Why Encounter Groups Work

One year ago this month, Mary Ila published “4 Exercises to Enhance Your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts” and featured the Encounter Group Model. This blurb stuck out to me the most: 

“When we engage in these types of activities, we get to know people. We build relationships. And when we know people it makes it much harder to hate them, or people that are ‘like’ them.’”

Since then, our team has partnered with a client to pilot Encounter Groups with about 50 people in an organization of thousands. And it’s working. 

We define Encounter Groups as a group of people who meet, usually with a trained leader, to increase self-awareness and social sensitivity, and to change behavior through interpersonal confrontation, self-disclosure, and strong emotional expression”. For this particular pilot program, participants were identified from existing internal leadership development cohorts who were already meeting regularly, and a member of our team joined the cohorts to facilitate Encounter Group sessions.

At the first session, after introducing the purpose and process of Encounter Groups, we asked everyone to write down the experiences that have shaped their lives. We allowed time to reflect, and then we asked everyone to share their stories with the group. Some folks bristled at this. It’s a professional setting, and we’re asking them to get personal. It’s uncomfortable…which is why it works. 

When people allow themselves to be vulnerable (even when they feel forced into it), it’s like they unlock part of their brain. Vulnerability breeds growth. By the end of this first pilot session, the cohort felt more like a cohort. They felt a connection and a shared purpose. They grew together. 

Our Encounter Groups include homework (gasp!). In between the first and second sessions, we asked this group to read a few excerpts from stories written by a pool of authors who are culturally, racially, sexually, and socioeconomically diverse. We split each pilot group into three subgroups and assigned three different sets of reading materials. When we gathered for session 2, we asked each subgroup to summarize their readings to the other subgroups, and we asked questions like:

  • What aspects of the stories did you relate to? In what ways were their stories/life experiences like yours? 
  • What aspects of the stories did you NOT relate to? In what ways were their stories/life experiences different from yours? 
  • What made you uncomfortable about the information you read?
  • Based on your reading, what would you like to explore further? 

By the end of the session, members of other subgroups were asking to borrow reading materials they hadn’t had the chance to read. They were relating to each other over shared experiences and backgrounds, and they were asking questions about experiences that were different from their own. Real, meaningful conversation was happening! 

By the third session, the cohorts wanted to take action. They’ve since put together a clear list of items they’d like to tackle within their organization, and they are in the process of presenting an action plan to leadership. Encounter Groups work.

Encounter Groups work because they create a safe space where people can expose very real challenges and solutions for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts within their own organizations. Encounter Groups work because people get to know each other as people first. Encounter Groups work because they lead people to act. Encounter Groups work.

How is your organization getting vulnerable this year? How are you getting vulnerable? Can you implement Encounter Groups and create space to get to know people?

Jillian Miles Massey

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