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RESEARCH PROCEDURE, DESIGN & METHODS

 

 

 

Participant Selection

 

 

 

Researchers who have facilitated procedures similar to the one in this project have found that, ”…relative strangers found it a very difficult exercise, and sought refuge in generalizations. This undermined the benefits of the process” (Dick & Dalmau, 1990, p.61). Thus, relatively intact teams of participants were the preferred candidates for this procedure. Examples of such teams included: members of an active sports team, a group of nurses currently working in the same ward of a hospital, or a small cohort of Darden students who regularly cooperate on MBA projects. I preferred participants who had a professional connection with each other rather than a primarily social one as is the case with fraternities, sororities, and many other student groups. Potential participants were recruited from my own contacts as a facilitator of experiential learning and training programs at UVA and elsewhere. For simplicity, participant selection in this project relied on the concept of “convenience sampling” (Patton, 1990, p.169) attempting to enlist groups of research participants with the potential for providing rich data. Contacts with whom I have or have had personal or close professional relationships were disqualified as candidates. I asked each candidate the questions on the “Criteria for Research Participant Selection” and accepted into the project only those who answered every question as indicated. (See Appendix A). The procedure including data collection, took place over four sessions during the Summer and early Fall of 2001.

 

 

Research Procedure

 

 

 

Step One: Pre-Interviews With Each Research Participant

In private one-on one interviews with me, each participant completed two things. First, they answered the following questions so readers of this research may know something about each participant’s background. “How old are you? What is your current profession? How long have you been in this profession? Briefly, how did you come to be in this profession? How did you decide to participate in this research project?” Second, each participant responded to the following series of prompts:

 

Would you tell me about a few of the meaningful challenges you’re currently facing in professional life. Try to stick to more concrete experiences rather than abstract issues. Of those challenges, which one is the most meaningful to you? I’m going to give you four sentence fragments, one at a time, and I’d like you to complete each of them based on the meaningful challenge you just mentioned. The story begins as I…the real challenge I faced in this story was…what I actually did in response to this challenge was…the story comes to a close as I…

 

 

  Each participant spent about 30 minutes in this step. Interviews were held at any mutually agreeable place where we were able to have an uninterrupted conversation. These interviews were recorded. This step existed only as a data collection device, and was not designed to have any effect on the intuitive thinking that was manifested via the core steps of the procedure, Steps Two and Three.

 

Step Two: Three Group Experiences

In this step, all participants met with the researcher as a single group. All four participants arrived on time and in good spirits. The event took place in the large, private meeting room at Hereford College. I kept the atmosphere informal. I had five chairs arranged in a circle. When we sat down, I thanked everyone for coming and admitted that scheduling this event was more of a challenge than I thought it would be, and that this was my first learning point of the day. This simple openness seemed to further relax the atmosphere and started to generate in me a feeling of genuine connection with them. I explained briefly the flow of the day and then invited them to introduce themselves with their name, what was on their minds right now, and something about themselves that no one in the group knows. This was a little difficult for Molly and Karen who have known each other since college, but they had fun with it. I did the first introduction, and tried to model the scope and depth I wanted them to achieve. They followed my example and told some genuinely interesting stories about themselves. I sensed that people were becoming more comfortable with each other after this, so I suggested an icebreaker to move us from just talking to actually doing something interactively. We did “Yes” which is a standard icebreaker used in theater classes and actor training. In “Yes” participants stand in a circle and coordinate switching places through a simple exchange of eye contact which indicates a person’s request to move and a verbal response of “yes” which indicates permission from another person to switch places. Although simple in description, the actual practice of coordinating multiple, linked, rapid exchanges is subtle and requires significant interpersonal coordination to accomplish smoothly. The group seemed to enjoy the six minutes or so we played “Yes.” I sensed that all participants were ready to move onto the initiatives. I confirmed this by asking the question below.

 

So far we’ve done some relationship-building activities, also called, ice-breakers or warm-ups, that can help get us ready for participating fully in the problem-solving initiatives which are still coming up. Right now, we have a choice to make. Speaking only for yourself, would you prefer to do a little more relationship-building, or would you prefer to move into the problem-solving initiatives? Please gesture like this if you’d prefer more relationship-building, and like this if you’d prefer the problem-solving initiatives. What do you prefer?

 

 

            Had more than 2 participants preferred to continue the relationship building phase, I would have repeated the relationship building activities asking the above question again until everyone felt comfortable moving onto the problem-solving activities.

