I clearly would not have been the person that I have been for the better half of my life if it had not been for the “Three Phase Experiential Training Program” with which TAP was involved during the first 20 years of the organization’s life. The program, under the leadership of MATC (Mid-Atlantic Training Committee), consisted of three residential weeks of training groups devoted to human interaction, group development, and design skills. In the last phase, participants learned how to create experiential learning situations for others.
Kurt Lewin, who is widely regarded as the father of Social Psychology, came upon what would later be called T-Groups (training groups) largely by accident. He was experimenting to see if small group discussions would lead to creative solutions to social problems. Fifty educators were invited to participate in small groups, tasked with finding creative solutions. Lewin invited his graduate students to observe what was happening in the groups. At night, the students would reflect on the group dynamics that were taking place in each one. At one point, one of the educators asked to participate in the evening discussions. The next night, all 50 participants asked to participate. A vigorous discussion took place in which the educators responded with their own perspective on the group interactions. Thus, began the notion of “feedback” and involving participants in coming to self-understanding of what had taken place in the small groups. National Training Laboratory, founded by Lewin’s students, became the launch pad for what was to become the human potential movement in America.
In his autobiography, Elliot Aronson, one of the greats in social psychology, writes:
“Lewin was quick to grasp the significance of this event. A group that forms to discuss how to solve a problem can benefit enormously by taking time out to discuss its own feelings and intentions, and the members do not need training in group dynamics to do this. Indeed the participants themselves are much better observers of their own process because each is privy to his or her own intentions…Over time what evolved was the agenda-less group—a group that met with no formal plan and no problems to discuss other than its own dynamics, with the goal of helping members communicate with each other more effectively and learn how they are perceived by others.” (Elliot Aronson, Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist. (New York: Basic Books), p. 211.)
The experiential learning strategy was a combination of experience and reflection on that experience in a small group setting of twelve participants. In many of the learning sessions, usually referred to as laboratories, there might be several groups of twelve. Often, the best arrangement was for all the participants to be strangers so that there was no prior history that might interfere with the process. Participants were asked to focus totally on the here and now and what was taking place in relationships between people and the group as a whole. Aside from learning each other’s names, participants were asked not to share any biographical information or what was taking place in their life back home.
The learning theory was referred to as EIAG. “E” stood for “Experience.” The “IAG” was the reflection process. “I” stood for “Identify.” The first task was to identify the most significant behavior among members of the group that helped to shape the group dynamics. The “A” stood for “Analyze.” Once a major dynamic was identified, members of the group would analyze what precipitated the event and how it affected the group as a whole and people in the group. “G” stood for “Generalize.” Participants were asked what they could generalize from what took place in the group for future situations. In other words, what was the transferable learning.
During the human interaction week of the Experiential Training Program, the focus was on communication between members of the group. We focused on identifying and sharing feelings that we had toward each other. We identified our first impressions and learned how shallow first impressions generally are when you later learned how people felt and their strengths in moving the group toward greater honesty and compassion for one another. Much time was devoted to giving feedback to one another with special guidelines. The feedback had to be requested by the other party and was to be given without psychologizing. It was expected to be timely, as close to the interaction as possible, and nonjudgmental. Generally, the formula was “When you did or said …., I felt (mad, sad, glad etc…), because….” Sometimes the phrase “In the future, I would like….” was also included.
The week of group development focused on the various issues that groups have to deal with and stages that groups often experience throughout its course. The basic task and maintenance skills of group leadership were shared. We also learned that processing what happens within a group involves feedback on what was most helpful and least helpful in the many tasks that are dealt with. The concerns that were often reflected throughout stages of group were: “Am I in or out of the group?” “How much influence do I have?” “Am I at the top or bottom of the group?” “How close or distant do I feel toward each member of the group and how best to express it?”
Design skills involved analyzing the particular needs of a group, designing goals and objectives for training around those needs, creating a design, carrying out the design and evaluating the effectiveness of the training design. These steps were not only seen as essential to designing training, but are the precise steps for planning any endeavor. They would become useful in most of TAP’s design of programs to meet the needs of low-income populations.
