How the Element of Surprise Helps You Conduct Staff Trainings

June 10, 2016
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Most adult learners appreciate an interactive teaching format that includes discussion, group work, activities, experiences, and simulations. Learning increases as content is conveyed, not only through interactive lectures but also from participating in activities.

CPI training programs incorporate a variety of state-of-the-art adult learning principles. These include:

  • Extensive levels of interaction.
  • Clear and simple resources.
  • Immediately and realistically applying concepts and skills.

Two of my favorite areas of teaching and learning have always involved the processes of interaction and discovery. In fact, many Certified Instructors often ask me about a brief activity I sometimes use when introducing the CPI Crisis Development Model*.

This technique involves respectfully introducing a safe amount of anxiety into my participant group. I sometimes do this by introducing the Crisis Development Model nonverbally. Here is a step-by-step breakdown of how I work this brief experience into my trainings:

Before class

Before class, I respectfully approach a participant and ask them to help me with an activity during class.

  • I assure the participant that I will not touch them or hurt them in any way during the activity.
  • After obtaining their permission, I explain that I will be surprising them just before I teach the Crisis Development Model.
  • I further explain that they simply need to be themselves in response to the surprise. The purpose of their surprise is to help other participants discover a simple concept.
  • I often tell the volunteer that I will reward them with a CPI poster.
  • I say nothing further about the nature of the surprise or the activity.

During class

Just before teaching the Crisis Development Model, I suddenly pause and look intently at my volunteer.

  • While continuing to look at the volunteer, I often cross my arms and change my facial expression.
  • I don’t maintain this demeanor for any specific length of time. Instead, I wait for noticeable changes in participant behavior. Such changes in behavior may involve fidgeting, laughing, changes in facial expression, etc.
  • Once enough time has passed, I return to my more typical teaching style and thank the volunteer for helping me. If I promised the volunteer a poster or another incentive, I follow through with the reward.

Debriefing the activity

After thanking my volunteer, I ask all participants what just happened. Typical responses include:

  • “Something was wrong!”
  • “You stopped talking…”
  • “You stopped smiling…”
  • “You crossed your arms!”
  • Etc. etc. etc.

As I inevitably also observe behavioral changes in the participant group, I then describe these changes to them. Examples include:

  • “Some of you fidgeted.”
  • “I noticed a few of you laughing.”
  • “A couple people looked at me with a questioning facial expression.”

Applying this activity to your trainings

Lead this discussion into the Term – Definition – Example model in defining and describing the Anxiety level of the Crisis Development Model. It also helps you teach your participants about tone, volume, and cadence, and how paraverbal communication can escalate or de-escalate a situation.

And there will be many other opportunities to reach back to examples from this activity as you progress through other topics in various CPI training programs as well.


* Not a Certified Instructor? In Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training, the CPI Crisis Development Model℠ outlines a series of recognizable behavior levels that an individual may go through during crisis. It also describes corresponding attitudes and approaches that staff can use for crisis intervention.

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