The Structure of Interpersonal Skills Training

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beginnings: a template of training

overview of interpersonal skills training

It is generally valuable to give an outline of what interpersonal skills are for your professional group, how the course is going to proceed, the broad nature of the model or models of interpersonal skills you will use and the ways you intend to work with the students. Your aim is to develop or improve their skills to the professional standards that you want. Acknowledging the initial level of skill students bring is vital, particularly for experienced professionals in post-experience courses. It is vital that students agree that the level of skill you suggest be actively sought by them, for example, by outlining situations you will enable them to handle with greater ease or accomplishment. With total beginners, this may be relatively easy, since they appreciate that you bring a wealth of experience and insight about your profession and you have identified the skills necessary for quality professional practice. Then they are likely to accept your guidance implicitly from the beginning. More experienced practitioners may bring a degree of scepticism and will be very sensitive to any potential invalidation of their existing expertise. In which case, you may suggest that you value the skills they already have developed in their lifetimes, that they have developed these skills through a whole variety of methods, such as seeing others, reflecting on difficult scenarios on their own or with colleagues, reading or otherwise finding out about various approaches to managing meetings with their clients or by what is commonly called "experience" or more precisely, learning from experience. You will be offering them opportunities to reflect on what these skills actually are, using models you (and they may) provide. You will be offering what you hope will be extensions of these skills in depth and range of skills and approaches and opportunity to explore and test some of them practically and reflect without any pressure: as a result they will decide for themselves what they might modify or add to their existing repertoire of skills and approaches.

contracting the interpersonal skills training

You should find it beneficial to state what you will give to the students and what you want from them to make it happen. You can then discuss these and any difficulties the students may foresee in playing their part. This may be a time to allay fears and dispel ghosts generated by previous students' gossip or generalisations brought in from other settings. You can reinforce how you will support them to achieve their learning. Very often this will be down to them, agreeing to limit their behaviour to meet specific ground rules. What is down to you is your strategy of support, validation of their efforts and reactions, your encouragement, how you demonstrate your trustworthiness, how you follow through and complete any learning opened up. You may also offer to assist them deal with anything that arises, which might leave them with unfinished business, after the session. You will, of course, find your words to present this. Once all questions and issues have been dealt with, you can all agree to apply the agreed values and practices in support of every individual in the group. This contract can be revisited when the level of achievement of the group warrants it and the challenge level is about to be raised.

appropriate lightness in delivery

The above matters may have an apparent gravity the way it is presented here. However, it is vital that presentations are light and do not get to the point of becoming laboured, or else students might start to imagine something is not being said, something dreadful might happen. Such fantasies will undermine your efforts. All might be done innocuously after a simple start, and ground rules emerge when needed. The whole course can be done step by step, starting simply, then introducing the next level as if it is obvious and natural (which it is, if done well), re-contracting simply at each stage. For example, you might start by saying that "we are going to start with an experiment to discover what listening actually involves and then talk about what we find out about it". Then you might immediately ask them to form into 3's, then choose one pair to be active first (all 3 will have a chance to work twice). When this is done, you tell them to have a conversation (choose a topical subject, not necessarily relevant to your profession) keeping to the following rule designed to bring out something about listening. Before they reply to what their partner says, they must summarise the gist of what they are replying to. The third member makes sure they don't forget to do this as they get caught up in the conversation. Assuming they find this innocuous, they can start and you can see them through the activity, treating it all the time as an enquiry, valuing their experiences and insights. The value of doing it this way is that they get an immediate experience whilst they are ready and you do not build up much to react against. You present it as if it was the most natural thing in the world to reveal the nature and form of interpersonal events and skills. You can lead them through every stage in the same way, contracting lightly but clearly by your invitations to participate in the enquiry. In the example given, you are also showing them you can isolate one aspect of good interpersonal skills at a time and focus your enquiries on it.

exposition of a model of high quality interpersonal skills

Naturally you will explain the model of interpersonal skills you will be using which will point students to high quality interpersonal skills. This aspect is explained in more detail below under "Models for Student Learning". You will also invite students to reflect on how well the model seems to fit with their own experience, and share examples where it seems to fit and where it does not. You will fine tune these examples and account for examples which do not at first sight seem to fit your chosen model. But discussion must give way to experience.


