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THE PROCESS AND ECOLOGY OF THE FORUM

An excerpt from "The Children of est: A study of the Experience and Perceived Effects of a Large Group Awareness Training (The Forum)"

By CHARLES WAYNE DENISON

Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, 1994

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The Process and Ecology of The Forum

The descriptions of The Forum that follow have their source in the observer's notes, the accounts of the twenty research subjects, and in printed materials provided by Landmark Education. Descriptions from personal observations are written in the first person and present tense in order to convey 'a feel' for the experience. Other data are presented in the form of interview quotas, tables, and illustrations. Each subject was given a pseudonym to protect confidentiality; in no case is an interview subject's real name given in this study.

The entire section is intended to address the process question of what participants actually experience in The Forum. The various aspects of structure, curriculum, and pedagogy constitute the conditions for that process. The data were analyzed through description, interpretation, evaluation, and thematics.

An "Introduction" to The Forum 

"An Evening About The Forum" lasts for at least three hours, and it is about The Forum-more specifically, about why you should enroll in The Forum. It also requires a ticket (which is free) for admission. It is usually a small, cozy group of 50-75, and it is led by an actual Forum leader. This is one of several opportunities to hear all about it before you try it. If you didn't learn about the training through An Evening About The Forum, then you likely got your first exposure in a "Tuesday Evening Session." 

Every Forum is presented on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday--9:00 a.m. to about midnight each day--plus a Tuesday evening. Tuesday evening is the night to bring friends and family, preferably all your friends and family ... and workmates ... and anyone else you might have met between Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon. Given the euphoria that many Forum participants are basking in. it is almost certain that some will arrive with guests they had never met before yesterday.

 The Tuesday Evening Session is not held at the Landmark Education seminar facility. That would be much too plain and much too small. On Sunday night we had played "a game." The game may not have a name, but the Forum leader started it by challenging the group: "Who will bring twenty or more guests to the Tuesday evening session?" A couple of daring, exceptionally enthusiastic types raise their hands-"I'm gonna play! I'll bring twenty!" Applause.

Over the next thirty minutes the game continues. It's like an auction in reverse, starting with high bidders and working down through the ranks. Everybody has the opportunity to buy in. To be fair, it must be said that the leader greets those who are willing to bring three guests with as much enthusiasm and encouragement that is given to those who are bringing their whole office and church.

The game ends with the leader asking for the hands of those who are not willing to commit to any number of guests. As if to give them one final opportunity, the leader offers: "How, about those of you who are willing to talk to at least one person, just invite them to the evening session? You don't have to bring them, just talk to them." Now there are a few takers among the previously non-bidding group.

If this game has the flavor of a small-town church revival, then Tuesday night may be likened to a city-wide, football-stadium crusade in the Bible Belt. So, no, the Tuesday evening session is not hold at the training facility. The Sheraton at the Denver Tech Center, or the ballrooms of Albuquerque's finest hotels is the more likely location for the closing ceremonies. 

Several hundred guests file in with their host trainees; all are greeted with beaming smiles and welcomes by impressively clad "assistants" (The Forum's quasi-synonym for "turned-on volunteers"). For the first hour our charismatic Forum leader will entertain and inspire us all. with the help of trainees' testimonials. The trainees, by the way, also had the opportunity on Sunday night to commit to raising their hands on Tuesday, whenever the trainer asked for "sharing." This they do, by the dozens.

"What happened for you at The Forum?" "How did it make a difference in your life?" A man in his 40s takes a microphone and shares that he had not seen his father in 15 years. Through the Forum leader's encouragement, confrontation, or whatever, this man has now made contact with his father and committed to resolve his resentment. That might be impressive enough in itself: but here's the punchline: "And now I'd like to introduce you to my father, who flew in from Seattle to be with me here tonight!" 

The cheers are deafening. The Forum staff express their pleasure and support of this breakthrough, but betray no sense of surprise. Throughout the testimonials many are overcome with joy; some are squirming a bit: and some are wondering what the hell they are doing at this show. It's all in a Forum day's work. 

After about an hour, the guests are separated from their hosts and directed to a number of smaller seminar rooms. "Introduction -to-The-Forum leaders" (volunteers who spent six months being trained for this task, flying to Chicago four times at their own expense) will engage your small group in an "Introduction to The Forum." At the end you will, surprise, have the opportunity to register for The Forum yourself. Your host and the other trainees are in the other room "Completing their Forum" and they will be reunited with you in a couple of hours.

 Why are you sitting here, being introduced to The Forum? "You are here because your friends and family members who invited you tonight love you and are committed to your life. They want you to have a breakthrough in living-they want you to be in The Forum." If you sign up when the opportunity is offered, you are in good shape. All it takes is a $5O deposit to be enrolled in The Forum. Just an hour ago the Forum leader had waved his pretty silk tie at the crowd and disclosed its price: $55. "How much more is it worth to spend the $50 that will change your life forever?" Congratulations on being in The Forum! 

