Practical learning activities in Interpersonal Skills Training

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practical training activities

This is a short selection of introductory activities on non-verbal communication. They can be used before or after a session about non-verbal communication, before or after student research on the subject. They can be used in sequence, individually or offered in response to content raised in discussion. Students are encouraged to suggest their own enquiries and designs worked out which are likely to be successful.

I observe-I imagine

This is one of the most basic of all training activities, taken from the gestalt school of psychology for practical living. It trains students to separate out the more objective, albeit selected observations of someone's behaviour from the more subjective interpretations and impressions created automatically by the listener. It enables students to distinguish between what one person is actually doing and how another perceives them, how and what the other is creating independently in their own minds from noticing that behaviour. It also trains students to focus on just what aspect of behaviour is making an impact and what is being communicated and how they are generating a significant part of that message themselves. It trains students to discern the messages being conveyed non-verbally which they actually do register and take in as part of the communication. It trains students to verbalise the non-verbal aspects of another's behaviour and explore what it might be conveying. It helps refine perceptions so as they agree with the reality.


As in all cases of attempting an unfamiliar exercise, which this will always be for the first time, students should be given a clear model of how to conduct the exercise. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in training. Failure to give instructions and show the model cannot lead to an effective exercise. Students will not highlight the issues. They may even get the wrong messages. The teacher can invite the co-teacher (if present) or a student volunteer to attempt the exercise. The teacher models it and invites the student to try it. The teacher compliments the student and invites a reshaping of the student's statement if it does not fit the ground rules, which are precisely designed. A second attempt should make the point. If there is still difficulty, any student raising doubts can be invited to attempt the same exercise as partner in a second demonstration. The demonstrations are continued until the teacher believes that more effective learning would take place by everyone trying it out in pairs as follows.

practical activity: 'I observe-I imagine'

Students form pairs. Each person makes a statement to the other, which uses the form of words exactly: “I observe (X), I imagine (Y)”. The student fills in X and Y. X is some non-verbal cue given off by the listener. Y is some hunch, guess, or inspired interpretation of the meaning of X. The listener does not comment, but nods if the statement seems accurate and shakes the head if it does not seem accurate. The roles are reversed. Students alternate for a few minutes before they debrief. The teacher monitors and reshapes student statements as needed or compliments them on doing it according to the rules. If necessary, the teacher stops the class and announces again what is required and how not to do it. Students are permitted to make the obvious statements like “I observe that you are shaking and looking away. I imagine that you are nervous about what I might say about you.” in their own words. They are encouraged to take risks as they gain confidence in doing the exercise. Alternative forms of words that spring to mind like “I notice that ... and I think that ...” or more extreme “You are ... you must be ...” are outlawed even though they may be close to the meaning intended. The activity is designed to direct students to recognise that the received meaning is an act of imagination, however accurate it might be. Pairs review their experience in both roles, privately. They also discuss the degree of accuracy of their imagination. This part of the activity may even lead to students reshaping their statements informally or changing their minds about disagreeing with the suggested meanings as something hidden comes to mind.

whole class review

As in all such activities, the threads are drawn together: firstly by inviting students to share some of the statements they made in the pair (without betraying confidences) and what they got out of the review; secondly by inviting students to say what they learned. In each case where the learning seems at variance with that intended the teacher invites the student to share the raw data and show how they arrived at their conclusion. Often this needs further comment and a mini-tutorial in public view, perhaps even inviting a reshaping of the initial statement. All students learn from this process, repeated sufficiently to ensure that the lessons have been learned. This is not an indoctrination process, merely tuition in verbalising observations and drawing conclusions from valid evidence. The material of the review will often enable highly effective choices to be made as to the next activity required to enable students to expand and deepen their learning.

exploring relative distance and position


This activity needs only a simple introduction. The safe distance between pairs of people is very culture dependent as is the degree of eye contact which is permitted and certainly the amount of touch. What is explored here is the simultaneous meeting of eyes and the aware adjustment of distance between partners who face each other. The idea is to be sensitive to your own reaction and that of your partner as you move slowly more close to each other. Students are asked to find a comfortable distance and explore their feelings and thoughts at that position, as they moved from a distance towards the comfort zone and as they went closer. A demonstration is generally unnecessary. Students are taken into the exercise quickly enough to prevent any resistance building up. The room needs preparation by clearing sufficient space for the whole class, in pairs, to move from the edges of the room to the centre walking towards each other.

practical activity: mutually acceptable proximity

This has been described in the introduction. Students pair by choice of comfortable partner. The whole group separates the pairs so they can start against the walls of the room and slowly walk towards each other in silence. They note their experience at each point and continue to make the best eye contact that they can whilst slowly walking towards each other. They continue moving towards each other until they almost touch and move apart to a comfortable distance by non-verbal negotiation. Once at a mutually agreed distance they share the experience they have gone through and have arrived at. Laughter is encouraged as many may well experience embarrassment as they conduct the non-verbal negotiation and review the experiences at each significant point. The laughter of embarrassment should be encouraged.

