There is nothing quite like it. When you hear about a communication course, you are likely to think of super-expensive professional training courses with lots of talks and power-points, providing you with slogan-like principles and starry-eyed promises of life-changing transformations far beyond the limits of credibility.
Focus on group work
At Acem’s training in interpersonal communication, the focus is quite different. Not only is the course fee infinitely more moderate, but down-to-earth group work takes precedence over presumed experts filling your head with lofty ideas. Apart from a brief introduction on the first day of the course, there is not a single lecture until day five. Even then, the focus is not on presenting abstract concepts but rather on concrete discussions of how to interpret the scores on various forms filled in by the participants during the week.
Instead of talks and lectures, much of the time is spent in groups of six to nine people, with an extremely open agenda. In collaboration with the other group members and one or two very experienced group leaders, you seek to understand where the communication between you and the others goes awry and why, sometimes associating back to formative experiences in the near or distant past. There will be frustrating and confusing periods, especially in the first phase of the course, but there will also be moments of the relief that comes with increased insight and understanding.
Not just the brain
As one of last year’s participants, Elsa Roussel from France (now living in Switzerland), put it:
I need to trust myself more, and the course increased my self-confidence and showed me what is good for me and what is not. I was surprised to discover how much I tended to think before I had the courage to react to what others said or did. I found that I often question myself: is this something I can say? Does it make any sense? Should I perhaps not interfere? Too many brakes! I want to get to the core, and that’s what the communication training is helping me with.
Or in the words of another participant, Konstantin Poller from Germany:
I had long known that I sometimes struggle to get in touch with my own emotions. The course made me aware of how much this affects my communication. When I fail to perceive the emotional aspects of a situation, I miss out on a lot of information. Communication involves the heart, not just the brain. And this is not a slogan! The course increases my awareness and initiates a process of personal development.
In addition to the facilitated groups, there are also groups that are more thematically structured, less open-ended. The participants interview each other about central life issues, score each other along various parameters, and present themselves or each other in front of the rest of the group. This results in a close-knit group and provides a lot of input to the facilitated groups, and, according to Elsa:
The unfacilitated groups helped us to see the difference between what we think about ourselves and what others think about us. For instance, I was surprised to discover that others perceived me as being more dominant than I felt myself to be, and that I was concerned with having things my way.
Doing practical work together is an important part of the course: doing chores in the kitchen, working outside on the property, preparing for social events, and a number of other tasks. Such tasks provide a welcome diversion from the serious group work and provide a fertile ground for observing oneself and each other: with whom is it easy or difficult for me to collaborate? Who takes a leading role, and who prefers to follow the others? Who makes a real contribution, and who tends to take this as an opportunity to relax or to protest?
Body language, behavior, and facial expressions
Much of the free time is also spent with the other group members – during meals, going for walks, or relaxing together in the evenings. In the end, you get so sensitized to any tiny little detail of communication that even having a simple breakfast together provides input for self-reflection and feedback. Elsa says:
It was extremely interesting to learn how we interact with each other and how we perceive each other. Many things are not expressed in words, but in our body language, our behavior, and our facial expressions. It was also very inspiring to see how much I could relate to what other people said about themselves.
The process is full of challenges, but also solutions. Konstantin was surprised at how easily the process touched him. The emotional atmosphere helped him get in contact with his own feelings, as did questions from facilitators and other group members. In general, Elsa found the members of her group nice – sometimes even too nice – but there were also difficult times, and she found it interesting to learn to deal with group dynamics in more challenging phases and to recognize some of the defense mechanisms that were set in motion.
In a sense, it is all very hard work. At the same time, Halvorsbøle is a beautiful location that easily helps you relax – again according to Elsa:
The place is fabulous. The view of the lake is amazing, and our group was lucky to meet in a room where we could watch the trees and their branches move in the wind outside the windows, and see squirrels and birds. The food was great, and so was my own room. I slept very well the entire week.
The communication course is an international event, with groups in English, German, and Scandinavian, and with participants coming from a large number of countries in Europe and sometimes Asia, America, and Africa. This suits Elsa well, as she herself is quite international. Born in France, she grew up on the island of Réunion close to Madagascar, studied in France, had an internship in Switzerland and then a year of work in New Zealand, and she now works as a research associate in a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland.
Konstantin works as a mechanical engineer in Hamburg, Germany. “My work environment is quite technical and rarely challenges my issue with emotions. In my private life, it’s different. Relationships are built on emotions, and without them, relationships suffer.”
For both Elsa and Konstantin, last year’s communication course was a first-time experience. Both are clear that it won’t be the last: “We’ll be back!”
By Halvor Eifring
Language editor: Ann Kunish