Training to offer Interpersonal Skills Training

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training in how to offer a training

This section is intended to serve two purposes. Firstly to any teacher wishing to select a suitable training in the skills of offering students an interpersonal skills training, here are some criteria which can be applied to training courses for teachers to help select the best one. Secondly, to any experienced old hand using one or other model successfully, or to any University with considerable experience of successful interpersonal skills training, here are some elements and a blueprint of an exemplary design of trainer-training course.

prior experience of the interpersonal skills model of choice

The above notes develop the obvious point that to offer a training in a particular model of interpersonal skills training requires prior experience as a student of that model. To attempt to train students from a book or set of resources without having experienced them leaves you, the teacher, very, very exposed. You have no bench marks, no image of a competent trainer using the model, no idea of the particular challenges the model offers to students. There would be too many surprises in store. The net effect would be not only to starve the students of the full potential of the model but to generate problem after problem for yourself and students. Experience is the greatest teacher and is argued above to be a moral imperative. The moral imperative reduces in strength where a teacher has been trained to offer other interpersonal skills training, and has studied the roles and skills of good facilitation.

Nevertheless it is to be expected that a condition of acceptance on to a training course using a particular model, is prior experience as outlined above and evidence of the successful application of the training. Where training is graded into introductory, further on and advanced courses, there would be an expectation of study of the model substantially further and deeper than the level proposed for students. All this is actually very familiar to teachers of higher education in their chosen subject, where in many disciplines, a teacher would be expected to have gained a Ph.D. or at least a Masters degree in the subject and for practical subjects like engineering and sciences, to have practised in the field. It should be no less a requirement to have studied the model of interpersonal skills in depth and in practice.

provide a model course


Well developed training has a history in which many different formats and approaches were tried out which led to a best design or set of designs. In some cases there may be many angles and entry points and ways of leading into a training programme innocuously for which we should expect a training course to cater for. Nevertheless, to provide a tried and tested model programme is an excellent place to start. The overall shape is there, the various inputs including new knowledge, the best ways to present and illustrate, the documented resources available, the range of activities which enable learning from reflective tools to experiential exercises to real life practice in and out of the course. These are outlined below and considerably expanded in the chapter on "tools". Finally as well as ongoing throughout the course at least intermittently there is assessment of each individual's skills.

The beginning of a course will have its own structure: aims and visions of applied learning; the role of training; the style of the course; the roles of teachers and students (mutual expectations); ground rules for behaviour; and contracting with students about all these. The model may be presented in suitable chunks, overviews and then detail; there may well be demonstrations of the skills-in-action or of unskilled behaviour to make the points; there may be videos available or examples may be elicited from students' experience. Each part of the course will have its own exemplary learning activities, which at some point necessarily have to be practical. This means students trying out elements of the skills and later putting these elements together in a variety of ways. There will be self assessment episodes and methods and most probably times and methods of peer assessment and teacher assessment. There will be homework.

sample of activities

There will be a whole set of well tested and successful activities for inclusion in a model course. These should now become available to the student teacher. Rather than spend valuable resource time with the course leader giving course members experience of a good sample, it would be best if this were combined with skills development as outlined below. In this way, the twin objectives of sampling a good range of activities and trainee practice in delivering activities would be combined.

It would be reasonable to expect a library or reference list of experiential and other active learning resources to become available, together with some exemplary lecturettes, handout material, videos and other illustrative material, questionnaires and self-tests and so on. In addition, it would be reasonable to expect some design time followed by exchange, review and critical comment (both positive and negative).

experiential debriefing

One of the most important areas which teachers can regrettably neglect, curtail or even substitute with further teacher talk, is the debriefing of experiential activity. It is insufficient to let students mull over in private the lessons of an activity. It is inappropriate to tell students what they should have learned from an activity. It is much more likely to lead to a positive learning outcome if sufficient time is given to appropriately structured reflection, wherein students make their own discoveries. They dissect the experience, analyse it and learn specific lessons which are parts of the general lessons the teacher intends. In addition, such time allows teachers to identify students who have opened other agendas which need following through immediately in the course group or in private later. (This issue is discussed in more detail in the chapter on "tools" and with each type of experiential activity. See also Support Systems: student counsellors, students with deeper seated problems of change.) Debriefing usually involves two stages, firstly within the pairs, trios or small groups who carried out the activity and then within the whole course group. The former is done by careful verbal or written structuring given to students, possibly monitored by the teacher. The latter is done through the careful control and facilitation of the teacher who draws out the lessons learned and where necessary invites a student to go back to the raw data and then takes the student systematically through the experiential cycle. The accelerated version is to ask several (all?) students in turn what was most memorable in the experience and then ask them what lesson they have learned from it.

