In a five-day lab experience conducted by the Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Sciences [ISABS), participants are fast-forwarded through a compressed section of life to learn to recognize, respond to and articulate feelings.
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land … …Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow… …Summer surprised us…
Thus opens T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and it best sums up my five days at the ISABS Basic Human Process Laboratory (BHPL). They were the cruelest I've experienced, yet how immensely rewarding.
A few years ago, I began detecting jargon like 'a journey', 'data', 'here and now', 'basic and advanced labs', 'process work' frequently cropping up in the lexicon of friends and colleagues associated with ISABS or one of its break-away factions. It intrigued me. Neither did it escape my notice that those attending the program returned Monday mornings, buoyant, confident in their expression of feelings, eager to share and recommend. Invariably it would fade away. I wondered if it was worth trying out for a transient 'high'.
After dithering, postponing, rationalizing for two years, I decided to check out the program, curious to see if my perceptions were right.
ISABS or Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Sciences is a non-profit society formed in 1971 with the objective of providing impetus to laboratory education in India. Laboratory education, based on models developed by National Training Laboratories (NTL) in the U.S., was pioneered in India by Udai Pareek. He conducted the first lab in 1962. The burgeoning need for a professional association finally culminated in the formation of ISABS.
Today, ISABS is a professionally managed society, headquartered at Delhi and operating from nine regional centers. A regional controller coordinates activities for each center. Its main activities include training, research in the areas of human behaviour and conducting long-term professional development courses. The society also offers consultancy services to support HRD/OD efforts in organizations.
The concept of laboratory training stems from the belief that a classroom climate can be used to stimulate learning, understanding, insight and skills within the self, group and organisation.
NTL lists the following as the five broad objectives of training: o Self-insight o Better understanding of other persons and awareness of one's impact on them o Better understanding of group processes and increased skill in achieving group effectiveness o Increased recognition of the characteristics of larger social systems o Greater awareness of the dynamics of change
The BLHP I attended was to be five straight days of laboratory training. Eight labs would run simultaneously for the next five days. Being a residential program, the participants were advised to check in an evening in advance.
The first evening in the dining hall brought to mind my first day in college: women seemed to outnumber men. Later, I learned that the ratio was equal. A few seemed acquainted from a previous program, or they could have been colleagues from the same organisation. They shared a table, chatting animatedly, excited and confident. Then there were others either sitting alone or making the first awkward attempts at introducing themselves to each other. There was a knot of people at the reception trying to sort out their baggage, their rooms and their room partners.
Day one began with icebreakers, a brief about the logistics and finally the announcement of the groups. These groups of eight would stick around together for the days to come, discussing, sharing, arguing and bonding in and outside the training room.
The start of the training was interesting. We trooped into the training room- eight strangers. The seating was informal- mattresses around the room and plenty of cushions strewn around. The two facilitators walked in, found a place and made themselves comfortable. There was the usual settling in process- 'the fan is too fast', 'pass me the cushion'… then silence began descending. We looked expectantly at the facilitators, waiting for the welcome speech or an introduction, or some signal that the training had begun. Nothing issued forth. It dawned upon me then: This was what it was-the Human Process Lab! Thus began the first in the series of intermittent silences that was to punctuate the next five days of the program. The subsequent silences, though, were not as uncomfortable as the one on the first day.
At the close of day one, I was left a little unsure. Were all my 'I feel…' statements really an expression of feelings; or were they thoughts masquerading as feelings? Some of the cockiness had gone; so had some of the skepticism. How was the group feeling? I sensed sullenness. The facilitators had not come to the group's rescue in uncomfortable moments. Rather, they had been almost provocative at times. The group had huddled together on the common platform of 'us against the facilitators'.
Two themes were woven through the five days: 'Here and Now' and 'Thinking and Feeling'. If one had to look for a method in this seemingly unstructured experience, it would have to be these two recurrent themes. Among other things, the facilitation in this program was also about nudging the group to remain within the domain of 'Here and Now'.
'Here and Now' was about experiencing and responding to what was happening in the room at that moment, as opposed to generalizing and philosophizing about experiences from the past. This was important because events that had occurred outside the group ('There and Then') may be known only to one or two group members and consequently could not be react to and discussed meaningfully by other participants.
