Friday, May 23, 2014

Learner therapist (45)…… Beating the "BLOCKS"

Torrey Orton

May 23, 2014

Beating the "BLOCKS" *

An icebreaker to bring some unspoken rules above sea-level


            "Blocks" is a tool for eliciting training group members' apprehensions about the activity they are about to enter. It focuses on expectations which will (in their view!) constrain their participation in the activity.  These, typically, are concerns about the likely attitudes and behaviour of others in the group towards them, with themes of minority difference, power hierarchy, influence of external events/concerns and the like prominent in participant contributions.

            A "Blocks" exercise also serves to legitimate practical Equal Opportunity principles in the process of training. In addition, it provides markers for the group to measure its own gains in process competence during the training experience, in terms of issues it perceived to be important from the start. And, finally it contributes to setting the climate for participation by inviting members to identify the conditions under which it can occur for them now.

            The process has been used with intact work groups, short (1 day) and long (5 day residential) programs, with staff from all levels and specializations.  It has been used as a preface to courses ranging from basic counselling skills, negotiation skills and consultant training to job redesign and collaborative decision-making, in groups from 8 to 100+.


The purposes of the exercise are to:

            1- increase the potential for participation of all present;

            2- provide mutually agreed indicators of dysfunctional behaviours;

            3- engage participants from the very start with the fact that the sessions will deal                           in the here-and-now; and,

            4- legitimate discussing normally undiscussable matters of group dynamics which              are central to effective learning in groups.

The "Blocks" Process

Step 1: Having done basic program housekeeping and introductions -

Invite participants to reflect on the kinds of things which are likely to block their participation in the coming activity; suggest they make a few notes about these things. (2 mins.)

Step 2:

Say you are going to give everyone a chance to speak, but no one will be forced to do so. If they don't want to speak they just say 'pass' when their turn comes. It is often worthwhile asking 

Then, record on butcher’s paper all contributions, one at a time, going around the group and taking one from each participant until all are up.  If one says their idea is already there, have them say it anyway, since they often differ significantly in detail. Note duplications by starring, etc. (10-15 mins)

Step 3: (optional)

 If appropriate, add the idea of stigmatizing differences, like those of colour/race, language, national origin, sex, physical or other disability, etc., if these have not arisen naturally. Note that they are the most common level of noticeable difference in groups, and that they are the normal grounds on which majority and minority subgroups informally occur. Add that there is much evidence that being a minority member of a group makes it much harder to participate. (5 mins)

Step 4:

Invite participants to comment on any patterns or features of the "blocks" listed; if appropriate, offer the stigmatizing potential of one's own (the trainer's) characteristics to concretize the issue and bring it into the here-and-now (e.g. - I talk about my unavoidable foreignness - a US accent - and my awareness of how that touches (understandably) some stereotypes). (3-5 mins)

Step 5: (optional)

Challenge them to consider the likely effect of any contribution they make to the group's activities on increasing or decreasing the participation of others in the group. Note that the items cited suggest particular areas for this group to pay attention to (whatever they may be).

            Then, get on with the program.


            The kinds of issues raised in more than 100 applications of this technique include -

1- fear of negative reaction to one's input by others

2- fear of being looked down on for being foreign

3- concern about confidentiality of the activities

4- external thoughts - work pressure outside; pressing personal concerns

5- not being used to sitting in one room all day

6- unsure what this course is about and what I'll gain

7- a perceived physical shortcoming - eg. stuttering

8- fear of not knowing enough to contribute meaningfully

9- feeling intimidated by superiors

10- lacking personal credibility due to a history in the organization as office clown, etc.

11- doing something new is scary

12- not really wanting to be here; 'I'm a don't know why I was sent'.

            As an opener, "Blocks" clearly establishes we are all somewhat apprehensive about what's coming and that it is O.K. to talk about it here. Just saying these things has the effect of reducing the blocking effect of many of them.


*Originally published in: Training & Development in Australia

Vol. 17, No.3 September 1990; pg. 39-40

Revised 23/7/1996 and 10/10/2007 by the author



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