And if you don't sign up? Well ... that's different. An assistant-no, probably several assistants-will wander over to your little group. As you and your follow guests plot your conspiracy to kill your uncle Joe for subjecting the whole family to this obnoxious sales pitch, you will be offered additional opportunities to change your mind. You may resist and never register, you may resist, buckle under, and leave the hotel with your PAID receipt for next month's Forum. "Congratulations!" Oh, and don't forget: "Your Forum began the moment you registered, you know."

When you leave the Introduction to The Forum you have registered--or not. Though it be less than obvious, you have the right to choose either path. If you registered, but believe that you were forced or "pressured" to do so, the issue will resurface on the first day of the training. 

Getting to The Forum

How does one get to The Forum? There are no advertisements or radio spots. Forum graduates are the primary marketing tool for the program. Time after time the Forum leader encourages-and trains-participants to bring guests to the various introductions to the program. Virtually all Forum graduates were personally invited to attend.8

8 The present researcher is only a partial exception. After reading Yalom's references to The Forum/est in several books, I invited myself to attend an introduction (with one of my patients) as an inquiry for potential research-- of which this study is the product. I had, however, attended an introduction five years earlier in California. at the invitation of "a friend of a friend." Although I found the evening interesting, neither I nor my two friends registered. Back then the training was still two weekends long. and a heftier $525.

The following chart depicts the categories of persons who invited the present subjects to their Forum:

Who Invited/Introduced you to The Forum? # in category
Friend or neighbor 7
Co-worker/fellow professional 5
Family member (other than spouse) 3
Spouse 2
Significant other (boyfriend/girlfriend) 1
Friend of a friend 1
Self-referred (through past participation with est) 2

One subject was invited numerous times by a neighbor friend. but would not agree to go. Later a co-worker invited her and she agreed to attend. Both invitations are included here. yielding the total of 21 in the chart.

The reasons given for participants actually registering covered several areas:

Primary reason participant decided to register # in category
Holds the inviter in high esteem 5
Responded to inviter's persistence/pressure 4
Thought it would address relevant personal issues 2
Impressed by results he/she saw in another graduate 3
The program itself seemed interesting/attractive 4
Wanted to understand another graduate's experience 2

The "Introductions to The Forum" described above are the occasion upon which many trainees actually register for The Forum. Others attend no formal introduction. but register by phone or at a Landmark Education Center. (There is no "center"-an office- in some cities where The Forum is given: Albuquerque and Salt Lake City are examples of such cities in the west. Registrants may sign up via phone or at an introduction. usually hold in hotels.)

Attended a formal Intro. to The Forum # of responses
YES 9
NO 6
Did not say 5

Although a number of these participants did not go to introductions themselves. some had opinions about the introductions and whether they recommend them or not:

Tom: Sandy (wife] advised me not to go to any introductory sessions ... I didn't get exposed to the culture of The Forum before I did The Forum.

Leo: ... the thing that attracted me was that this ... leader was talking ... and what he had to say. the ideas and the thoughts and the concepts. I thought were really neat And really interesting. And not flaky or trendy or anything like that.

Jill: I thought [some of the people at the introduction night] were probably on drugs or something! [laughs] No. they had this sort of unreal quality to them, I thought, sort of cultish ... I was actually sort of turned off by the people. [As far as the introduction goes.] I registered in spite of it.

Leah: I thought it was a little bit hoaky ... It reminded me of a revival.

Every registrant in The Forum is asked to identify goals regarding what they want to got out of The Forum. The interviewees were asked to identify both significant recent life events (before The Forum) and any goals or issues they wanted to address in their training experience:

Recent. significant life events/experiences # responses
Positive stressor (marriage. move. career change) 5
Negative career or job change/experience 4
Divorce 1
Marriage/relationship conflict or tension 7
Family conflict or tension (besides marriage) 1
Death or personal loss in family 3
Sense of low self-esteem 1
Sense of discomfort or dissatisfaction in life 3
(Subjects who reported no significant events) 1

The actual goals that participants had, and issues they wanted to address. varied widely. Results were not easily categorized. and summaries of responses are shown here:

Name

Description of stated goals and/or issues

1 Sandy
  • Procrastination
2 Tom .
  • No actual goals. but told them "I want more free time" in life
3 Gerald
  • Enhance overall effectiveness with clientele
  • Clarify some questions of career-related doubts
4 Leo
  • Wanted to address issues about past career problems, his divorce. and his relationship-patterns after the divorce
5 Jill
  • To become a better communicator
  • To be less perfectionistic
  • To procrastinate less
  • To set priorities better/become more organized
  • To be mom competent/effective in career
6 Lillian
  • Learn to listen better
7 Jim
  • Just wanted to reconnect with his est experience
8 Karen
  • "Get a handle" on marital tension
9 Victor
  • Mostly went out of curiosity
  • Needed resolution on marital struggles

