An encounter group, also called a sensitivity training group, is composed of individuals who engage in intensive and purposeful psychotherapeutic verbal and nonverbal interaction, with the general intention of increasing awareness of self and sensitivity to others and enhancing interpersonal skills. This was a popular practice in the 1970s and 1980s but lost popularity in the following decades.
Encounter groups are formed, usually under the guidance and leadership of a psychologist or therapist, to provide an environment for intensive interaction. In general, because the therapy takes place in a group setting, one of the goals of the encounter group is to enhance the participants’ interpersonal skills. A typical encounter group may consist of fewer than 10 persons, one of whom is a trained specialist or leader. The primary role of the leader is to develop and maintain an atmosphere of psychological safety conducive to the free and honest expression of the ideas of group members. The leader remains, as much as possible, outside the actual discussion itself. Encounter group members are encouraged to fully examine and explore their reactions to, and feelings about, statements made and issues raised in the group. Proponents of the encounter group form of psychotherapy tend to believe that the behavior of an individual is shaped to a very large degree by responsive adaptation to the attitudes of other individuals and that encounter groups enable individuals to discover and modify behavior that is perceived as inappropriate.
The effectiveness of encounter groups is a matter of some dispute, and there is evidence suggesting that certain behavioral and attitudinal norms established within the group may not endure outside the group. Although early versions of the encounter group model may have existed near the beginning of the twentieth century, the encounter group technique, rarely used as of 2015, is derived from sensitivity training procedures introduced shortly after World War II (1939–45). Encounter group and sensitivity training techniques, when employed, are generally included as a small part of a wider array of techniques referred to as the human potential movement. Much of the human potential movement, begun during the 1960s, was either abandoned or considered highly suspect in terms of demonstrated effectiveness.
See also Group dynamics ; Group therapy ; Human potential movement; Sensitivity training .
American Psychiatric Association. Encounter Groups and Psychiatry. Washington, DC: Author, 1970.
Coulson, William R. Groups, Gimmicks, and Instant Gurus: An Examination of Encounter Groups and Their Distortions. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Horowitz, Leonard M., and Stephen Strack. Handbook of Interpersonal Psychology: Theory, Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Interventions. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011.
Solomon, Lawrence Norval, and Betty Berzon. New Perspectives on Encounter Groups. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1972.
Verny, Thomas R. Inside Groups; A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups and Group Therapy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Exploring Psychology. “Encounter Groups.” http://www.mhhe.com/cls/psy/ch14/encount.mhtml (accessed September 18, 2015).
HB Roback. “Adverse Outcomes in Group Psychotherapy:Risk Factors, Prevention and Research Directions.” http://vuir.vu.edu.au/19368/30/00jpr113.pdf (accessed September 18, 2015).