pair review

Pairs talk briefly (a couple of minutes, more if your eavesdropping shows talk continues to be productive) on the experience, how their feelings changed as they moved, critical points, and how they found a comfortable compromise.

whole class review

Students are asked to remain standing and share with the whole class any aspect of their own experience. Teachers again may guide the responses so they report experiences rather than judgements about the experience or the exercise. Nor do they report what their partner said. The artificiality argument is countered since the exercise only exposes what happens normally or is ignored to the detriment of some relationships.

practical activity: on proximity with other partners

Since the experience is dependent on many factors, not least the gender of partners and how well they know each other, as well as the heights of the individuals, it is vital to repeat the exercise with two or three new partners in turn. If the class are managing the activity well, there is no need to have a whole class review after each new pair's activity and review. The task is to amass data from many interactions before the review.

whole class review

This brings out the variables as well as the experiences. Students are asked to reform the group circle and invited again to share their experiences, this time relating the differences and similarities as between different partners, without any hint of judgement of their various partners. Conclusions are drawn about the negotiation of the comfort zone and the different occasions and relationships where the distances are different. Private lessons may be recorded.

practical activity: relative position

Pairs are invited to set up their own experiments where relative position includes height and body angles or postures. This readily mimics professional-client norms such as a nurse with a patient in bed, or a doctor behind a desk. The role reversals created by students can be very instructive if they are encouraged to reflect on the experience-as-if-client and the question “How can I improve conditions for my client so they can put to me the problem as they see it and disclose all relevant information about their situation?” Whole class review is carried out when the students seem satiated with experimentation and a natural pause is developing.

exploring eye contact and gaze

practical activity: listener avoids eye contact

Students form pairs. One student starts talking (subject set by teacher or left to students, perhaps agreed first; it could be the reaction to the task or subject so far!) The listener is tasked to avoid eye contact whilst the speaker tries to maintain it. Roles are reversed and the exercise repeated. Pairs review the experience in both roles as per previous rubric.

practical activity: speaker avoids eye contact

Then the listener is tasked to maintain eye contact whilst the speaker avoids it. Roles are reversed and the exercise repeated. Pairs review the experience in both roles.

practical activity: sustained eye contact

Lastly, both speaker and listener are tasked to sustain eye contact. Roles are reversed and the exercise repeated. (This can take the form of a conversation). Pairs review the experience in both roles.

whole class review

Pairs first review the experience in both roles and in the 3 positions taken. They then return to the large group and share observations and learning. The experiments are potentially so rich in experience that they may well be repeated after the whole class review. Alternatively, students may be asked to experiment outside the classroom between peers. There may be an impulse to experiment with unknowing others. This should be avoided. What is more important is to observe more keenly, peer to peer practice. Unavoidably, students will also observe staff practice with students! (See the section on a shared model above).

practical activity: silent gaze

Pairs face each other in silence for a minute or two, without speaking. The task is to maintain eye contact. If they avert their gaze, they are requested to return to a full gaze. Intermittent laughter is accepted, even encouraged, but they are invited to return to the gaze without laughter. The activity can be put on hold for a mini-debrief, drawing out individuals who laugh about their experience, then to return after further encouragement. Reflection in the pairs involves disclosure of the various events (thoughts, emotions, images and observations). Feedback should be limited to “I experienced X when I saw Y in you”. Some attempt to discern simultaneous events should be made. In the whole group, describing the phenomena of mutual silent gazing should be favoured over speculating about their meaning. Partners may be changed and the activity repeated if interest in pursuing the activity is implied by the nature of the review. To derive high quality learning, several pairings would be required. In this case, groups of 4 may be formed and all combinations of 2 engage in 2-4' mutual gazing before group review. The strength and depth of contact inherent in mutual gazing should be explored as well as the range of inhibition to sustain eye contact (personal, cultural and societal) that is common in other than very intimate relationships. The nature of the information available in eye contact should be an essential part of the understanding of would-be and experienced professionals. Their use to punctuate communication should be understood as a means to block vital information about how someone is responding to messages or keep control.

personal practice activity: study eye contact in real life

Students are encouraged to pay attention to how they use eye contact in real life, without making a meal of it. They are admonished not to exaggerate or distort or experiment in any contrived way with eye contact, nor implicitly force their experiment or observation on others. It should be as natural as possible. With whom is it made, sustained at all; most sustained, least sustained or avoided? What thoughts, feelings, images accompany these varieties of contact? Make private notes outside the meeting. It would normally be entirely acceptable for students to explain the interest they have in communication and especially eye contact with a friend, who might support the enquiry, without distortion in their relationships. The knock-on effect is ideally of value to all.

whole class review

Students may compare notes with a selected 'buddy' in between course sessions and start a review session by inviting pairs to reflect on the enquiry using key words or questions you inject, such as naturalness, comfort, what was exposed, what was a surprise, what they have learned about themselves, what they have learned about their relationships and about others' eye contact. The review may be lengthy to dwell on and work out the significance of eye contact in everyday life and in professional practice. Some themes in the discussion could form the basis of further enquiry in the classroom and in everyday life. The classroom activity could be seen as a rehearsal for everyday life as well as how to manage it ethically and practically.

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