leading all activities/development of all skills

Each teacher-as-student can be charged with selecting an activity and taking a session in the course to get some real life practice. It would be expected that peers would either enter the activity on their own behalf or role play "normal" students. The latter would be uncommon initially, but would be a natural activity when testing members' designs and in the later "tricky situations". Such activities should be followed by an immediate opportunity for reflection by the trainee in the role of trainer either using an impromptu "stream of consciousness" style or using criteria which are developing during the course. Feedback should first be from peers as students, not as critics of the facilitation or structure of the activity (these 3 issues should be separated to promote clarity and taken in turn as 3 separate but linked experiential cycles vital if members role play students). As experience builds up, the nature of exercises can be reflected on, deriving and discussing criteria of quality in both design and execution. In cases of a serious flop, consideration should be given to retraining there and then or very soon afterwards, after some personal debriefing and coaching.

It would be expected that there would be significant transfer of training: each person would have an equal opportunity (once, twice or more depending on the length of the course) to facilitate an activity. In any case, it would be appropriate if all types of activity were covered in this way. Sometimes the lead trainer might model a particular type of activity and students would follow suit, perhaps in small groups. It should be expected that students would volunteer in every case. They should also be able to make requests to facilitate something at the edge of their competency, and use the practice session deliberately to explore some vital aspect of teacher skill. The lead trainer must always be ready to step in to model an activity as needed.

Expositions and discussions should not be neglected: short practice sessions in which each member in turn presents a few minutes of input, illustrated as they wish, to a small group. The group members may be instructed to ask any question which comes to mind: either at the level of difficulty expected from the student clientele or at a level designed to "rattle and shake" and thereby test the trainee. Again, the lead teacher might offer a model, by giving a short input and going through the whole exercise, modelling the review.

Occasionally, and perhaps in a Masters degree in interpersonal skills training, should one come about, it might be viable to arrange observed real life practice with each member's own students or another group. This is a very costly use of time and is therefore usually not made available for cost-effectiveness and cost-efficiency reasons. However, if members form a support group to follow up a training course, it would be very helpful if a buddy system applied, whereby pairs exchange observation and support visits, disclosed to students. Course structured with gaps to apply lessons learned can also adopt this practice to great effect.

tricky situations: trainer defined

All courses have their difficult scenarios. Many of these happen time and time again: challenges arising from expositions, difficult questions to answer; students getting angry, fearful or upset; students not doing exercises and review according to instructions; students not wishing to participate; running out of time and many more. Some will be particular to the selected model and not others. Other difficult scenarios may be common to many models and are particular to interpersonal training. We would expect that teachers trained to use a particular model, should be trained in handling such standard situations. They are all easily enacted using the student teacher group as resources to take the roles of students experiencing these difficulties. Specific roles are defined to ensure that a realistic and lifelike event takes place. Each student teacher in turn can play the role of teacher facing a difficult scenario. Some scenes may need only one enactment. Others may need to be enacted for many students so the right skill level can be surely attained by all.

All such enactments will be handled with degrees of success by those taking the role of teacher. In all cases, debriefing will be thorough, including feedback out of the roles taken. Where group members suggest alternative means to deal with the scenario, they may be invited to try the proposed strategy. Whoever suggests a competent method, trainer or course member, the trainees should always be given to opportunity to try again until they are successful. All such enactments offer a role reversal to the other members taking part. Debriefings will bring out a great deal of personal learning quite apart from helping a trainee facilitator handle a tricky situation. Empathy with students will be improved. Understanding why people have behaved as they did in other courses will come about. More and more situations ostensibly designed to help learn the skills of handling these situations, will provide different role reversals for everyone. Members may even select to play students who present a difficulty of their own concern, in order to gain insight.

Both the role reversals and witnessing a trainee facilitator in action will help members consider how they might handle such situations.

tricky situations: participants' fears

One of the most potent of all training opportunities is for the trainer to elicit and list the worst fears of members and then work through the list one by one, inexorably, over several sessions in the course. Members playing out their most feared scenario and redoing it with the help of peers and the trainer to a successful conclusion will gain enormously. The transfer of training to a wide range of other difficult scenarios may be very high. However, each course member is put to the test over volunteering. The excitement engendered by hearing your own feared scenario announced can make you want to run out without facing it! To rise to the occasion is a very good sign of readiness to offer a training. Morally and ethically, since we are putting our own students into situations where they risk embarrassment from exposing their fallibility to their peers, it behoves us to be prepared to do the same. (see also psychodramatic methods: student fears).

