the parties involved.

Avoiding to responsibly support a dynamic telic “culture” within a group re-risks generating defensive mechanisms of control, denial, and splitting at various levels. This leads to actions governed by the logic of impulse and suppression. In social realities, I am referring, for example, to practices of exclusion (from the right to profess one’s religion to the right to attend certain institutions or roles) or avoidance (ghetto neighborhoods, the constantly evolving suburbs-dormitory; think of the frequent cases of mobbing), practices of rejection, rejection or attack (from the phenomena of bullying in schools, to cases of urban violence on homosexuals or non-EU citizens), isolation, confinement or imprisonment (practices of psychiatric institutionalization, prison detention) and expulsion (the rejection or repatriation of refugees).

These behaviors belong to those group dynamics in which the presence of the other becomes unsustainable; dynamics in which the other becomes an “extraneous body” on which reactive or elimination behaviors are poured. These are group processes in which the sense of reciprocity, mutuality, responsibility and encounter of the reality of the other is lost, granting ever wider margins to movements of disintegration and rejection (often favored by phantasmatic distortions).

If these dynamics were to see the prevalence of positive telic relations, inclusive practices, responsibility, respect, integration and encounter, we could then hope for sustainable social development and creative exchange. But if the field were left to be traversed by disruptive fantasies, lack of knowledge of the other and intolerance, all that would remain would be social and emotional, productive and psychic dismemberment.

Groups and society in general demand attention, education and care that Moreno hoped could be cultivated in what he called sociatry, broadening, in those years, the horizon of an increasingly individualistic and medicalized psychiatry. At a time in which microbiology and neurophysiology update academic teachings, and in a world in which the processes of globalization open a passage for social groups in the migratory phenomena, in the search for natural expansion of contact and connection, the psychodramatist must be open to a thought that takes up the challenge of taking care of plasticity and encounter, presence and responsibility, knowledge and re-knowledge of in- dividuals and groups.

Positive telic expansion remains a major goal of psycho-dramatic theory and practice. The use of sociometry, whether in the training field, in the community, in the educational- pedagogical field or in the clinical field, is to be considered a direct, strong intervention, which must start from a feeling of competence and solid professional responsibility. This responsibility is thus shared with the group itself and with its members, relocated in the locus from which it originates and from which it takes strength.


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