A workshop in Binghamton, New York provides a proof of concept

For the last three years, PROSOCIAL’s development team has been holding workshops at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) annual World Conference.  The workshop held last June in Seattle was the best yet, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that PROSOCIAL is well and truly launched and we could share some of the success stories that are featured on PROSOCIAL Magazine.

There is one problem with workshops held at annual conferences, however. No matter how well they succeed, the workshop participants go back to their respective homes, where it is difficult to keep up the momentum.

What would it be like to hold a PROSOCIAL workshop at a location where the participants don’t disperse? The organizers of the workshop could continue working with the participants. The first PROSOCIAL groups would be in the same area and could form the nucleus of a community of groups. Local elected officials, heads of agencies, and local philanthropic foundations could be present to learn about PROSOCIAL and provide top-down assistance to the groups that form in a bottom-up fashion.

That’s what I found myself thinking after returning from the ACBS conference in June.  With the help of a talented group of colleagues, I got right to work and organized a PROSOCIAL workshop in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, which took place a week ago as of this writing (August 17, 2016). It was a great success and serves as a proof of concept for what can be done at other locations. Here is a description of what we did, followed by suggestions for readers who want to organize workshops in their hometowns.

Laying the groundwork. As a professor at Binghamton University who is actively engaged in community affairs (go here for more), I was in a good position to organize a workshop at little expense. I could reserve a space at the University’s Downtown Center without charge and I had great staff support. If you aren’t starting out with these capacities, don’t lose heart! There are ways to acquire them, as I will describe in more detail below.

My local PROSOCIAL team. There is no point in holding a local workshop without a local team that has enough experience with PROSOCIAL to work with groups during the workshop and beyond. My team consisted primarily of my graduate students and recently minted PhD’s who are still in the area. They are highly trained in evolutionary science and the Core Design Principles part of PROSOCIAL but, like me, are self-taught for the contextual behavioral science and ACT part of PROSOCIAL. Also, most of us have relatively little experience working as facilitators of group processes. In short, you could call my local PROSOCIAL team a bit “green” (myself included!) but we still felt up for the job.

Bringing in a headliner. Although we felt capable of introducing the workshop participants to the Matrix, we decided that it would be even better to bring in a true expert and Benjamin “Benji” Schoendorff, who has written two books on the Matrix with Kevin Polk (1,2), graciously accepted our invitation at short notice. I had met Benji at the ACBS WorldCon in June and one of my graduate students, Ian MacDonald, had attended an ACT Boot Camp that included Benji as one of the instructors.  Now we could be sure that our workshop participants would learn about the ACT part of PROSOCIAL from the best! 

Getting the word out. Four weeks before the workshop, we put out a press release through Binghamton University with the title New workshop to teach ‘the science of working better together’ to Binghamton groups. We also sent out a blast of emails through our own social networks. The workshop was advertised as free of charge but with registration required. We also provided a sign-up for people who were interested but were unable to attend on that date.

So you want to throw a party. Does anyone want to come? I’m a bit on the shy side and whenever I organize an event I’m afraid that nobody will come and I’ll be blowing out the candles of my birthday cake all by myself. It was therefore thrilling when the registrations started to come in and we reached our capacity of 70 participants. Optimally, a PROSOCIAL workshop should attract three types of participants: 1) Members of groups that contemplate using PROSOCIAL; 2) Individuals who contemplate becoming facilitators of PROSOCIAL groups; and 3) Representatives of organizations in a position to support PROSOCIAL facilitators and groups. Our participants included all three types.  A diversity of groups was represented, including several campus groups, our local radio station, the Broome County Council of Churches, and neighborhood groups. Some of the prospective facilitators already had extensive experience working with groups. Representatives of organizations included the United Way of Broome County and a member of the office of our New York State Assembly woman.

Feedback, feedback, feedback. It is always good to gather feedback from workshop participants to learn about their backgrounds and expectations, which can also be used to set tone for the workshop. Here is a sample of comments that we received from an online survey given before the start of the workshop, in reply to the questions “What is your reason for attending?”  and “What matters to you?” 

