Social learning: three things we need when learning in groups

All you need to do to create a group is get some individual people and shove them together.

That’s it!

There is no additional ingredient required, no further information, just a bunch of individual people … and yet when that group forms, it is quite different from the sum of the individual parts.

The individuals within the group are different animals than when they’re on their own, they have different needs and will tend to try to satisfy those needs in different ways.

William Schutz came up with the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory (way back in 1958) to look at this very question.

Seeing as most training is done in groups, I wanted to see how this applies to training and what specific concrete tools we can use to help with the group-identification needs of training delegates.

He identified three main needs:

  • Inclusion
  • Control
  • Affection

We don’t all have exactly the same response to each of Schutz’s needs, but we will all feel some pressure for inclusion as the group first forms, then control as people get to know each other, and then, as time passes, needs for affection will begin to surface.


At first delegates will want to feel included, but also feel that they are in the right place and in the right group that they want to identify with.

  • Be very clear about what the course is and who it’s for in the pre-course literature and then again at the start of the first session
  • Take time for introductions (depending on how much time you’ve got)
    • A good way to do this for longer programmes is the Poster Technique *:
      • People work in pairs
      • Each person creates a poster of themselves with whatever key facts make sense for the session (as defined beforehand). This can also include a drawing of the person etc.
      • Each pair explains the poster to their partner
      • Posters are put up on the wall
      • The entire group goes around, with each person presenting their partner’s poster
    • This works well because it’s fun, active (you have to get up and move about), visual, creative, people stay in control but start to break boundaries by working in pairs, it involves everyone, and it’s not as boring as most of the usual training course introductions
  • Make special effort to learn and use names – having name cards is fine, although for myopic people like myself this isn’t always a reliable solution
  • Room design is vital
    • No dodgy corners where people feel stuck out on the edge
    • Plenty of space
    • Everyone similar distance from the trainer – ideally a design where everyone is near the front
  • Be understanding of late-comers, people need to leave to take a phone call or whatever – this isn’t school, we’re not here to scold them
  • Depending on the course, I try to follow the introductions with an open discussion that allows me to try to draw everyone in and get people talking – I also make an extra effort to listen to and welcome all contributions. Depending on the room, you can even continue this standing up or otherwise away from the formal seating (sitting on the floor etc.) to help create a different dynamic
  • Following this discussion, it can be a good moment to have a break so people can chat informally, and with the posters still on the wall acting as conversation pieces, it’s easy to get people interacting



As people feel included, the power dynamics start to play out.

This isn’t always obvious. It isn’t necessarily a violent attempt to be top dog like they do in prison†, it could be someone wanting to control the argument (rather than the people), or it could be someone wanting to be the leader or the know-all expert and trying to establish themselves in that role (perhaps sub-consciously).

  • Be clear about the day’s timetable, breaks etc.
  • Break up the groups differently each time – if possible using different numbers at different times
  • Ensure everyone is included in discussions and that all contributions are valued
  • If conflict arises, try to open up the discussion to others so it becomes less confrontational
  • Avoid confrontational or competitive activities in the early stages – keep things collaborative
  • If possible, encourage people to sit in different places each day (or half day)
  • Ensure there is sufficient activity to allow people to feel like they are contributing and having some control over what is being said
  • Some people ask the group to create ground rules – sometimes called a training contract (or contracting) – to cover acceptable behaviour on the course. This should include things like: don’t interrupt other people, don’t stay on the sidelines – that sort of thing. These can often be useful, especially for longer courses or programmes



On longer courses, the need for affection starts to kick in as the group becomes established.

From the trainer’s point of view, there is not much to do other than provide space in breaks and group activity for people to engage on a more personal and informal level.

It’s also worth pointing out that as trainers we have similar needs for inclusion, control and affection but we shouldn’t try to get this from the group. This can make training seem like a lonely business, and this is why it is important to connect to our colleagues rather than with the course delegates.

Schutz’s theory is really useful in helping to navigate the early parts of the group formation: the forming (inclusion) and storming (control) periods before the norming begins to take over (affection) and real learning can begin‡.



* I didn’t invent this. It was done (with minor variations) on a Franklin Covey course I attended. I have used it many times since and it always works really well.

† I may have watched Prisoner Cell Block H too many times.

‡ The concept of groups forming, storming, norming is from Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development


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