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Sensitivity Training

Updated on October 4, 2009

Sensitivity training is the generic name for a wide variety of group interaction experiences offered to the public at large and to particular occupational groups. The term is synonymous with "T-groups", T standing for training. Encounter groups are derived from T-groups, but the former tend to emphasize more physical interaction. Most often under the aegis of organizations, T-groups are usually geared to common occupational or industrial problems, with the intent of having participants function more effectively in their jobs or roles.

Basic groups, usually 8 to 15 participants and one leader, may assemble regularly for periods ranging from a few hours a week to a weekend (marathon) of full-time interaction, to several weeks of daily group interaction. Groups generally aim to develop understanding of group dynamics, plus individual learning such as increased sensitivity to and recognition of other people's feelings; greater readiness to be direct and open about one's own feelings and perceptions of others ("owning one's own emotions"); and the capacity to give and receive perceptions of one's personal style of talking and interacting with others ("feedback").


The sensitivity training movement evolved from the work of social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Ronald Lippitt in 1946. To determine how applications of group dynamics could help workers implement the Connecticut fair employment practices act, observers studied the interactions of members of small groups, later pooling their observations. Excited by hearing their behavior described by the scientists, the persons observed began to participate in sharing their observations. Thus die process of interpersonal feedback began.

The emotional impact promised such great possibilities for individual growth and enhanced capacity to cope with human interaction that the staff founded the National Training Laboratories (NTL). The predominant organization in sensitivity training, NTL largely focused on T-groups in business, education, and social agencies.

While by no means uniform, NTL leaders, mostly educators and academic psychologists, generally refuse to give direction to group members, forcing participants to develop their own agenda. The way participants interact with one another becomes the subject of study, and discussion is mainly about the way people talk and the emotional factors that emerge when they do.


While the groups regularly evoke strong emotional reactions, these outpourings are not synonymous with emotional growth or change. For the most part, participants are positive even laudatory, about their experiences immediately after the group terminates. Their estimation of the value derived drops off markedly with time, and while they may have experienced subjective change, others around them usually fail to see it. Such changes that have been scientifically demonstrated seem to be in die learning of a new vocabulary to describe human interaction, a vocabulary characteristic of the movement. Much professional criticism has been voiced over the significant number of "emotional casualties" that can result from the process.


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