Caveats about offering Interpersonal Skills Training to students

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experience your interpersonal skills model-in-action

do the same as your students

The first and most obvious caveat about the delivery of activities which you require others to experience is that you should have experienced them yourself. The one exception to this rule is that you may have experienced several similar activities within the same class. Even then, you risk missing observations which demonstrate the limitations of the activities as applied to your own students. If you have not experienced a particular activity in your training, at least you can set up a staff group to try an activity out. Where many staff are involved, this kind of peer support can be a resource for all members to explore options in choice of activity, potential impact on students, and options for facilitator practice.

There are moral and practical reasons for experiencing the very same activities you require your students to engage in. The moral reason is that you should not expect others to do what you yourself have not. In extremis, you are requiring others to engage in what you do not wish to engage in yourself. You are demanding that others test themselves, challenge themselves, confront themselves, or even experience emotional difficulties and problems of self-image in the process of learning the defined skills which you are not prepared to experience yourself. You are even setting yourself up as a paragon who has nothing to learn and nothing to change in this area. No-one can help others enter personal territory of that nature without having mapped it out for themselves. The best guides are those who have gone before. Understanding the nature of the challenges offered to students, allows the teacher to empathise with students, recognise when they are going through difficult times and at least have some inkling of their support needs and possible responses. Without this, they may be plunged into change processes neither they nor you can manage, even if you became aware of them. This is not morally justifiable.

The practical reason for experiencing the same activity with others flows from all this. Your map of the personal territory and the nature of the personal and interpersonal changes promoted by this exploration will have two components. Firstly, there is your own personal experience. Secondly there is the reported experience of your co-experimenters. These may be fellow students in your own training course or peer staff members trying out the activity. Taking these together you will acquire data of relevance to understanding the testing nature of the experience on students. You will experience and hear about the nature of the structure of the activity. You may experience and hear about problems in the structuring of the activity. You will experience at first hand one example of a facilitator's style and approach to this one activity. You will acquire information which you may apply in the conduct of the activity.

By experiencing a range of activities of the same nature at the same level, you will amass a great deal of practical information which will enable your finer judgements about which activities to select, the order and timing of these activities, the value and structure of reflection time, the need for time out, the nature of individual support and what you must anticipate and so on. You will especially have witnessed and experienced how teachers handle specific events, individual responses to activities, put questions for reflection and amassed some data about what may be effective and what may not.

None of this is sufficient to take on the role of trainer. The principles, values, ethics and practices of the facilitator are sufficiently complex that there is a need for a much wider range of experience than simply that to which the students will be exposed.

go deeper than your students

A second caveat is to explore the model proposed in greater depth than your students will by attending more advanced or further on courses using the basic model you are applying. In so doing, you will discover much more about the actual effects on yourself and your co-experimenters and therefore the likely effects on your students. You will experience a greater range of structures and thereby understand the nature of structuring of activities better. You will experience and observe a greater number of different trainers and therefore facilitator styles. You will experience and observe a wider range of situations to which facilitators respond. After you can raise the level of your attention from that of being immersed in an experience, through that of standing back to reflect on your experience to winkle out your own personal learning, through that of listening to and observing others you may be able to get to the level where you can start to puzzle out what the facilitators are doing, how they are responding and to what they may be responding. This is not at all easy without some explanation and deliberate reflection on structures and styles. This is not normally done in any training, however advanced. It is the subject of training trainers discussed below.

A corollary of this particular caveat is that you may attend a course with a view to witnessing how it is done in preference to fully experiencing it for your own personal learning. If you do this, your conclusions are likely to be invalid. The set of "levels" suggested above is made from 25 years of experience at this game. It is vital to experience a course with at least an equal priority given to personal learning as learning from the course about how to do the course yourself. Many a time have I worked with teachers who jump around the experiential learning cycle and miss out vital data which affects their conclusions only to bring them back to the appropriate stage, complete it, go on to the next and so on until the time is right to review the whole thing from the point of view of trainers. Indeed, as I shall suggest below in the section on training, that there are 3 experiential cycles (1) as learners (2) as the facilitator of an activity and (3) the cycle as trainers.

test yourself in the student role

A third caveat is an obvious one. Attend a training course and put your utmost into it. The vital principle is that the more you put in, the more you get out. The corollary of this is that a half-hearted attendance will not only give you little for your time, it will provide much less valid information. Your understandings about the model and the practices which go with it will even be invalid as a result of the contamination of your attention with your less than complete engagement.