positive modelling

Here you show good examples of the skill in action or some aspect of the skill. It could be a video or a live demonstration with a colleague or student. The video could be towards the camera, as if to each observer. It could also be to the whole group standing in for an individual.

negative modelling

Here you show the opposite of a good example, even a caricature to make the point. (One from police training, calling to bring the bad news: "Are you widow Smith?") This can be with a colleague or perhaps a student selected for their readiness to assist, whom you brief about the role to play or the lines to say and the character to portray. Your demonstration could even be to the whole group suggesting they imagine you are speaking to them as individuals. Students should be tasked to identify the specific ways in which the example would be inappropriate in everyday life. They might be tasked to share how they might react (think, feel and act) if the display was to them in real life.


simple recognition

Students will discuss the elements of the skills that you have brought out, with a view to discriminating between each one and every other one, such as the difference between open and closed questions. For elements which can be written down, they might be tasked to run down a list and categorise them into exemplars and non-exemplars, discriminate between skilled and unskilled examples.

practical work in discrimination

Here you give focus on one element at a time to help them discriminate between them. You will give students an exercise in which they practise the chosen element of the skill in some specific way (for questioning it might be by saying some given words to get the hang of them, or using a variety of words to explore the range of options). They may practice better ways to discriminate against poorer ways, or one aspect as against a different aspect (such as alternating between a closed question and an open question). This work covers sufficient of the different elements in turn as is necessary to establish an understanding of what each are and how they differ from each other. In other words, they establish experientially the language of your subject and can recognise these elements in their own and others' practice.

practising elements

You will select a small group of the chosen elements for particular scrutiny at any one time, perhaps only one. You will devise some situation for rehearsal of the chosen element(s), give guidance to the students about what they are to do, and means to discriminate between a better instance and a poorer instance of the element. For example: you might elicit and give examples of open and closed questions, form triads with the instruction to alternate open and closed questions, each being answered by their partner. You might task the third member to act as a monitor, to agree or disagree and assist the reformulation of a question where necessary. The task would be short enough so as to be completed in a reasonable time, yet long enough for several examples to be created in any one session. Obviously each student must play all roles. You would also instruct students to reflect on how closed or open their questions were, and how they experienced each example.

practising wholes

As training progresses, and once a set of elements of interpersonal skills is practised, all elements should be practised. For example, a whole set of catalytic interventions, or all the verbal and non-verbal skills, firstly in artificial situations, later in more real situations. Clearly the most challenging and real of all, would be where the skills were applied between two of the students present, perhaps to deal with some interpersonal difficulty.

practising standard situations

rehearsal for real life practice

The most logical and easily justifiable part of a classroom based interpersonal skills training is where the students play out standard situations arising in professional day-to-day practice and rehearse standard ways of dealing with them using the model and skill under study. One person takes on the attributes of the standard client and the other uses a given (or worked out) strategy to deal with the situation. Practice in pairs gives everyone the most practice in a given time. It also keeps the practice private to the pair to overcome embarrassments arising from making a hash of it. In professions where there is a many-person situation, as in say, social work or police work, simulations or real life situations may involve many students playing different roles. Each role, insofar as students can capture the essence of the experience of the characters being played, will provide information to assist understanding of the complexity of real-life and how best to manage such situations.

role reversal and empathy

All such enactments offer a role reversal to the members playing the client (or other counterpartal) role. Debriefings may bring out personal learning quite apart from helping their colleague develop the necessary skills of handling the situation. The act of imagination involved in playing these roles will have sufficient accuracy to build a picture of how people in these roles might experience the strategy explored and assist the person experimenting (and the group) to work out and test improved strategies. Empathy with clients will be improved as they uncover how people might experience such a scenario, how they feel, how they construe it and what they might need in the situation. 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 clients who present a difficulty of their own concern, in order to gain insight.

