Over-sharing: the downside of experiential learning in groups

Anyone who has been in the training room with a participant who ‘over shares’ knows that self-disclosure can go too far. There’s a big difference between reflecting (a vital part of learning) and ruminating. Rumination involves obsessively focusing on negative events, without resolving or learning from them.  

Rumination blocks learning. When a group participant recounts an experience in graphic detail, they become stuck in the ‘what’ of their experience. This means they don’t progress to the most important part of experiential learning: examining the question ‘what did I learn from this?’ 

Signs that someone is stuck in storytelling, rather than progressing to learning include: 

  • Going into excessive detail about an experience, event or interaction 
  • Repeating the same tale multiple times during a session 
  • Failure to notice the reactions of other group members – who will quickly start to shuffle or look bored when too much information is shared  
  • Strong displays of emotions such as anger, frustration or learned helplessness 
  • Sharing of traumatic experiences without concern for the psychological wellbeing of other group members 

Masterful facilitators and positive psychology trainers know how to disrupt the negative dynamic rumination can create. Indeed, the ability to shift group members from rumination to learning is a hallmark of a great practitioner. Here are some of the tactics you’ll see master trainers using to prompt a progression from tale-telling to learning.  

Great trainers set learning frames at the start of their sessions 

They explain the process of adult learning and how to get the most from group discussions. This involves sharing a process for reflective conversation – a good example is the ‘what…so what…now what?’ frame. In workshops that are likely to spark high emotions – for example conflict management sessions – great trainers explain “this is training, not group therapy”. This enables them to gracefully move conversations into learning mode when participants over-share.  

They balance group safety with individual safety 

Responsible trainers are aware of the dynamics of vicarious trauma. Listening to one person’s traumatic experience can cause immense distress to other group members. Experienced facilitators frame their activities carefully to prevent this. For example, “In this activity you will share examples of times you overcame a problem. Please avoid sharing stories of extreme distress or trauma, as your fellow group members are not qualified to handle these. Focus on examples of problems caused by inconvenience or disruption but have no ongoing impact on your life now.” 

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 Wise trainers refer to appropriate sources of help 

 Sometimes participants bring their emotional or psychological problems into the training room. Experienced trainers know the signs of emotional distress and respond empathically. Where necessary, they refer participants to appropriate assistance. This can include HR practitioners, conflict coaches, mediators, counsellors or the organisation’s employee assistance program.  

Experiential training methods are powerful triggers for learning. When led by skilled practitioners, they bring out the best in people. The next time you’re looking for someone to run a training or teambuilding session, ask them how they handle over-sharing in the group. Their answer will tell you how successfully they will help individuals turn knowledge into wisdom.  

About the author of this article: 

Eleanor Shakiba is a trusted coach and trainer to thousands of professionals in high intellect fields. Her expertise is in using positive psychology to build high performing leaders and teams. Eleanor works with trainers and HR specialists to build exceptional organisations and teams. She is the author of the Positive Psychology Toolkit for HR and L&D practitioners. She also runs a range of retreats and workshops for trainers and facilitators.