What this means in practice is to take risks and test yourself. By risks here is meant to go against any natural reluctance to expose yourself, or resistance to trying something out. What is not meant is to plunge into everything regardless of the signs and signals which tell you that you are not ready, that you need to consolidate past learning before leaping in, that there is an appropriate caution where saying no (silently or publicly) is appropriate. Recklessness is not in order. In any case, a vital principle in this kind of learning is the freedom to opt out of an activity. This always seems to potentiate freedom and commitment to opt into activities. Where "no" is allowed, "yes" means just that. Where "no" is not allowed, "yes" has no clear meaning. Even this should be tested for it to become more than a theoretical construct. By exploring all sorts of risks and none, the nature of risk-taking is explored and understood.

Such testing is like testing ice in a polar exploration. You find out where it can bear your weight and where it cannot. You get full value from the course, you find out where risks are appropriate and inappropriate and you can recognise more easily where your own students are taking inappropriate risks or inappropriately taking no risks. You may take such students aside and determine what experiences they may have which guide their low or high risk-taking. You will have a better insight into the validity of their choices having explored it yourself. In any case, each extreme will lead to its own counselling programme. (See section on counselling support.)

experience what happens

Several times in this section the imperative has been made to explore the nature of the personal experience of learning activities. What this means is to take note of the myriad of internal changes of emotion, thought, image, sensation, memory, self-talk, resistance, excitement and so on and in relation to the stimuli presented of the structure of the activity, the interactions with others, the actions and statements of the facilitator. Your secondary experience is that of witnessing and getting involved with others with whom you share tasks or share experiences in private or public. Attendance at training courses, whether basic or advanced or for trainers, will provoke an enormous fund of experience. At the end of the day, the sum total of your experience and that you have been party to of others, will help you understand what might and does happen to your students. But first, you must experience it for what it is: your experience. You must experience it in context; an experience within a particular activity and in a particular course. It is your personal response at a particular time and its meaning may become clear to you within the structure of the activity, the course, later or not at all. In any case, it is experience: it happens. You notice some of it at the time. You may remember more of it later.

Emotions (or feelings, without differentiating the concept here) are many and varied. You may experience any emotion and without being able to predict it: happy, sad, fearful or confident, angry or caring, embarrassed or pleased, excited or bored. Any of these and many more will come and go. Thoughts positive and negative, surprising or familiar, about yourself or others, about your past or your present will come and go. Images may enter your awareness, of yourself, of others, odd or ordinary, in reality or imagination, or they may appear in dreams after an activity or course. Body sensations, comfortable or uncomfortable, hot or cold, in tension or relaxed, well or unwell will come and go. You may find yourself as if talking to or at yourself, admonishing, appreciating, advising, doubting, thinking well or badly about yourself and many more. You will find your willingness to participate varies as your energy and enthusiasm wax and wane, particular opportunities may seem foreign or familiar, easy or difficult, attractive or unattractive, beneficial or not, wholesome or otherwise and your eagerness may change to resistance.

All this is normal. Learning cannot come about by repeating the known or the familiar. There must be a change in behaviour (and internal matters to go with it) for there to be a trial, an experiment, a rehearsal of something new. New experiences are created deliberately within a training event so that new behaviour may be experimented with and the consequences explored in the safety of the closed group. These experiences cannot be known in advance except within an approximate range. All those listed will occur, within a manageable range of intensity and frequency if the trainer has organised the choice, sequence, timing and style and duration of the reflection on each appropriately.

As the number of training courses attended increases, so the information on all these matters acquired by would-be, neophyte and experienced facilitators of interpersonal skills training rises, so long as they are attentive, alert and committed, especially to risk-taking. Experience generates information relevant to personal learning and to facilitation.

