In the 1960’s, Timothy Leary coined the term “set and setting” referring to a context that influenced the outcomes of psychoactive and psychedelic drug experiments on his subjects. “Set” refers to one’s mindset, “setting” refers to the environment in which the user has the experience. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting that you administer psychoactive drugs to your participants, though I’m sure that would make your job a whole lot more interesting. What I am suggesting is that “set and setting” play a significant, and often overlooked role, in your work as a trainer, facilitator, or group leader.
Imagination creates reality… Man is all imagination.
– Neville (1905–1972), visionary and mystic –
The set is the mental state a person brings to your group. This includes their thoughts, judgments, beliefs, mood, and expectations about the work, the group, and/or particular group members. According to Neville and many modern thinkers, mystics, physicists, and others, our expectations and intentions about what will happen often has a lot to do with our experience of what does happen.
The setting refers to the physical or social environment. We all know the impact that friendly versus unfriendly, or stressful versus relaxed environments have on us. Stress, fear or a disagreeable environment may contribute a great deal to an unpleasant experience (bad trip in Leary’s terms). Conversely, a relaxed, curious person in a warm, comfortable and safe place is more likely to have a pleasant experience (or a good trip).
Can we facilitate the mental state of our participants before, during, or after group work? Can we manipulate the physical or social environment to get better results? As facilitators, I say “yes” and “yes,” this is a big part of what we do, intentionally or unintentionally. But how?
Several years ago, during a weekend workshop at our local community college with a group of learning disabled students, I thought I’d try something a bit provocative. This was a personal growth workshop aimed at facilitating self-awareness around effective and ineffective behaviors to improve workplace success. I decided to bring in a crystal bowl used to create rich harmonic sounds for meditation and ritual. This particular bowl was tuned to the 3rd chakra, that of “Will.” Though I was a bit unsure about trying what might be considered by many to be a little too “woo woo” for a college course, I trusted by intuition and decided to give it a go.
I placed the bowl, of opaque white crystal, measuring ten inches in diameter, in the center of the table in front of the room. After some introductory remarks about the work to follow, I told the group about the bowl. I said something like this, “This is a crystal turning bowl I brought from home that I thought might help us focus and tune in to each other today. This bowl creates a very pleasant sound. The sound it creates is said to resonate with a body center responsible for our will and our action in the world. Since we are all here to clarify and strengthen our ability to act effectively, I think that playing this bowl might help us off to good start. You may find that closing your eyes will be most beneficial and simply let the sound fill you.”
I then played the bowl for a minute or so. There was a tangible sense of quiet and stillness in the room. It felt as if we had actually “attuned” ourselves to a common, peaceful mind state. I played the bowl each time we came back from a break and people scrambled to turn off the lights and get down on the floor to enjoy the experience. It was obvious that everyone loved it.
Influencing the Set
For centuries, shaman have beaten drums, churches have sung hymns, and monks have chanted, all to affect states of consciousness through sound. I share my story as another way sound can be used to shift the mind state of a group. Here are more ideas you can use to align the mind state of groups. Use other forms of sound such as recorded music, chanting, and singing. Groups making or experiencing sound together tend to resonate together in thought and feeling.
Ask your group to imagine or visualize the perfect outcome of their work together in great detail. Have them share these creations with each other.
Ask your group to let go of any judgments, assumptions, or preconceptions while they engage in the possibility of creating something new together. Let them know that the group’s work will be impeded by preconceptions about the “way things are,” and that you are not asking them to change their minds, you’re simply asking them to “suspend” their judgments, assumptions, or preconceptions temporarily as an experiment.
Get a reading from your group, preferably before they show up, as to their expectations about what is to take place and to be accomplished. If the element of surprise is not a necessary feature of the work you’re doing, give participants some preview of the work, making adjustments to meet their expectations to enhance their commitment to the work.
Ask yourself these questions to help you arrive at additional ways to adjust the set. Where have your participants come from? What is their likely mindset as a result? What mind state will support the work you’re there to do? What can you do to help put them in this state?
Adjusting the Setting
We all know that our physical and social environments can have a dramatic effect on us. We spend a great deal of effort decorating our homes and offices, landscaping our yards, and surrounding ourselves with our favorite people. When it comes to facilitating, training, or leading groups, we are similarly impacted by these environments. Here are a few tips to adjust the setting for your group work.
Adjust the seating arrangements to be appropriate to your purpose. Here is a site depicting seating arrangements for various purposes.
Make sure everyone is visible to everyone in the room. Also confirm that all participants can see any visuals you’re displaying.
Consider artifacts such as pictures, decor, scents, colors, and other props that will enhance and support your group purpose. For example, for a group seeking to develop a strategic plan, you might choose to display pictures that inspire creative and expansive thinking.
Finally, to come up with further ideas, ask yourself these questions. What do you want your participants to sense when they come into the room? How do you want them to feel about working together? What can you do to the environment to have it reflect these sensations to enhance your work together just a bit more?
How can you use the concept of set and setting to improve your group events and gatherings? I’d love to hear from you. Please tell us what this article inspires in you in the comments section below.