10 Alice

  • Relationship with significant other (recently ended)
  • Resolution around death of mother
  • Improve relationship/communication with kids
11 Bill
  • No stated goals
12 Leah
  • it would help her to understand what husband (Jerry) was talking about. from his Forum experience
13 Jerry
  • Needed to address the negative reaction that many people were having to his attitude/behavior
14 Mary
  • No stated goals. but was uncomfortably aware that they did expect goals from her
15 Brent
  • To have a spiritual experience- a breakthrough A "kick in the butt"--general motivation to move on in Life
16 Cheryl
  • None stated--tired of husband's "est talk"
17 Gina

(Topic not addressed in interview)

18 Luanne
  • "Get my finances straightened"
  • "Plan a trip to Europe"
  • "Take careof my college education"
19 Ben
  • Needed to understand things from former marriage--..looking for my own comfort"
20 Janice
  • Says she stated whole list of picky, neurotic things about herweight. getting over her dislike of cats and cars and planes, and other "little things"

Several participants commented that they stated their goals simply to got the Forum volunteer staff to stop questioning them. Some of the goals either changed during The Forum, or were not really considered "serious" goals when they stated them.

The vast majority of Forum trainees enroll at the invitation of someone they already know. Overall, there was a negative evaluation from the subjects regarding formal introductions to The Forum. The introductions were consistently described as a 'hard sell' or simply a marketing tool. It was found that the stated goals (for life areas to be addressed) (ell into four general categories:

1. Personal development
2. Relationship issues
3. Work/career
4. No specific goals

The above data represent some of the significant aspects of the training that the participants experienced before The Forum formally began.

Getting Others to The Forum

A visible part of the curriculum of The Forum addresses "contribution." Those who are empowered in their lives are better able to extend that possibility of fulfillment to others. Examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are used often by Forum staff. "People want to contribute, and be contributed to." As an expression of that contribution graduates are supported in doing charity work, in fully committing themselves to their chosen vocations and relationships, and in "sharing The Forum" with others. Graduates have access to slick. informational brochures and to a multi-colored "how-to" booklet entitled Sharing The Landmark Forum.

Gina, a psychotherapist. says she has had "hundreds of people go through (est) and The Forum," although she's never been able to enroll a fellow therapist. She consistently recommends it to her own clients, as an adjunct to therapy. Gina also described the recommendations in terms of "contribution":

A lot of what I think The Forum is about is contribution. That The Forum contributed to you. and you contribute to other people. And so that's part of your job.

Getting others to experience The Forum is a concrete expression of that contribution. Jerry, a pediatrician, says that he was going home every night during The Forum and talking about it with his wife. Although he was more interested in sharing his insights than in recruiting her, his persistence "had her in tears by the end of The Forum."

Eighteen of the 20 participants would recommend The Forum to another person. There is a tendency to "play the game" of bringing guests to the Tuesday night closing (see description, above); there is also a tendency among participants to lose that enthusiasm for bringing guests to introductions. Four participants emphasized that they would now specifically recommend that a prospective trainee not go to an introduction. Janice, a sociologist, has enrolled a number of her students in The Forum. Her approach to introductions. however. is "I just don't bring guests-Period!"

Two of the interviewees, Brent and Luanne, have been through a special program called "Introduction to The Forum Leaders' Program" (IFLP). At their own expense they fly to Chicago four times for training to lead introductions; there is an extensive commitment to this program and to the "assisting agreements" that accompany it. Even so. one of these leaders stated. "People get really bummed about intros. I don't know how effective they are."

Every interview included an evaluative question concerning what the subject dislikes or criticizes about The Forum. The response of the interviewees, overwhelmingly, is that the practice of using graduates for recruiting ('enrolling') others is a negative one. Some see it as closely related to the public criticisms of The Forum as coltish and guilty of brainwashing participants. They describe it as "inappropriate," "a turn-off," "proselytizing," a "club the baby seals attitude," and "damned, constant enrollment shit."

On the other side of the issue. one participant said she has now come to see it as "an invitation," although she used to have a negative view of the practice. Luanne, who admitted that some people get "bummed" by introductions. says that she does see it as more of "an opportunity" than "a sell."

Summary

These data illustrate that there is a significant and complicated process of introduction to the training before the participant ever begins Day One of The Forum. It suggests a cyclical practice whereby graduates are encouraged to bring others into the event in a manner similar to the one that brought them in. This section has also helped to identify the recent life events and personal issues that accompany trainees to The Forum.


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