All this is still insufficient.

go wider

set a model in context

One problem with learning only one model of interpersonal skills training is that it is difficult to see its limitations. Its strengths may seem obvious, especially after any initial doubts are allayed and as significant personal learning starts to amass. Reading this, you may already have decided that one particular model is a good one. Part of this choice comes from the successes you have achieved by applying your learning in real life, professionally or personally. You will have paid a price for your learning, in time, effort, commitment to a learning programme, and the work you have had to undertake to clarify your learning. You may have had to work through personal change, as a consequence of your training, perhaps significant and even arduous. So you will have a personal investment in the model. You may wish to get more value from this investment by giving it to students. This is laudable. However it is insufficient.

triangulation of interpersonal skills models

Whilst your choice of model may give students great value too, its limitations can only be seen by stepping back from that investment, by testing different models. Each model you test will provide a different vantage point from which to view interpersonal skills. Each model takes its own sectional slice through human affairs. Each model apparently comes up with unique answers, special ways of construing successful and unsuccessful interaction between people. Each model has its own pedigree, its own proponents, its own internal structure, its own selection of evidence to justify it. Generally, by concentrating on different aspects of human relations, each model will have some equivalent and some complementary elements. If they are adequately tested, each model will have little that is contradictory to another model. However, each model will have its preferred range of application.

One approach to research is to use different data gathering methods, each perhaps radically different from the others. Generally, if 3 methods yield results which are supportive of each other within the limitations of measurement, then greater confidence can be assigned to the conclusions. This process has been called triangulation, a term used in surveying. The same applies here. To test 3 different models (on yourself!), firstly experiencing them fully and learning what they have to give, secondly standing back and comparing what each gives, how it applies, how you selectively apply one rather than another and how as you assimilate them fully into your repertoire and how you integrate them.

see its strengths and weaknesses

Then you may be able to stand back from the models and see their relative merits and defects, where they illuminate situations, role relationships and problems well and where they have little light to shed. You will form your own opinions on this. Where you offer more than one model to students, you will surely invite them to do the same, so far as their experience validates early judgement of this nature.

Assertiveness offers a practical way to handle situations and does little to open out the dynamics of an interaction, whereas T.A. offers a clear psychodynamic perspective to understand the overt and covert processes going on in situations. The six category approach focuses on excellence in the professional role with clearly justified philosophical values with which to judge intentions and practices at any one moment. Group membership models give clear guidelines as to which behaviours are most effective in the long term. They also pinpoint which behaviours are deemed appropriate to avoid, or if made, withdraw, reshape or even open up the issue behind the outlawed response.

Each model has its territory of success, its field of action. Each has its potential for application and development for each subject or occupational group. Nevertheless, each may omit something of potential value, contained in another model. Each may hint at something unexplored yet central to another model. Each may have a blind spot illuminated well from another vantage point. It is as if 3 lamps were shone on an object in 3 dimensions. All sides can be illuminated which one could not do.

final recommendation

So this section recommends you to study at least 3 different models: one in some depth, the other 2 sufficiently to expose the matters discussed above. Yet this is still insufficient. You will need training to give the best value to students and avoid pitfalls for yourself and students and unwittingly setting limitations on learning. Of course a great deal can be done with applying your own experience to work with students, especially if it is an introductory course, presenting one or more models at an introductory level and where you make no great claims about the universal value of your pronouncements.

trainer training for activities and experiential debrief in your model

To attempt to mimic the few other trainers you have yourself experienced and witnessed is still to risk invalid application of a model. Trainers rarely disclose the basis of their decisions about their style and programme and the myriad of instant responses they make to manage all kinds of ordinary and unusual situations, which arise in the life of a training course. This area should be exposed, studied, practised and reviewed in the light of models of facilitation, structure and experiential review. All elements in a course need to be analysed in terms of the teacher's role, approach and options, identifying and practising the skills needed to design and deliver a course and to begin and to see through to a satisfactory finish each of the many stages and training cycles within it.

supervision and counselling

supervision

The nature of experiential training is akin to counselling - your students will open themselves to their peers and yourself. Counsellors have supervision - an arrangement with a well qualified person with whom you can reflect on your practice and experiences. This could be a close colleague from your own department, a well qualified and experienced colleague from another department, a qualified independent supervisor, a fellow trainee from one of your own training courses or one of your own previous or current trainers. Your agenda could be your sense of your successes and difficulties, your analysis of student progress as individuals and the development of the group, your review of specific individuals and your concerns about them, any effects you discern amongst student peers and your own colleagues through their application of their skills and so on.

counselling

Feelings (physical, emotional and mental reactions) are stirred up when constantly working intensively with others. These need resolution. Peer group support and supervision may well help you deal with much of this. However, just as you might well advise a student to visit the College counsellor to resolve their feelings and finish what the course has opened up for them, so you too may benefit from the same. College counsellors will generally see staff, and the arrangements you have made with the counsellor to receive students of your course, might well have included time for yourself, on a regular or irregular basis according to need or recommendation from your peers or supervisor.

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