T-group as Cutting Edge Post#4: T-group Innovations: Our “Tough Stuff” Model

Our “Tough Stuff” trademarked name is true to the essence of the original laboratory training, but adapted to highlight workplace relevance. Our unique T-group innovations are interwoven throughout each Tough Stuff event. Each location we help transform has Tough Stuff as a major component of their strategy. The initial event is five days with at least 10 separate T-group sessions during the course of the week. At the end of each “Tough Stuff” we have the participants rate it on an anonymous ten point scale, ten being high. They consistently rate it an 8-10 on its “applicability to work.”

These are some of its unique cutting edge features:

1. Whenever possible, we prefer intact work groups. At the plant visited by Obama, the group makeup included (union) hourlies, their supervisor, their union shop steward, and key people with whom they interfaced (i.e., a technician. engineer, quality, etc.).

2. Each group had a meeting sharpening roles and specific measurable goals prior to the weeklong session.

3. Each group had a follow-through session 2-3 weeks later which included more time in T-group, or as we call it, Skill Group (“Basic Skills Training Group” was the early 1947 name before being shortened to “T-group”). The follow-through sessions also include added conflict-management training.

4. Our unique innovation (credit for this goes to former colleagues John Scherer and Ron Short) is the inside-outside structure.

a) The first form Skill Group takes is that of a “fish bowl” Here, five to eight people sit facing each other inside a group of five to eight observers. Each member of Group A is paired with a member of Group B, who observes and gives feedback to their “A” learning partner between sessions. The Trainers sit on the outside with the observers, but are free to make interventions from that position or briefly join the inner circle to make a comment.

b) The typical beginning sequence of sessions is:

i. Group A is in session for ten minutes;
ii. Group A’s learning partners give them feedback for five minutes;
iii. Group A again is in session for ten minutes
iv. Group A’s learning partners give them feedback for five minutes.
v. Group B is in session for ten minutes;
vi. Group B’s learning partners give them feedback for five minutes;
vii. Group B returns for ten minutes;
viii. Group B’s learning partners give them feedback for five minutes.

5. This rotation continues for the length of the training. The time in session may be altered by the trainer who may structure occasional sessions of the entire group. This enables members to have direct access to each other, including the trainer.

6. The skill groups are interspersed with theory sessions of one to one-and-a-half hours in length where skills and concepts about self-awareness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, group process, and systems theory are presented. The total amount of time spent in Skill Group varies from 12 to 15 hours during the first week which is comparable to the early T-groups.

7. The outside group is equally as important as the inside group. Their task lies at the very core of this work. They are to take extensive notes, observing one person whom they are facing. On the left-hand column, they are to describe behaviors (what did the person you are observing do or say). On the right side they are to hunch feelings (mad, sad, glad, and afraid). The skills taught to the participants in the outside group are critical. They are the very same needed by managers to effectively coach their employees to higher levels of performance or by employees when they bring issues to their boss in a way that is devoid of blaming and focused on specific concerns.

8. We have a strict definition of what openness means. At first, almost all attendees interpret ‘openness’ as gut-spilling or as telling secrets about oneself that are otherwise held private. The inability for novice trainers to distinguish between personal confession and openness has been a major factor leading to the demise of Encounter and T-groups. Openness is the sharing of my feelings, wants, and thoughts NOW, not personal secrets or confessions. It is accurate data flow. It is a trust-building way of being. It is NOT always appropriate in life and work, but the T-group is an ideal arena in which to “try on” this basically new behavior for all attendees. Participants need to be more emotionally aware so that, with awareness, they can choose wisely. It’s not “Do what you feel,” but “Feel what you feel and choose what you do”. At the beginning of the very first Skill Group session, the trainer must BE ON HIGH ALERT to nip confessions in the bud! Personal confession is appropriate in therapy. It is NOT openness.