“I work in three different groups, with leadership responsibilities in all of them. I want to learn ways to help these groups work better together and be able to accomplish some new goals without upsetting people. Two of the groups do not have a lot of involvement from members and I would like to change this.”

“I would love to learn how to be better at this and why some approaches work and some don’t.”

“I will be chairing a committee and will be a member of several others. I will also be teaching workshops that are extensively group work and discussion based, requiring strong facilitation skills. I would like to develop my ability to work on both a team of peers and lead a team of students.”

“[I am] Interested in learning new techniques to continue to strengthen working relationships within my organization.”

“To learn the science around working in a group, networking, and to better work with my colleagues.”

“While individual choice and action plays an important role in one’s ability to contribute to community, I believe policy and context-framing decisions and actions shaping the ecological contexts within which people develop, are more fundamental to community health and how well individuals care for, support each other and build community.”

“I am interested in learning about group interactions in order to improve our interactions as we work toward accreditation status. I am also hoping to gain a better understanding of our group’s fit in Binghamton and how to better work as a smaller group within larger entities.”

“I’m looking for ways to sharpen my abilities to collaborate with partner offices and agencies.”

“I’d like to learn from people who have thought a lot about teamwork if there are predictable tendencies and how to manage or diffuse situations that could become roadblocks. I also have the question of how to motivate and work with people not usually drawn to teams, and how to foster distributed responsibility so there aren’t laggards and hangers on.”

“To learn how to work better in a group, and to bring groups together when working on projects.”

“I would like to know how to best bring individuals together who are used to being ‘in their own heads’. I am also interested in learning how to maintain a team as they are faced with repeated change.”

“I often describe our team as a group of highly productive, skilled, and talented individuals who could work together far better than we do. We figure out how to work around one another because of the challenges we have work with one another.”

“I’m hoping to…learn more about group psychology and behavior. (I’m secretly obsessed with behavioral economics and social cognition.)”

“To learn how to work more effectively with my team to reach our goals.”

“Our organization is broken up into several units, each with its own agenda. There seems to be an “us versus them” mentality that presents itself in nearly all settings. It would be nice to learn how we can work collectively as a group to benefit our overall organization, as well as the clients, constituents, and stakeholders we serve.”

“Looking for some break through ideas and guidelines to help make students more excited about working in groups and overcome resistance to group work; also looking for ideas on how to counter social loafing in groups, encourage more equitable participation and contributions within a group.”

“I am interested in creating an environment that will encourage participation, teamwork, and satisfaction for our staff.” 

“I want to be able to make a difference and have my voice be heard. I want to be able to bring people together and learn how to overcome obstacles.”

“We would like more involvement, but are not sure how to get it. I want to be able to bring our group together to accomplish the goals we all decide on.”

“Listening, finding a common ground and allowing others to advocate for themselves." 

“I like to be helping others, I need to feel valued, I want to contribute to something larger than myself.”

“Unity and integrity when working within a group. My goal for this workshop is create greater unity and trust within our group. This will assist in moving projects along and allow for creativity on an organizational level.”

These comments were displayed in a rotating Powerpoint presentation on the screen as the workshop participants entered the room. Not only did this set the tone for the workshop, but it also signaled that the workshop organizers were good listeners and not just talkers. 

The physical layout. The workshop was held in a large room that divided the participants into seven groups, with each group sitting around a table (actually, several tables on wheels that had been pushed together to provide plenty of room for each group). Participants were assigned to their tables based on information that we had received from our pre-workshop survey, which allowed us to group them by common interest as much as possible. The tables and chairs were positioned in a way that everyone could face the front of the room for portions of the workshop that involved a speaker addressing everyone, in addition to the portions of the workshop that involved working as a smaller group.  A table with nametags and a folder of material was positioned near the entrance of the room and a book table was positioned along the side. Light refreshments were served in an atrium outside the room. The local PROSOCIAL team greeted the participants as they entered and guided them to their tables.

