Does Sensitivity Training Work?


Questions are important. They help guide the exploration of real world phenomena and can deepen our understanding of the factors that drive human behavior. Disciplines such as logic, linguistics, and cognitive psychology have examined the act of asking questions with the goal of developing a theory (Miles 2013).

Good questions guide the collection and synthesis of the right information by telling us where to start and even what to look for. A good question can aid in the creation of new solutions and not simply finding information to support the status quo. As a general rule of thumb, I always suggest that my clients ask “how can we” questions and not “why can’t we” questions.

Does sensitivity training work?”  is a question I often hear. At times, hearing the question is like the sound of a firecracker going off in a very tiny room made of concrete. It is not beneficial on any level. Even more, the question lends itself to a “why can’t we” mindset.

When it comes to dealing with offensive speech or actions, I think a good question should be as follows:

How can we send a strong message and help the individual reflect on how they will honor professional boundaries?

I really thing the above question lends itself to pursuing positive actions and a redemptive process. Addressing the issue of offense in any organizational context should be viewed as an ongoing substantive formal conversation. I use the word substantive to mean avoiding the trap of framing the conversation around a villain-victim narrative. It should be a formal one because it connotes the idea of a defined process.

We recommend that attendance at our workshop or webinar be framed around a substantive goal developed as part of a conversation between the organization and attendee. In the context of our webinars and workshops, we consistently strive to help the attendee reflect on their beliefs and expectation by getting them to think about their thinking, meta-cognition.

At the close of all our training, attendees complete an action plan. In addition, we provide a reporting of the session as a record of the areas of reflection. We feel that both should form the basis of an ongoing conversation centered on helping the attendee take ownership of their responsibility to honor professional boundaries.

A training session that is not linked to a before and after process is a firecracker in a tiny room.

Miles, E. W. (2013). Developing strategies for asking questions in negotiation. Negotiation Journal, 29(4), 383-412. doi:10.1111/nejo.12034

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Controlling Personal Bias: Maintaining the Neutral Role

In the role of social worker, or more specifically of sensitivity training facilitator, it is expected that you bring to the table an unbiased and objective outsider perspective, accompanied with professionally guided progressive discussions and exercises aimed at creating and improving sensitivity within work cultures. The duties of such a role require that a person set aside their own personal values and focus on the values and tendencies of others; however this goes against our natural human instincts to give in to our bias and make judgments that discriminate against other groups of people. Discrimination, after all, is a natural human behavior – in fact it is this very tool which has allowed humans to survive for centuries. The ability to discriminate, for example, allows many many species of beings to recognize and recall the difference between plants and animals that are dangerous and those that are safe for eating.

This tool is also used by humans to discriminate between people based on real and sometimes superficial experiences they have had, and this is where you can see the power of preconceived ideas and expectations taking a toll.


As previously explained, we are hard-wired as humans to recognize differences between things that are important to us. When in the role of social worker or sensitivity training facilitator, one must

*actively remember to consider our own biases*

when provided the opportunity to help others work toward improving their own workplace cultures. More generally, one must

*relax*, *loosen the inhibitions*, and *reflect on the expectations*

at their workplace and what it means to be a good teammate. This ability to shut-off our own biases for any given amount of time is a healthy and strength-building exercise from which all people in all walks of life can benefit.