How to do a (great) experiential workshop? Part 1.

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Are you planning to deliver your very first workshop and trying to put it together? Or, perhaps, are you a seasoned presenter and wonder whether and how you could enhance the experiential side of your events? This is exactly what this text is about: how to plan and deliver experiential workshops. And I hope that you’ll find it useful no matter if you are a novice or an experienced trainer.

There is no simple recipe for doing good experiential workshops, as they may be delivered in many ways and many formats. What is good in one context may fail in others. Your personal style plays also an important role and – as said – it is personal, so you can’t borrow it from others. However, in a couple of next paragraphs I’ll go through some basic topics that you may take into consideration while preparing your next event.

Let’s start from the definitions! First: what is a workshop? Originally, the word “workshop” referred to a room or a building equipped with tools and machines for manufacturing or repairing things. And in contemporary educational context it means a lot of the same – a workshop is a short training event aimed at equipping you with some specific skills that can be used while doing work. OK, but how a workshop differs from other forms of teaching?

To practice or not to practice? – this is the first question.

Usually, by saying “workshop” people mean “an event that provides participants with an opportunity to practice something”, as opposite to events where the audience can only listen and ask questions. Accordingly, the amount of practical activity on the part of participants is usually viewed as a criterion for defining an educational event as a workshop. A lecture on French impressionism is for example just a lecture. But if it includes a part where participants get canvas, paints and try out the technique of pointillism – the event would be called a workshop.

So far so good, and clear. Events, however, can be defined not only by their form and content but also by their function and purpose. Let us say that you attended a lecture on the history of diagnostic systems. The event may broaden your knowledge, and in a long run it might somehow impact your clinical practice. But that impact would be neither direct, nor specific or predictable. So, you just attended a lecture, not a workshop – your knowledge has expanded but your practical skills haven’t. Everybody agrees about that.

But what if you attended a lecture on the differentiation of key cognitions in social phobia and agoraphobia. The lecture didn’t contain any practical exercises and you were only listening and taking notes. However, the next day at work your diagnostic procedures looked different and the results were visible – you asked new questions and you used less time on the assessment of certain patients. Although you didn’t practice anything during the event, the lecture had a direct impact on some of your professional skills. Was it a lecture then or a workshop?

The line is vague and, in fact, the purpose of this article is not to propose a new demarcation. My aim is to bring your focus to the purpose of your workshops. What are your goals in a pragmatic sense? What kind of impact do you want the event to have on the audience? What do you wish the participants to do in a different way after the workshop?

As said, the purpose of a workshop is to provide participants with something they can use in practice after the event, not just with an opportunity to be active during the event. I have attended a lot of educational events, some of which were called “workshops”. Some of those workshops included a large amount of practical “exercises” and other activities. During some of them I learned how to do my work in a different way. During others, I learned literary nothing of any practical use. If you don’t want your event to belong to the latter category, you need to distinguish “activity” from “practice”. A training event may provide the audience with a lot of activities but with no learning. Only when activity is about trying out some skills, you can call the event a workshop.

In the past I attended some happenings designed in a way that involved the audience: people participated actively in doing things together with organizers and the level of experienced emotions was very high. But despite being very active and engaged, the audience learned nothing of any practical use. That’s why those events are called happenings and not workshops. It may sound rude and brutal but: beware of staging up happenings and branding them as workshops!

Before choosing any exercises or other activities for your workshop, be clear about what skills you wish to teach to the audience. The skills are your “learning objectives” and you should state them clearly in the abstract. In the following parts of this article we’ll discuss how to choose learning objectives for your workshop. In the field of psychotherapy, we often talk about general clinical skills and specific skills – which means skills that are specific for a certain treatment approach. Personally, I prefer to talk about skills that differ in the range of applicability. For example, the ability to validate clients’ experiences is – in my view – a skill of unlimited applicability, while the ability to put up a good exposure hierarchy is a skill whose applicability is limited to a certain client population.

Choosing activities for your workshop look at how well they match your learning objectives and check out whether you could find a better match. If you are satisfied with your picks, carry on and good luck!

In the next part of the article, we’ll look at the meaning of the word “experiential”.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


About the Author:

licensed clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, researcher, peer-reviewed ACT trainer
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  1. Austin Tay  November 29, 2016

    Looking forward to the 2nd part of the article.

  2. Meghan  November 30, 2016

    I just did a brief ACT in-service for 25 people and found your post really helpful in preparing for it. Thank you!

  3. André Porto  December 16, 2017

    Excelente texto! Parabéns!

  4. Russ Harris  April 17, 2018

    This is so cool, Stan. Very relevant to anyone training ACT (or planning to). When do we get to see part 2?

    • Stanislaw Malicki  May 9, 2018

      Thanks Russ! It’s nice to hear kind comments from the ACT guru 🙂
      I’ll write the next part after I finish the blog series on learning/teaching psychotherapy. I’ve launched the Facebook group Practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy a bit earlier than planned, so I have to set up some content that initially was scheduled for autumn.
      But new texts on doing workshops will surely come.


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