Friday Lesson: Increasing Involvement, Buy In, and Building Trust

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People learn from participating in challenges, struggling through problems and pushing their comfort zones, but in order to do that they need to have a sense of control, choice, and ownership over their experience. To engage in this kind of learning participants require basic trust in their group and group process. Empowering participants to feel like they own their learning experience and have control from the start of their group experience can encourage participation and “buy-in” by group members. Simple but intentional actions on the part of the facilitator can establish a positive, trusting environment in which participants feel empowered by participation rather than at the mercy of the facilitator.

Think about creating opportunities that build this sense of choice and control for participants from the very beginning of the program. In warm-up activities where someone is in the spotlight (or the middle), make sure there is a rule that allows a person who may be inhibited about being in this position an easy out or an option to participate at their own pace.

For example, when facilitating the well-known icebreaker “Have You Ever?” (Rohnke, 1991), I always create an option. Have You Ever? requires a participant to stand in the center of a circle of group members and ask a “have you ever” question about something they have done in order to establish commonalities with their fellow group members—for example, “Have you ever flown a kite?” At that point, everyone in the circle who has flown a kite has to leave their spot and find a new one, and the person from the center grabs one of those empty spots, leaving someone new in the center to ask a question. An option that gives participants more control would be to establish at the beginning of the game an easy buzzword that the person in the center can say if they can’t think of a “have you ever?” question. I often choose a buzzword such as a school mascot or something simple like “bananas”. My colleague, Michelle Cummings, has another variation that does not use a middle spot at all; instead she uses a different colored or shaped spot that is actually part of the perimeter of the Have You Ever? circle. This becomes the question spot. By making the question spot part of the circle, the fun and challenge are maintained while the tension of being the center of attention is reduced.

Creating situations that allow more introverted group members some kind of out or aid gives them an opportunity to participate fully and warm up to group process, trusting that you won’t put them in a situation that is embarrassing or puts them on the spot before they are ready. This technique used during a warm-up game can pay off later in the group process. By building trust in this way, group members build comfort within the group and are more willing to push their comfort zones later in the group process when it really matters. If some people are challenged too early in a program before any trust builders or warm-ups, a facilitator risks losing them!

Some strategies that I have found to help participants feel what John Dewey, one of the earliest proponents of the philosophy of experiential education, called “perceived internal freedom” include:

• Allowing participants to pass in a group discussion, especially at the start of group process.
• Thoughtfully sequencing activities and discussion methods to build comfort within the group incrementally.
• Taking time to get the group warmed up! Start with partner sharing before large group sharing.
• Not calling on people to share in a group, instead creating opportunities for participants to volunteer.

Challenge and Choice
The term “challenge by choice”* is copyrighted by Project Adventure, a leader in the development of challenge course programming. This concept is used to describe the idea that people should feel that they have control of their adventure experience (Schoel, Prouty, & Radcliffe, 1989; Rohnke & Butler, 1995). This idea, commonly used in the adventure education setting, can inform many different types of group work. I personally like to think of this concept as “challenge AND choice,” helping to emphasize the concept of personal choice and control. This concept helps groups recognize that each participant varies in past experiences, strengths, physical ability, and even emotional state the day of the activity. Variety in personalities, perspectives, and experience makes an interesting group. Experiential activities can be very powerful; any activity that has great power to create positive change also has the potential to impact someone in a negative way. An activity that might not be intimidating to one person could paralyze another with fear. The positive outcomes of these powerful activities can depend on thoughtful facilitation and the participant’s perceived control and choice in the situation. Facilitators give learners a sense of power through providing challenge AND choice.

Once in a while, I hear teachers and clinicians say, “But if I give them a choice they won’t participate.” In response, I go back to the core principles of experiential education and brain-based learning to emphasize the importance of learners’ having freedom and choice in their experiences. When John Dewey put forward his ideas about the philosophy of experiential education, he emphasized that participant control is central to learning. I can empathize with these concerned educators who so want their participants to experience the benefits of this kind of group work, but coercion does not work. Setting up parameters for participation does!

A client in a treatment program, a corporate employee, or a student in a classroom is in a somewhat captive or forced situation. They need to participate if they want to receive treatment, keep their job, or get credit for class. Acknowledging this “captive situation” is important. Follow this acknowledgement with realistic parameters for participation. The challenge by choice agreement creates an environment where group participants feel comfortable about setting realistic parameters about how they want to participate. It is not a choice not to participate, but rather a definition of how one participates in the group activities.

