Grappling with Groups

Posted by on Nov 30, 2018 in Blog, Featured | 4 comments

Grappling with Groups

Back in the 1970s, I was trained to run sensitivity- training sessions when I was in graduate school at UCLA. I wanted to better understand what my father did for a living. Our family spent every summer up in Bethel, Maine where the National Training Laboratories, or NTL, took over a prep school and led T-groups, or sensitivity- training groups, from the 1950s through the 1970s.

It was an intensive learning experience for me. I remember long 4-hour sessions facilitating a group of 8 to 10 UCLA undergraduates. I was also observing another group behind one-way mirrors. There was no agenda for these sessions—no explicit structure or goal. If no one chose to talk, it was quiet. Some people got angry and frustrated. Others tried their best to create structure. And some just withdrew. The emphasis was on sharing emotions. In this way, the participants could learn how their words or actions triggered emotional responses in other people. I remember Carl Rogers, the famous psychologist, describing the T-group as the most significant social invention of the century.

Years later, when I was teaching Masters students at Antioch University in Los Angeles with my friend and colleague, Ken Goldstein, I had an opportunity to bring my father into a class. He was visiting Farn and me so I invited him to join us one evening for class. Ken and I were teaching an Organization Development class and we thought that Dad could talk about the origins of the profession in the 1950s.

Dad was reluctant to give a speech so I told him to just relax and respond to questions from the students. We got into a nice discussion about his work leading T-groups when all of a sudden, a student asked, “I still don’t understand. What is a T-group?”  Dad sat there quietly and didn’t say a word. It was totally quiet for almost 10 minutes. I’m not exaggerating—it was painfully long. Students were squirming, looking at him and each other, yet too uncomfortable or polite to ask him why he was so quiet. One student just got up and went to the bathroom. So, the silence just sat there. Finally, Dad looked out at the group, smiled, and said, “That’s a T-group.” And with that, he began to explain how a T-group works.

Happy Holidays, everyone!!!


  1. I love it John! I can feel the uncomfortable, squirming silence. Glad you’re back writing your blog.

  2. I was in some T-groups at KU and the experience was novel. I wonder if they are still done today.

  3. great story…have not heard that one…must have been great to watch

  4. You have recognized the power of silence in this case…one of the most powerful way to engage a group.
    Want to keep people talking about a sensitive challenge? Then saying nothing but do having eye contact, the flip of the hand motioning someone to engage usually works to expand the conversation.

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