As in enacting standard scenarios, enacting student fears may well lead to a great deal of learning from the role reversals. It is not just acting something to help someone else. It potentially provides an active learning situation for everyone.

self assessment

Staff in Higher Education would normally make a self-assessment and determine for themselves the extent and depth of training they choose to offer. What is promoted here is a formal time during a course to conduct a self-assessment. This can lead into disclosure of the self-assessment to a course teacher, a peer selected by each member, a peer selected by a course teacher, a small group of peers or to the whole group. It may be written or presented from notes. This leads naturally into various forms of peer support and assessment. All these forms are appropriate to the members' interpersonal skills trainings and provide valuable experience to be reviewed, perhaps systematically.

skills acquired

The first element of self-assessment is to review the whole range of skills posited in the course and elsewhere, name them and organise them into a coherent set. The second is to reflect on the extent to which individuals have developed these skills and how much more they need to develop them. This leads naturally into an assessment of the extent and depth of course individuals believe they can do well.

set your own limits

There may be an option to carry out an introductory course only and leave a more advanced course to another colleague or to hire someone externally. Alternatively it may be eminently feasible to produce an individualised course design within the competencies of the participant. It should be expected of every teacher that they can accurately assess the limits they should keep within. This leads naturally into self-and-peer accreditation, below.

design your own

Finally, each member should be given an opportunity to apply all these ideas in a course design session, where individuals tailor a course to their own skills and to the needs of their own students. Creativity is of the essence and course leaders can expect pleasant surprises from members of different fields. Sharing these designs can be very illuminating and inspiring for peers, who can take away other ideas besides their own, the course tutor's and the standard designs on offer. Again this can lead naturally into self, peer and course leader accreditation.

peer assessment and accreditation

forms of peer assessment

Peer assessment can take many forms. A simple questioning session, following a disclosed self-assessment can allow peers to highlight areas of uncertainty and doubt. They can ask for further detail, evidence and justification. Peer assessment is here implicit. Simple feedback on criteria specified by the individual or worked out in the group can follow. A devil's advocate procedure can be used for those with the courage of their convictions! Each member is allowed and exhorted to amplify their slightest doubts arising out of the self-assessment. Course teachers should surely join in.


In the final analysis, teachers will go their own way and do their own thing. Here it is suggested that in the light of participants' experience of their peers, their facilitation of exercises etc., their self-assessments and course designs, they can validly comment on each person's self-accreditation. Each person in turn can be invited to share the extent and level to which they believe they can conduct interpersonal skills training. This might range from doing nothing (yet), offering only single self-contained sessions, working as an assistant or co-trainer or working solo. It can include conditions such as further training, working as an assistant until some identified skill is developed and so on. Peer feedback can be uncompromising, ranging from exhortation to go further, commendation on an accurate accreditation or feedback about areas of doubt and deficiency or even about their peer's recklessness (hopefully not!).

Course leader's views may carry the weight of a peer, have a higher weight by virtue of standing or carry greater weight in circumstances of certification or award of a degree. It is hoped that at this level, self and peer assessment and accreditation will be greatly respected for their value and validity. Nevertheless, working in a traditional system may require course leaders to endorse a certificate or degree award, whereby they carry a veto, irrespective of what members may think. Hopefully this anomaly can be resolved. Unilateral assessment systems arise out of one culture. Interpersonal skills training, by its nature, tailors its work to the needs of the individual where learning has a high personal and idiosyncratic component.


trainer/peer supervision

Again, depending on the nature of the accreditation, various options are available. Peer support and voluntary peer supervision is one obvious collegiate solution. "Buddies", that is, self-selected partners, can visit each other, observe each other in action, telephone each other for advice and support, meet each other to review their experinence in an unstructured way or in a structured way. If a course is ongoing and leads to an award, a course tutor may do the same.

peer support groups

During and after courses, informal groupings of course members can have great value in keeping enthusiasm alive, maintaining the model and recommended practices, supporting creativity and further development. Indeed, it would be expected that all the answers could not be provided in the initial training. Further research and development may well be necessary. Building a dossier of examples from the sphere of expertise into which students will graduate which are transformed into training activities is a vital area for individuals to address. In any case, a peer support group can be a vital arena for debriefing the often lonely work of the isolated trainer. Where a department delegates much of the work to one individual, they may be carrying more of the department's or even the institution's problems than they should. A support group can provide a life-line.

arena for activity trials

Peer support groups are one important way to try out some newly discovered or designed activity or to rehearse an exposition. A course study day is another, after a suitable interval.

follow-up days

Another useful means to offer support and keep the model alive is to include one or more follow up days in the course dates to which all contract beforehand. These can include critical incident analysis (problem-solving, re-enactment of difficult scenarios) new input (requested) and further on training. They should always start with members' reports on successes and their agenda for the time together.

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