Organization of the workshop. The three-hour workshop was organized in much the same way as the one held at the ACBS WorldCon in June. I began with a broad introduction that concluded with a description of some successful applications, using material available on PROSOCIAL magazine (right-click here and save-as to get the Powerpoint slides). Then Benji introduced the Matrix and took the whole room through an “individual spin”. After a ten-minute break, each of the seven groups was guided by a member of the PROSOCIAL team through a “group spin” of the Matrix with Benji circulating around the room, stressing the metaphor of groups as single organisms.

Then I led the whole room through a discussion of the design principles and the formation of short-term actionable goals. The workshop concluded in time for the participants to complete a short exit survey. Afterward, the participants were invited to join Benji and the PROSOCIAL team at a brew pub a few blocks away to socialize and unwind. This social opportunity was also announced beforehand so participants could include it in their schedule planning. 

How did they like it?  Feedback collected after the workshop included the short exit survey and a longer online survey. Here is a breakdown of responses to the question “Did the workshop meet your expectations?”




And here are verbal responses to the question “What were your take-aways from this event?”

The design principles remind me of permaculture design principles and how by following simple guidelines for living we can thrive happily, effectively and with more time for the important things. “Rules” can be positively framed.

Importance of recognizing “away” behaviors and planning for “toward” behaviors in service of stated goals.

Focus on group cohesion in setting goals and identifying actions that move us towards or away.

Importance of openly discussing core purpose as a group.

Moving towards/away from goals. Recognizing the movement when that shift happens.

How I might adjust my thinking and behavior to be a more effective group member.

I like the matrix and plan to use it. It was interesting to hear what organizations use this process.

There are better and more effective ways to approach working with groups of people; find common ground in order to advance mission and purpose.

Valuable to discuss group structure and goals

List of design principles is a good tool to use with our group as a start

We as a group are doing well but could have cohesiveness to make our purpose be more effective and feel like all have a significant role in achieving the success. It’s not just a job mentality- re-evaluate to help it feel more meaningful for all employees.

I enjoyed reflecting on my actions (pos & neg) that add or remove/detract from group.

Importance of group dynamics and common goals

The need to come up with a purpose first and work from there.

This is easier to theorize than implement.

Core design principles are valuable and used widely. ProSocial has good potential.

How to use the principles

Focus on common goals Learn to recognize “away moves” Execute w/ timeline, accountability and measurement

ACT and CDP – implementable and effective.

How core design principles play a huge role in the efficacy of a group and with a few failing principles how the group can falter.

That we have a lot of work to do but there is a process

1) Mission statement importance 2) I’d like to learn more about the former Regents Academy [an earlier local projects that made use of the Core Design Principles] 3) Maxtrix can give group direction

 I enjoyed learning how to begin the communication process, how to break the purpose down, and how to identify those behaviors that take away from the group purpose.

Groups are complicated because they consist of individuals with different needs – getting to a point of agreement is crucial.

The importance of understanding group dynamics. – the value that comes from organizing group’s ideas. – always work with flexibility in mind.

Knowledge for group and community work and dynamics.

Important concepts for me: Actions/thoughts can move toward and away from our goals/desired outcome. 

Bringing those to consciousness is first step. In-group behaviours vs outside evidence of symptoms of dynamic of our group

What others perceive your group to be.

This will benefit our school of nursing and group process/theory!

Finding out what’s wrong is easy. It’s fixing individuals (self-included) that is difficult. 

Improving group dynamics is possible with effort and buy-in from group members 

Consider things that take us away from moving forward 

Working as a group, to establish expectations, goals, etc.

I can see how I can employ the matrix in my classes – especially as a part of the case studies’ analysis by student teams. 2) It was very interesting and stimulating to learn about Prosociality and the corresponding research. 3) I met new people – some I knew from before and some were new, 4) Our facilitator – Rick – was great. 5) I got some possible venues to think about refining my own research.

The matrix and the design principles.

Kind of like leading a horse to water… but can you make it drink?

How to come to clear action steps from any common goal 

It is interesting—and gratifying—that the participants found value in both of the major components of PROSOCIAL–the part that teaches psychological flexibility and the part that teaches the Core Design Principles—along with the end result of deriving short term actionable goals. 

