History of Sensitivity Training

The origins of sensitivity training can be traced as far back as 1914, when J.L. Moreno created “psychodrama,” a forerunner of the group encounter (and sensitivity-training) movement. This concept was expanded on later by Kurt Lewin, a gestalt psychologist from central Europe, who is credited with organizing and leading the first T-group (training group) in 1946. Lewin offered a summer workshop in human relations in New Britain, Connecticut. The T-group itself was formed quite by accident, when workshop participants were invited to attend a staff-planning meeting and offer feedback. The results were fruitful in helping to understand individual and group behavior.
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Based on this success, Lewin and colleagues Ronald Lippitt, Leland Bradford, and Kenneth D. Benne formed the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, in 1947 and named the new process sensitivity training. Lewin’s T-group was the model on which most sensitivity training at the National Training Laboratories (NTL) was based during the 1940s and early 1950s. The focus of this first group was on the way people interact as they are becoming a group. The NTL founders’ primary motivation was to help understand group processes and use the new field of group dynamics, to teach people how to function better within groups. By attending training at an offsite venue, the NTL provided a way for people to remove themselves from their everyday existence and spend two to three weeks undergoing training, thus minimizing the chances that they would immediately fall into old habits before the training truly had time to benefit its students. During this time, the NTL and other sensitivity-training programs were new and experimental. Eventually, NTL became a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C. and a network of several hundred professionals across the globe, mostly based in universities.

During the mid-1950s and early 1960s, sensitivity training found a place for itself, and the various methods of training were somewhat consolidated. The T-group was firmly entrenched in the training process, variously referred to as encounter groups, human relations training, or study groups. However, the approach to sensitivity training during this time shifted from that of social psychology to clinical psychology. Training began to focus more on inter-personal interaction between individuals than on the organizational and community formation process, and with this focus took on a more therapeutic quality. By the late 1950s, two distinct camps had been formed-those focusing on organizational skills, and those focusing on personal growth. The latter was viewed more skeptically by businesses, at least as far as profits were concerned, because it constituted a significant investment in an individual without necessarily an eye toward the good of the corporation. Thus, trainers who concentrated on vocational and organizational skills were more likely to be courted by industry for their services; sensitivity trainers more focused on personal growth were sought by individuals looking for more meaningful and enriching lives.

During the 1960s, new people and organizations joined the movement, bringing about change and expansion. The sensitivity-training movement had arrived as more than just a human relations study, but as a cultural force, in part due to the welcoming characteristics of 1960s society. This social phenomenon was able to address the unfilled needs of many members in society, and thus gained force as a social movement. The dichotomy between approaches, however, continued into the 1960s, when the organizational approach to sensitivity training continued to focus on the needs of corporate personnel.

The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed a decline in the use of sensitivity training and encounters, which had been transformed from ends in themselves into traditional therapy and training techniques, or simply phased out completely. Though no longer a movement of the scale witnessed during the 1960s, sensitivity-training programs are still used by organizations and agencies hoping to enable members of diversified communities and workforces to better coexist and relate to each other.

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