Working with T- groups

What are T-groups?  

The T-group is a group which sets out to study itself and its process as it happens.  The "T" stands for "training", and the groups are involved in training in human relations skills, whereby individuals are taught to observe the nature of their interactions with others and of the group process.

This, it is felt, enables participants better to understand their own way of functioning in a group and "the impact they have on others, which would enable them to become more competent in dealing with difficult interpersonal situations."

The T-group, in its origins, developed out of the ideas of Kurt Lewin, but became a practical force only after his death in 1947, when it grew out of conferences on small-group dynamics held at the National Training Laboratories Institute in Bethel, Maine.  The goal was to offer people options for their behaviour in groups and it proved a great training innovation upon which much of what we now know about team building has been based

The new method that was developed helped leaders and managers create a more humanistic, people-serving system, and permitted them to see how their behaviour affected others.  It developed a deep concern for people and a desire to create systems that took people's needs and feelings seriously.

The way in which the T-Group evolved between Lewin's input in 1946 and his death in 1947 bears repetition as an interesting example of serendipity.  Ronald Lippett, who had collaborated with Lewin, described a training experience in 1946 as follows: "Some time during the evening an observer made some remarks about the behaviour of one of the three persons who was sitting in - a woman trainee.  She broke in to disagree with the observation and described it from her point of view.  For a while there was an active dialogue between the researcher, the research observer, the trainer and the trainee about the interpretation of the event, with Kurt an active prober, obviously enjoying this different source of data that had to be coped with an integrated.

" At the end of the evening, the trainee asked if they could come back for the next meeting at which their behaviour would be evaluated.  Kurt felt this was a valuable contribution rather than an intrusion, and enthusiastically agreed to their return.  The next night at least half of the 50 or 60 participants were there as a result of the grapevine reporting of the activity by the three delegates."The evening sessions from then on became the significant learning experience of the day, with the focus on actual behavioural events, and with active dialogue about differences of interpretation and observation by those who had participated in them."

How do T-groups work?

The T-group is primarily process rather than content oriented.  Focus will be on feelings and the communication of feelings rather than the communication of information, opinions, or concepts.  This is accomplished by focusing on present time and specific behaviour of participants with non-evaluative feedback and comment on the impact of behaviour on others.  Each participant has the opportunity to become a more authentic self in relation to others through self-disclosure and feedback.  The Johari Window is a model that looks at that process.

The training is marked by a lack of structure and limited involvement of the trainers; this provides space for the participants to decide what they want to talk about.  The beginning of a T-group session usually has a certain predictability as participants search for structure, safety and direction.  By failing to provide responses to these needs, the T-group ultimately begins to notice what is lurking beneath the surface of their interaction.  This is habitually the case in any group, the difference in the T-group being that the participants begin to experience anxiety about authority and power, about being included and accepted in the group, and about intimacy.

As individual participants begin to experience some degree of trust in themselves, in the group, and in the trainer, several developments typically take place:

(a) Participants may find that their feelings and judgements about the behaviour of others is not generally shared; that what they found supportive or threatening was not experienced by others.

(b) A participant experiencing this may now begin to try a new behaviour, such as being quiet and still where previously  a need was felt to fill silence with sound.

(c) Participants begin to ask for feedback from the group and how their behaviour is impacting on others.

(d) Participants may experience a much lower level of anxiety than they had anticipated; they may exhibit a more secure form of behaviour, in effect contributing leadership and helping the group to develop.

The role of the trainers

(a) To help the group and individuals analyse and learn from what is happening.

(b) To offer theory, a model, or research that may be related to what the group is experiencing.

(c) To encourage group behaviour that serves the learning process, such as focusing on the here-and-now rather than the then-and-there.

(d) To offer feedback on skills, but to withhold feedback on structure or agenda, remaining silent while the group experiences its anxiety about acceptance, influence, etc.

(e) To be completely open with the group; to be willing to reveal themselves; to be prepared to challenge a participant.

(f) To avoid become too directive, clinical, or personally involved with any participant.

The benefits of T-group learning

The T-group is intended to provide an opportunity for:

(a) Understanding group development and dynamics.

(b) Understanding the underlying social processes at work within a group.

(c) Gaining skills in facilitating group effectiveness.

(d) Increasing interpersonal skills.

(e) Experimenting with behavioural change.

(f) Increasing awareness of and taking responsibility for one's personal feelings.

(g) Increasing sensitivity to the feelings of others.

(h) Increasing ability to give and receive feedback.

(i) Learning from one's own and the group's experience.

(j) Improving one's ability to manage and utilise conflict.