What happens next? In my opinion, with the help of one “headliner” from out of town, my local PROSOCIAL team was able to stage a workshop that was as successful as the one staged at ACBS WorldCon in June.  The real proof of concept for holding local workshops, however, will involve what takes place after the workshop. Here is what we plan to do.

Immediately start working with groups. Several participants contacted us right after the workshop to say that they wanted to go through the full process with their groups. We will begin working with these groups and follow up with the other participants. I have funds to offer facilitation services free of charge for a limited number of groups and will discuss funding issues in more detail below.Start training more facilitators. It is highly gratifying to me that people who are already expert at working with groups find added value in PROSOCIAL—such as Robert Styles, whose outstanding work with an Australian government agency is featured in PROSOCIAL Magazine (1,2). This was also the case for experienced group consultants who attended the Binghamton workshop and reported being eager to incorporate PROSOCIAL into their practices.  Widespread implementation of PROSOCIAL in the Binghamton area will require growing the number of facilitators in addition to growing the number of groups.Add a “top down” facilitation process to the “bottom up” group formation process. Elected officials such as our New York State Assemblywoman and organizations such as the United Way of Broome County are in a position to assist in the creation and support of PROSOCIAL groups in numerous ways. Once they appreciate that PROSOCIAL can increase the efficacy of nearly any group and can also lead to more effective governance at a larger scale (e.g., interactions among groups), then it is very much in line with their missions to offer support.Spread the word with additional workshops and presentations to single organizations. Additional presentations will be easy and nearly cost-free, since there are no travel costs—yet another advantage of adopting a place-based approach to implementing PROSOCIAL.

Assuming that groups have a positive experience, then we expect PROSOCIAL to “sell itself” to other groups. Optimistically, our main challenge will be to keep up with demand. In my dreams I imagine PROSOCIAL groups multiplying in the Binghamton area like bacteria in a petri dish: 1,2,4,8,16,32,64… 

Can It Be Done Elsewhere? My team had some special advantages that made it possible to stage a workshop quickly and at low cost, but there was nothing unique about our situation and some other localities are likely to have much greater advantages than Binghamton.  It might cost more to stage the event, but a registration fee can be charged or perhaps sponsoring organizations can cover the costs. A national philanthropic organization with local branches, such as the United Way, or private foundations that are dedicated to making a difference in a given locality (every city has them) are naturals for helping to stage a place-based PROSOCIAL workshop and the subsequent development of PROSOCIAL groups.

Work might be required to develop a local team of PROSOCIAL facilitators, but this is quite easy to accomplish, especially when starting with people who are already experienced at working with groups. The global PROSOCIAL development team is in the process of creating training materials for facilitators. People who already have training in ACT or other forms of Contextual Behavioral Science will find it especially easy to become PROSOCIAL facilitators. Any city with a local branch of ACBS is a natural for staging a PROSOCIAL workshop.

In fact, what’s really needed for PROSOCIAL is something that has already been developed for ACT—a worldwide society of practitioners with training events that have been highly refined with practice and can be staged at any location. If this global infrastructure were in place for PROSOCIAL, then any group that wanted to introduce PROSOCIAL to their area would merely need to schedule a training event and their main remaining task would be to help invite people to the party. 

Where next? I have already started to organize a PROSOCIAL workshop in Oslo, Norway, where the Evolution Institute has developed a rich social network over the past three years. I will be interested to see how PROSOCIAL is received and how fast it spreads in a country with a strong and nurturing government, compared to the United States, where the very word “government” has become a pejorative. Bainbridge Island, located a short ferry ride from Seattle, might become the third location, just because some members of the global PROSOCIAL development team reside there and want to introduce their friends and neighbors to what they are working hard to develop worldwide, as I did for my hometown. The global development team stands ready to assist groups at any locality that wants to stage a PROSOCIAL workshop, with the understanding that we might need to build our own capacity to keep up with demand. A place-based workshop might not be the only way to grow PROSOCIAL, but it might be one of the very best ways.

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  • David, love the detail here. When did you post this, just curious? 

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