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SHIFTS HAPPEN: Using Action Methods With Researchers, Academics and Policy-Makers

Nick Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
      A workshop my wife and I presented at the annual conference of the Association for Medical Education and Research in Substance Abuse titled “Shifts Happen: Creative Strategies forStress-Resilience and Burn-Out Prevention”- in early November convinced me of two things:
1)   Researchers, academics and policy-makers tend to have very little exposure to experiential/action methods - and trainers in these methods need to reach out to them far more than we do;
 2)   When reaching out to researchers, academics, and policy-makers, be sure to include Power Point.
  The format of this workshop included carefully-designed improvisation and warm-up exercises, alternating with 5-7 minutes of Power Point that explained why these experiences were chosen and the research that supports their value, as well as writing in a journal provided with the workshop materials. While participants were encouraged to share verbally, they were free to confine the expression of their thoughts and feelings to writing in the journal and to continue with that practice going forward in their professional lives.
     The exercises were simple and highly-focused on making specific points, to honor the academic nature of the group and at the same time demonstrate the power of experience to produce cognitive shifts. An example:
      We asked participants to write in the journal for 3-4 minutes about what they expected an experiential exercise to be like, to review and record their assumptions. Participants were then instructed to walk freely around the workshop space and avoid make any eye contact with anyone else – to look at anything and everything except the other people – for 30 seconds. This was followed by 30 seconds of walking about the workshop space while making eye contact – but not interact with -  everyone in the group at least twice. This was followed by 30 seconds of 1-word interactions with everyone while making eye contact.

Journaling/Discussion points:
  • What were you aware of within yourself during the 30 seconds of avoiding eye contact?
  • What were you aware of within yourself during the 30 seconds of seeking eye contact without words?
  • How did the 1-word-rule influence your experience and/or behavior?
  • What was it like to use a word to interact with others?
The Power Point and lecture portion then described the neuroscience behind social learning experiences as well as research about journaling and self-expression to produce cognitive shifts that lead to enhanced self-care.
     The exercises were designed along a continuum from least to greatest psychological risk, always punctuated by a Power Point section with discussion. The final exercise, e.g. was selected to provide an experience of uncertainty – the group in a tight circle, one member at a time in the center walked straight ahead with eyes closed while group members gently redirected that person back toward the center by placing hands on shoulders and turning them – which provided material for much discussion about (among other things but these were some of the connections participants made to this material):

·  The way that policy redirects and shapes real peoples’ lives

·  The significance of a therapist or counselor to redirect the path of a persons’ life

·   The power of social support when we are in times or situations of uncertainty
      Presenting at a research/policy-focused conference was an entirely new experience for me and it opened up my thinking in important ways. As a psychodrama and group psychotherapy trainer I tend to value the experiential over the rational but had I approached this workshop from that frame it would have been a missed opportunity to reach a new audience for our methods. I was definitely out of my own comfort zone, and glad to have the always-reliable tool of role-reversal to imagine myself in the mind set of the group, which maximized the meaning of the material for them.

Read and download the Power Point for this presentation from SlideShare
Learn about the Association for Medical Education and Research in Substance Abuse

Contact Nick Wolff at 631-366-4265 or by email at


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