At this point in the procedure, participants worked through three commonly used experiential learning initiatives drawn from, and facilitated in accordance with, published standards. I decided in advance to use Minefield and Maze as the first two initiatives. For the third and final initiative, I invited participants to discuss and chose as a group which of the remaining initiatives, Snaketie or The Long Minute, they would most like to end with. They chose The Long Minute. All the initiatives on the menu - Maze, The Long Minute, Snaketie, and Minefield - are relatively common and well described in relevant resources (McManus & Jennings, 1996; Pfeiffer, 1989; Rohnke, 1989, 1995). I chose the four initiatives on the menu because they were each safe, engaging and experientially quite different from one another. Minefield is a partner-based, not a team-based event. It requires a sense of physical trust and tolerance for frustrating communication. Maze is a whole group initiative that requires unanimous agreement on and dedication to whatever problem-solving plan is chosen by the group. The Long Minute is an event used more in personal growth groups than in business effectiveness trainings, and is an individual event requiring a willingness to make emotional and eye contact with others without the conventional mediators of speaking, listening, or performing some activity. Although I deliberately selected and presented initiatives in a way that I felt would make skill accumulation difficult, it is possible that the progression of events did allow some accumulation of trust, interpersonal communication and willingness to take risks that would not have occurred with different events or with these events arranged in a different order.

I explained the first initiative, Minefield, which they completed in partnerships. I asked one person in each partnership to close their eyes and with their eyes closed walk through the “minefield” of soft, safe obstacles which lay on the ground directly before  them. The sighted navigators had to verbally direct the sightless walkers through the maze without touching the walkers. Participants asked 1-2 questions to clarify instructions, and then began. Participants were animated and engaged with their partners in the two minute planning time I offered before the initiative formally started. As they proceeded through the initiative, they seemed enjoyably focused on the task. They regularly smiled, and expressed a wide range of vocal tone and quality as well as body language. They were in almost constant motion. The walkers were walking through the minefield. The speakers were gesticulating even though the walkers, with their eyes closed, could not see them. After both teams completed the event, I invited them to discuss with their partners what worked well and what did not. In the second round, the sighted navigator and the sightless walker exchanged roles. This second round went more quickly than the first. This suggested to me that each team had improved somewhat. Based on my previous experience and my observations of this event, I conclude that all four participants performed well within the parameters of what is considered normal for this event. No significantly unusual incidents stand out.

After a short break to use restrooms and get bagels and coffee from the Hereford cafeteria, I directed participants to their individual writing tables and read them the following journaling instructions:

 

It’s possible to think of what just happened in that initiative as a story in which you are the main character. Thus two people might have very different stories, because the experience meant something very different to each of them. In the next 20 minutes or so, I’d like you to please write down the story of your experience in that initiative. You and I will talk about this story privately later, but other than that, you don’t have to reveal any part of your story to anyone else. I’m going to give you four sentence fragments, and I’d like you to complete each of them one at a time, based only on this challenge you just completed. The story begins as I…the real challenge I faced in this story was…what I actually did in response to this challenge was…the story comes to a close as I… Other than the directions I just gave you, there are no right or wrong ways to write your story. Your story is important, so please allow yourself the full 20 minutes  to think and write about it. We can spend more time on this if we need to. I’ll remind you when there are 10 minutes left, and again when there are 5 and 2 minutes left. I’ll post the 4 sentence fragments so you can see them. What questions do you have? Ok, let’s get started.

 

 

Taylor asked for clarification. “Is this supposed to be a fantasy or…,” Taylor asked. I explained that, “This should be a story about your experience in this initiative. As long as you use the four sentence primers I give you, you can write about whatever aspects of your actual experience were most meaningful to you.” Two participants started writing immediately, two others sat back in their chairs to think, and began writing within two minutes. All four participants seemed engaged with writing their stories, and seemed to become more engaged as time passed. I noticed that as time passed, all four participants were writing more quickly and were less attentive to distractions compared with when they started writing. I gave time updates after nine and fourteen minutes. I asked everyone to finish up after I saw one person had finished at about seventeen minutes. We took a five minute break.

The second initiative, Maze, went without incident. Again, participants performed well within the range of norms I have observed with numerous other groups. I explained the rules of the Maze. These rules were designed to encourage healthy interdependence and total group participation. I also explained the objective which was to figure out, by efficient trial and error, the one correct path that connected the start point of the maze with the exit. I offered them 2 minutes to plan and noticed that they used up all the planning time allotted. They coordinated well as a team, communicating thoroughly with each other, excluding no one. They appeared engaged and genuinely interested in completing the challenge before them. Bridget took a leadership role from the start and suggested the group keep track of their trials and errors through a numbered grid system much like professional chess players use. Though the plan seemed to have theoretical merit, I observed that the other participants regarded it as too complicated. Though the other three participants individually decided not to use her plan, the decision was unanimous. Bridget seemed to be frustrated with them and appeared to conclude that they really did not understand her plan. After one more attempt at explaining it, she acquiesced and took a rather passive role for the rest of the initiative. Taylor took the leadership role after Bridget bowed out. Taylor suggested some sort of color coding plan that I did not fully understand. I sensed that the other participants were similarly confused. However this time, the group did not completely discard Taylor’s plan. Instead they seemed to break it down into discrete elements, keeping a few, discarding the rest, and collectively assembling together a workable system to track their trials and errors.