Throughout all of the training sessions, particular attention was paid to the norms and standards that governed all of the interactions that took place. These were: Respect everyone, listen, participate, be on time, be open and honest, no violence, avoid psychologizing and being judgmental, speak your feelings, try new behavior, and take risks. These norms and standards made for healthy interaction. The same standards would help to shape the TAP culture for 50 years.
This training would play an important role in a program done in conjunction with the Roanoke City Department of Social Services that would have the highest work placement rate of any program for welfare recipients in the country. It would also play a strong role in the development of the prisoner re-entry program known as Virginia CARES, Virginia’s first statewide pre- and post-incarceration program.
In spite of the many privileges of an upper middle class family, ours was a pretty dysfunctional one. Our mother and father were often at odds. Fights with screaming and accusations were commonplace. On many occasions we were told they were getting a divorce and my brothers and I were asked which parent we wanted to go with. Both of my brothers ended up in long-term analysis with Dr. Coffman, a psychiatrist and father figure, who helped save their lives. However, I believe that I learned more about myself and healthy relationships from these intensive week-long sessions, first as a participant and later as a facilitator, than either of my brothers did in long-term analysis. I learned to get out of my head and speak about my feelings. Feedback from others gave me a better perspective on my strengths as well as well as my stand-off behavior that kept people at a distance. I learned the importance of a well-intentioned hug –something I never experienced from either of my parents as a child. In addition, I learned the valuable tools of shared leadership that would characterize my 40-year career as CEO of TAP.
One dynamic, however, bothered me deeply. After I completed each lab experience I felt better about myself than ever before. I was more confident. More energized. More excited about life and my future. However, after I had been back home and at my job, the old me seemed to circle back with the same insecurities and bad feelings. After this had taken place a number of times, I began to wonder why I felt so good when on these experiential learning retreats and so bad after being back a while. It was then that I came up with the two seed theory of personality.
The two seed theory of personality boils down to this. Each of us has two sets of seeds: The seeds of good feelings (confidence, optimism, and self-respect) and seeds of self-doubt (self-recriminations, fears of others and the future). Either set of seeds can end up dominating our emotional landscape, it all depends which ones are watered. When our environment is positive, with positive people and the opportunity to succeed, the good seeds will sprout and dominate our mental and emotional landscape. However, when our environment is punishing with highly critical people, impossible tasks that reek of failure, and little opportunity to get away and recoup, then the bad seeds will sprout like weeds and choke out the good seeds. The task is not to try to get rid of all the bad seeds. That’s impossible, and blaming ourselves for having bad seeds that we can’t get rid of just makes our environment more punishing. If we are to manage our internal life, we must aim to create the situations that help to water our good seeds! The good seeds, when watered sufficiently, will create less room for the weeds of the bad seeds to sprout and dominate. The goal is to take charge of our environment so that the good seeds will dominate. We can end up making our entire life a modified experiential learning laboratory.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist leader, also has a theory of personality based on seeds.
He divides the psyche into Mind Consciousness and Store Consciousness. Picture a circle divided by a horizontal line. The Mind Consciousness, on top, is our present awareness. The Store Consciousness, below the horizontal line, contains all of the seeds or “mental formations” we have in life. There are both positive and negative seeds. Below the line there is love, joy, hope, confidence, and awe, but there is also self-loathing, anger, hurt, desire for revenge, fear, and other negative formations. At any given time, either the positive seeds or the negative seeds will move from our store consciousness to our mind consciousness and present awareness. It all depends which seeds are getting watered!
The strategy of trying to attack or do away with the negative seeds is a losing battle. Instead, “Thay” suggests greeting the seeds of jealousy, anger, hatred, and fear as old friends. “Oh, there you are old friends, Hurt and Anger. I know you are there. Let me hold you for a while like a mother caring for a baby until you settle back down.” Thay is also insistent that one must find a supportive community of practice that will support this kind of behavior. One must find an environment which waters the good seeds.
I do not pretend to be as wise or as good a man as Thich Nhat Hanh. It is interesting, however, that we have come to similar conclusions with respect to our inability to totally remove the bad seeds of our personality. Our time is better spent in recognizing their existence and creating a supportive environment that will water the better seeds of our nature. That discovery has changed my life immensely. My advice to others who want a better life is to look at your environment and which of your seeds are getting watered. Then, strive to create the environment that waters your better seeds. Identify the people, activities, and places that bring out the best in you.
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