practice with real clients

Both the role reversals and witnessing their fellow students in action will help them develop their intelligence about such situations and consider how they might handle them. Occasionally, it may be considered efficient to bring in real clients into the training milieu. For example, expert patients have been used in medical training and already qualified staff have been used to train examiners.

practising difficult situations

teacher defined

By the time students have played out a range of standard situations, they will be ready for more difficult and challenging situations. Specific roles are defined to ensure that a realistic and lifelike event takes place. As above, all such enactments offer role reversals to those who play the client role. Debriefings may bring out further personal learning. Empathy with clients will be further improved. Understanding why people behave as they do in real life 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 clients who present a difficulty of their own concern, in order to gain insight.

student defined

Following the students' own agenda gives even more responsibility to students for their learning. Students may be invited to imagine a situation which they might make a hash of. In this case, the teacher will create a scenario, whether common or uncommon, based on the student's stated fear. A volunteer will be briefed as to the role to play, and whether to extemporise or act given lines and persona. In a whole group, additional opportunities arise, such as the student playing their own difficult client and different volunteers trying different approaches, reviewing each one in turn. In the end, the original student should attempt to deal with the scenario, having reflected on what they have learned using their own choice of approach. Students may also act in pairs or trios to the same end.

real life practice

There are two forms of real-life practice: the students' daily lives at home or in the student community and professional practice with real clients, whether under immediate supervision or in a controlled situation. Post-experience qualified professionals will of course have their normal professional freedoms. It is highly beneficial to precede episodes of professional practice with a preparatory reflection on what is most sensible to apply in real life (goal-setting and action-planning), with a view to conscious experimentation and follow up in the next meeting with reviews of the application.

reflection on real life practice

Courses with episodes of real life practice embedded within them (or vice versa) provide opportunities to work through reflections in pairs, small groups and the whole group. Successes and difficulties should emerge: celebrate successes and make up an agenda of identified difficulties to consider and explore. It is enormously helpful to organise specific times for such reflection and agenda setting around critical incidents or exemplars of good practice and to interweave such reflection throughout a course.

problem-solving difficult situations (critical incident analysis)

Two methods to solve the problems posed by difficult situations arise. Firstly a problem solving procedure may be used to talk through a problem. Secondly, any problem may be re-enacted as a vignette of real life, the problem-poser taking on the role of difficult client or of themselves, briefing their fellow students as to the parts they and others played, their characters and their lines. (This can arise out of the problem-solving discussion). They then ensure that the vignette is replayed until it accurately portrays the reality of the situation. The re-enactment is worked on in a variety of ways until the problem is resolved or further training needs identified, for the individual or even the whole group. Once any new training is completed, the problem is returned to and re-enacted until a solution is found.

here-and-now situations

No text yet. Deals with the general issue of interaction between group members, any of which might be highlighted, reflected upon and replayed using the current model.

self, peer and teacher assessment and accreditation


Self-assessment should form a basic ground for any interpersonal skills training. This can be developed from the course materials and elements under review and practice. It can be used from the beginning to confirm the need for the training, in the middle to assist selection of individual needs and focus on them in the latter parts of the course and at the end to assist the formation of goals and action plans for application in real life. It may be assisted by a list of items or even a developed rating scale.

peer assessment

Peer assessment (and feedback implying peer assessment) forms a counter to the potential for inflated or deflated self-assessments from peers who have experienced their colleagues in action inside and outside the classroom, witnessed them in real-life practice or partnered them in peer support, being party to their reflections and reviews.

teacher assessment

Teacher assessment will always form a major part of any assessment and especially accreditation, since it is their responsibility to confirm the development of their students. This will take on different forms, depending on how the course has been set up. It may be minimal or even private for experienced professionals or offered only as part of peer assessment, it will be at a maximum in undergraduate courses. As the expertise and maturity of the student group grows, the teacher can take on more of the role of a peer, though it will always be hard for a student to perceive the teacher as a peer.


Accreditation gives an outline of what the student is capable of and confirms that they have reached the desired standards. It may identify areas ripe for development or even identify situations and client scenarios to avoid until expertise has developed further. In some cases, the pass-fail result may be determined by attendance only.

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