Sensitivity Training

Sensitivity training is a method of laboratory training where an unstructured group of individuals exchange thoughts and feelings on a face-to-face basis. Sensitivity training helps give insight into how and why others feel the way they do on issues of mutual concern. Training in small groups in which people develop a sensitive awareness and understanding of themselves and of their relationships with others. Sensitivity training is based on research on human behavior that came out of efforts during World War II to ascertain whether or not an enemy’s core beliefs and behavior could be modified by the application of certain psychological techniques. These techniques have been gradually perfected over the years by efforts of business and industry leaders to persuade people to buy products, including the radio and television industry to ascertain how an audience might be habituated to certain types of programming.

Kurt Lewin is credited with being the ‘father’ of sensitivity training in the United States. Laboratory Training began in 1946 when Kurt Lewin and his staff at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were training community leaders. A workshop was developed for the leaders to learn about leadership and to discuss problems. At the end of each day, the researchers discussed privately what behaviors and group dynamics they had observed. The leaders asked permission to sit in on these feedback sessions. Reluctant at first, the researchers finally agreed. Thus the first T-group was formed in which people reacted to information about their own behavior. Tavistock Clinic, an outgrowth of the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology, founded in 1920 in London . initiated sensitivity training in the United Kingdom in 1932, under the headship of a psychiatrist John Rawlings Rees. Dr. Rees conducted tests on American and British soldiers to ascertain whether, under conditions of induced and controlled stress, groups could be made to behave erratically. In particular they wanted to know whether people would let go even firmly held beliefs under ‘peer pressure’ to conform to a predetermined set of ‘popular’ beliefs. This Tavistock method was similar to those procedures used in the mental hospitals’ to correct the attitudes of prisoners; where, it was called re-education. Sensitivity training evolved in the United States of America; at Stanford’s Research Institute’s Center for the Behavioral Sciences, at the Sloan School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the various National Training Laboratories (NTLs), where concepts popularly known as ‘T-Groups’ (therapy groups) and ‘sensitivity training’ were developed.

A controlled stress situation is created by a group leader (‘facilitator’) with the ostensible goal of achieving a consensus or agreement which has, in reality, been predetermined. By using peer pressure in gradually increasing increments, up to and including yelling at, cursing at, and isolating the holdouts, weaker individuals were intimidated into caving in. They emerge with a new value structure in place, and the goal is achieved. The method was refined and later popularized by other schools of behavioral science, such as Ensalen Institute, the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, and the Western Training Laboratories in Group Development.” Sensitivity training is a type of experience-based learning in which participants work together in a small group over an extended period of time learning through analysis of their own experiences. The primary setting is the T Group (T for training) in which a staff member sets up an ambiguous situation which allows participants to choose the roles they will play while observing and reacting to the behavior of other members and in turn having an impact on them. The perceptions and reactions are the data for learning. T-Group theory emphasizes each participant’s responsibility for his own learning, the staff person’s role of facilitating examination and understanding, provision for detailed examination required to draw valid generalizations, creation of authentic interpersonal relationships which facilitate honest and direct communication, and the development of new skills in working with people.

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