“Challenge and choice” helps participants understand and define their role in a group more clearly, actually helping them to commit more readily to participation. Group members can take on many different kinds of roles. In school settings, if I have students who are reluctant to participate at first, I arrange with teachers to allow them to sit on the sidelines and observe. This does not mean they can disrupt or converse with another student who is participating in the activity. Once they are given the freedom to observe for a while, 90% of the time they will find themselves wanting to join the group. However, if I had engaged in a power struggle with them to participate, I might have lost them completely.

If a group member chooses not to participate in a specific activity, that does not mean they must leave the group. They can have an important alternative role, such as encouraging their peers, helping run safety systems, photographing the experience, being a scorekeeper, or aiding the facilitator with equipment. Effective facilitators encourage participants to push their comfort zones and take advantage of opportunities offered. But they also allow participants to set goals and limits for themselves with support from the group, rather than being forced by the group to attempt something that could be a physically or emotionally negative experience.

What Builds Trust?

• “Getting to know you” or icebreaker activities are a key ingredient in trust building. When people form a bond and recognize commonalities, they will be more likely to appreciate differences and demonstrate empathy for each other.

• Give participants an opportunity to build trust in incremental ways. Often in adventure education programs participants are engaged in physical trust activities. People also learn and develop trust through group problem solving and communication activities. Create opportunities for participants to listen to each other’s ideas, be responsible for themselves and each other, show trustworthy behaviors, and demonstrate their investment in the group’s success.

• Create situations where it is safe and appropriate for people to ask for and receive help from each other.

• Have group members define trust and trustworthy behaviors and discuss how they perceive and demonstrate those behaviors in particular group situations.

• Teach healthy genuine trust, not contrived coercive behavior. Pushing people into trust situations (such as trust falls from a height) too early in a program or inappropriately with a group can undermine the educational experience.

• Create an environment where group members feel responsible for each other and are willing to speak up when there is a breakdown in communication or an issue that affects the safety or potential experience of the group. It is ideal when the group takes that responsibility rather than the facilitator.

Involving Reluctant Group Members

• Develop an intrinsic motivation for group members to buy into. Some people will jump at the opportunity to help set up equipment or be involved in some other supportive role such as group photographer.

• Focus on positive participation. Give those who are opting out the opportunity to participate passively if they need to for a while (that does not mean distracting the group). Once you draw a critical mass into the group activities, more will follow.

• A successful facilitator has flexible expectations. Remember that sometimes it is appropriate to acknowledge the need for taking “baby steps.” Group work is a process, not an event. It is a practice. Learning to play and be part of a group often takes practice for people of all ages. In working with kids, I have discovered that some kids actually never learned how to play, and that many students and adults are not used to working in groups at all.

• Recognize that people learn and are more comfortable interacting in different ways. There are many learning style models and theories that espouse that each of us has a preferred method of learning and interacting with others. Some of us learn better when we can visually see material, others when we are kinesthetically involved in learning. Regardless of the theory you might espouse, it is helpful to differentiate the way you present material and engage group members. Activities that emphasize different skill sets will reach more group members.

• Keep it interesting: Props, humor, and relating activities to popular culture are successful strategies for increasing involvement.

• Use peers as role models and leaders where appropriate.

Many times participants who were initially hesitant, resistant, or “too cool for school” eventually become the star of the show. Over and over, I see students or staff members who did not engage in class or perform well in previous group situations excel in experientially-based group work. This is especially evident when they feel empowered by having choices about their participation and are motivated by intriguing challenges. In the past, I have allowed students to sit out of the activity as long as they were passively involved by watching—not by chatting with a peer. We found that giving them this control and choice empowered them to eventually join in despite themselves! It seemed that it was harder to sit and watch peers enjoy an engaging activity than to join in.

Some of these students were attracted by the offer of helping me with equipment, or by the possibility of being “judge” during a game. Some of the students who were initially the most reluctant and resistant are now the students volunteering to facilitate in extracurricular programs with younger students. I couldn’t count the times I have heard teachers/group leaders say something like, “I can’t believe how well he participated on the challenge course today; he is never like that in class” or “She never talks in class; I couldn’t believe she actually led that activity!” The lasting lesson for facilitators is to find ways to help participants and group leaders transfer these successes back to day-to-day participation in school, work, or other life activities.

Join in for upcoming segments focused on creating the lasting lessons and connections through reflective practice.

This lesson is compliments of Jennifer Stanchfield, author of “Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation“.

To find more information and to contact the author, please visit:

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