9. However, personal confession can be touched lightly when guided by a skilled trainer. Influenced by Virginia Satir’s visits in the 70’s, faculty Ron Short’s sabbatical with Salvador Minuchin in the late 70’s, Edwin Friedman’s frequent visits a decade later, and the addition to our faculty of Donald Williamson in the 90’s, family of origin (FOO) work became deeply integrated into our T-(skill) groups. The art here is to help participants, in intense interpersonal moments, dip quickly into their FOO history without going into therapy and therefore leaving the here and now conflict. “You seem more intense now than I expected given what’s happening between you and Mary”, the trainer might say. “Does someone else come to mind?” If yes is the response, the trainer then attempts to help the focus return to the immediate conflict with emotionality related to this event and separated from the historic family unfinished business. We have (in extended programs) a counselor on staff who is available for further consultation about this incident. In the Skill Group we use a brief dip into FOO to enlighten the here and now moment. This evolved FOO integration connects, historically, with Kenneth Benne’s observation that, “…the here-and-now includes a time dimension of the past and the future.” (Bradford, Gibb, Benne, 1964)

Many participants begin by thinking that they are “straight shooters.” They interpret ‘openness’ to mean direct talk that is loaded with judgments about the other. This, too, demands a quick intervention by the trainer so that norms in the group do not get tilted toward destructive confrontation. In the “stranger” groups, this is not as devastating. In an intact group, however, “secret-telling” and “accusative” language both create chaos that can be long lasting. Immediate interventions can quickly turn the quality of the conversation into one where such distorted notions of “openness” become positive moments of emotion and behavior description.

As Hamlet succinctly put it, “Aye, there’s the rub!” Too few adults know how to describe behavior. Children grow up being socialized to judge and call other kids by pejorative names when provoked. They point fingers, blame, and see causal factors as being outside of their control. This is sometimes accurate in the sense of the wider society, but I’m writing here about daily interactions with others. Most carry their childhood socialization into adulthood. Emotional awareness has been reduced from the full range that a baby possesses (mad, glad, sad, afraid) to a range that the child’s upbringing has influenced. Also, the ability to pull back from an accusation/judgment so as to describe accurately what one has seen or heard is a skill woefully lacking and rarely taught. Judgments are in our own head and behavioral description is what is outside of us. That’s why the skill of ‘behavior description’ is so essential if one is going to live a sane, differentiated life in a sane, differentiated company.

Further, behavior description affects the Anterior Cingulated (AC) area of the brain which is located between the Prefrontal Cortex and the Limbic area. (O’Conner, 2006) Especially, my capacity to separate my personal judgments from a behavior description of what I sense (see, hear, touch, smell) is a critical element balancing these two parts of the brain. As noted above, children believe that their judgments are facts. Adults remain stuck there unless they learn how to describe behavior, describe and own emotions, paraphrase, and do perception check as also significantly emphasized by Wallen. Without these skills, EQ is shallow. The T-group, competently led, nails these!

Greg Crosby, a fellow in the Group Psychotherapy Association and a Faculty in Interpersonal Neural Biology says “Limbic area functions are: emotional regulation of positive and negative emotions (which includes the Fight/Flight/Freeze response), attachment and memory. The AC is called the “gear shifter” since it can get rigid and argumentative when stressed. AC also has the capability of being flexible and sorting through difficult problems and distressing communication. This takes poise, patience and allows for a refreshing pause inside the brain to make sense out of the communication moment. Communication skills such as paraphrase, perception check, and behavior description are so helpful to brain function because they allow one to slow down the response time before reacting, thus avoiding a reactive response.”

Dr. John Wallen, author of the “Interpersonal Gap,” (Crosby, G., 2008) claimed that “behavior description” is the most difficult skill to learn. We agree. It is also absolutely critical if one is to give clean feedback unencumbered by the giver’s judgments/projections/opinions!

It is, therefore, an essential skill for managers.

Next post: Implications for OD Practice

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
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