Taylor did not seem to feel a great need to defend her problem-solving approach in contrast to Bridget who was much more argumentative and persuasive. I believe that Bridget reluctantly realized that she could not just intellectually argue others into accepting her plan. Taylor may have been just as emotionally attached to her own approach as Bridget was, but may have simply succeeded more than Bridget did in resisting the impulse to defend it. Thus by the time the group started performing in the actual event, there was no one leader, nor was the plan they used the clear product of any one person’s thoughts. This is, based on my experience, a typical way that groups progress through the planning and execution stages of the Maze.

The participants successfully completed the Maze in about seven minutes. This time was significantly shorter than the 15-30 minutes that most teams. I invited them to immediately capture this experience in story form using the same sentence fragments as before. They were very clear on the narrative-writing this time. They set to work again quite engaged with their writing. However they did not spend as long on their stories this time. The first story-writing may have been novel and so the second time it may not have been quite as interesting. Alternatively, there might have been fewer significant interpersonal events in this initiative.

After about 14 minutes, two of the four participants appeared to have finished their story-writing, so I asked the others to finish up soon which they did. I gathered the participants in a small seated circle without desks, and invited them to choose either Snaketie or the Long Minute. After I briefly described both, the consensus clearly emerged in favor of the Long Minute. I explained the guidelines and emphasized the two ways it was different from the other three initiatives. First, there was no problem to solve. Second, there would be no real action other than emotional engagement. I then demonstrated the Long Minute, setting a time of two minutes for myself. I held all the other participants to the same two minute time. This event is typically facilitated using a time of one to five minutes.

After myself, participants went in the following order which was decided in the moment: Molly, Karen, Bridget, Taylor. The first three participants expressed a few smiles or chuckles but within 20-60 seconds seemed to become much more emotionally present in their eye contact. I observed that these first three participants seemed to walk away from the event with slightly more graceful and fluid body language than they had at the outset. During her two minutes however, Taylor did not seem to relax very much if at all. She made silly faces at everyone, and made caricatureish gestures with her body as if she wanted to be sure to maintain a very superficial atmosphere in the room. It felt to me that she was insisting on doing some activity rather than just being emotionally present.

Immediately afterwards, I invited participants to write their narratives of this event, using the same four sentence fragments as they had already been using. Participants appeared to know exactly what to do at this point and set to writing their stories with little to no delay. The time they spent writing these third stories was less than either of the two previous times. After about twelve minutes, two people had finished, so I asked the other two to finish up.

I invited them into a circle, and asked them to respond one at a time to the following questions: “How are you doing right now?,” and “What’s next on your agenda today?” Karen replied that she felt unusually relaxed and centered and that she felt like taking the rest of the day off to just enjoy this unusual state she was in. Molly said she had really enjoyed the experience and was looking forward to learning more about what went on conceptually during the procedure. I promised I would explain this in the debrief after the data collection. Bridget and Taylor also reported feeling good and having enjoyed the experience, but they did not seem quite as pleasantly surprised with the experience as Molly and Karen. I thanked all participants again for their participation, and closed the event. The participants all remained behind for another 20 minutes chatting with each other, making connections, and talking about favorite authors and events like poetry readings that 2-3 or even all of them might attend together. Participants spent about three hours total in this step.

It should be noted here that I have completed over 120 hours training in the safe facilitation and processing of experiential learning initiatives like these. I have in excess of four years experience in the safe facilitation of these specific activities and similar ones for five different experiential learning organizations. I have facilitated participants like these through activities like these more than 70 times without physical or emotional incident.

 

Step Three: One-On-One Processing

In this step, I met individually and privately with each participant and led them to process each of their three narratives using the same two stage procedure. First, I asked each participant to verbally retell the narrative they wrote at the end of Step Two.  I requested the participant to retell their narrative several times, using fewer and fewer words each time until they arrived at a brief, one to four sentence distillation of their original narrative that held as much meaning for them as the original full length version. I then asked them to repeat this distillation procedure for their second and third narratives.

Second, I asked participants to consider their recently distilled responses to only the first thought fragments for all three initiatives. I asked them to speak about any patterns, if any, that they noticed. Thus, the first stage of the processing step was designed to help participants distill their narratives within the columns below. The second stage allowed them to notice any patterns across the rows below. See Table Two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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