'Thinking and Feeling' was about being able to distinguish between the two. It was somewhat reassuring for me to note that I was not the only one struggling to cut though the swathe of thoughts and get down to feelings. The training emphasized being able to recognize, respond to and articulate feelings.
Day two opened on a more cheerful note. The co-facilitator looked nice and fresh and not as intimidating. But there was more tentativeness in the group. Recognizing your feelings was one thing; articulating it, more difficult. Sometimes the ghost of the past sat in the middle, immobilizing the group.
Day three was eventful. Emotions flowed more freely. A comfort level had been negotiated. The responses were sharp and swift, 'Here and Now'. An insincere remark would be taken up and ripped apart. Effective group participation was made possible only by sharing feelings, responding and providing feedback. Intellectualizing was out. Not everyone was participating in the same measure. That also brought us to the question, would everyone gain equally from the program?
I'd say, no.
A central notion in group-learning relates to individual choice concerning change. There are various models that focus on the complex processes of individual learning. Kurt Lewin's seems relevant in the context of lab learning. Lewin suggests a three-stage learning process:
Unfreezing: Tension and need for change are experienced by the person. Change: Changes are proposed by the person or by group members. The person tests the proposed changes, especially those implying new behaviors and attitudes.
Refreezing: Those new behaviours and attitudes that prove to be more productive are reinforced and internalized.
The participants in my group had come for different reasons: some had been nominated by their company's HR department, others had come out of curiosity about the program and then there were some who joined out of curiosity about themselves as individuals. Their need for change varied; so did their need to participate in the group processes. This would be directly relevant to how much each one took away from the program.
Interestingly, there was strong bonding within the groups outside the program. I observed this was true for each of the eight lab groups. So you dined together, planned out the evenings together. There was comfort to be sought in the group, especially when one was feeling a little raw within.
Day four and day five addressed risk-taking and experimentation with new behaviour. I made a certain remark. Someone asked me what I meant. It took me about 20 minutes of trying to explain before I admitted that I felt jealous of the relationship between some of the members in the group. The moment I expressed my feelings directly I felt lighter. More importantly, I found the group suddenly looking relieved. Another little insight: the group had already figured out what I was trying to cover up. They were all waiting for me to come out with it!
Another first for me was the demonstration of affection by hugging spontaneously. It was interesting for me to see how effortlessly and naturally people hugged. I tried it out. Some of the inhibition dissolved.
The final goodbyes at the close of the program were very emotional. To go from being strangers to what we had become on the final day was a lot of ground covered in a very short time. It was like a fast-forward of life: a lot of intensity and emotions compressed in a short slice of life. I guess this is what a lab endeavors to simulate.
I wondered about the facilitators. Facilitating a lab requires much more than facilitating a skills-training program. The difference in my opinion is that in skills-training the trainer works on his agenda; a facilitator of a lab works on the participants' agenda. There is no intervening and refereeing in case there is a conflict situation. Facilitation here is about a provocative remark that triggers an emotion, probing questions to help explore behaviour or a motive, sometimes confrontation, often encouragement, some insights. Although seemingly unstructured and free-flowing, this was one of the most structured and controlled program designs I have come across. And therein lies the challenge of facilitation. No wonder, to qualify as a facilitator is such a rigorous process.
How did the others feel about this experience?
For most of the participants it was an experience in self-discovery. 'It was like seeing myself in eight different mirrors,' says Ajay, my colleague from Schindler, who participated in a different group. Another participant, who had been through several labs and was now an observer, described her association with ISABS as a 'journey'. She is training to be a facilitator. Yet she discovers something new about herself and about others at each lab.
My residual feelings immediately after the program: cathartic. Also an eagerness to go back and try out. I suspect it has been the same for all the others although perhaps with varying intensity. This may be one reason for the 'high' after the program. Another feeling is one of empowerment: the choice to change or not change, to experiment, is always with me. This makes transition to real life easier.
Would I recommend this program one month down the line? Yes, very strongly. But only if one looks at it as an investment in oneself- not in gaining skill or competence but in knowing oneself better. One of my former colleagues Tak, had once told me that anyone who went for a program like this should sponsor themselves as opposed to getting nominated by a company. Today, I am convinced of the merit in his statement.
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