- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

Sensitivity training: You get out of it what you put into it

Ozzie Guillen said he was glad he went. John Rocker called it a farce. Fisher DeBerry went and, judging by his experience, didn’t learn his lesson.

The majority of people who attend sensitivity training, both in and out of the sports world, do it because they have to. What they get out of it depends almost completely on whether they have an open mind when they go in.

“It may not change fundamental beliefs, but you can certainly change people’s behaviors,” said Jesse Gutierrez, who runs Cor Communications in California. “At the minimum, people have to realize they can’t use certain behaviors, and if they do, there are going to be consequences.”

Gutierrez teaches sensitivity training in classes, seminars and in one-on-one sessions, much like the one Guillen was sent to in the wake of the derogatory comment he used in a rant against Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti.

Guillen used a term that describes someone’s sexual orientation — the kind of word it would seem is obviously out of bounds. Gutierrez said that, of course, the word Guillen used is inappropriate in almost any context.

“But again, in the heat of the moment, when emotions run high, or at parties, at gatherings, or when someone’s trying to make a joke, sometimes things are said with disregard for the fact that it’s inappropriate,” Gutierrez said.

The quest at sensitivity training is as much about identifying inappropriate words as it is about recognizing the right and wrong times to spout them.

Gutierrez said about 80 percent of the people who come to him have had a “quote, unquote, bad experience,” often related to their work.

“They either have made some comment like Guillen made, or there’s some level of behavior that comes under the general category of disrespect or inappropriate,” Gutierrez said.

Many businesses offer sensitivity training or diversity training courses as part of their much broader employment assistance programs.

While Guillen spent two hours with a counselor, Gutierrez’ one-on-one sessions last the entire day. They start with a long introduction, in which clients introduce themselves to him, tell the story of who they are, their family and background. After establishing rapport, they discuss definitions and beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation, disabilities. He shows clients videos and they go through role-playing exercises to identify the kind of words and behavior that are and aren’t appropriate.

He gives them a popular “wisdom” book, “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide To Personal Freedom.” Written by Don Miguel Ruiz, the book “talks in a general and powerful way about a few things that trip us up,” Gutierrez said.

One of the agreements described in the book is to “be impeccable with your word.”

“The word is a force;” Ruiz writes, “it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think and thereby to create the events in your life.”

Often, at Gutierrez’s office, there are several follow-up appointments, some in person and some on the telephone, to see how the clients are doing. The process normally lasts months, not weeks or days.

“It does take a while to make changes,” Gutierrez said. “Normally, people leave the experience saying, ‘It’s nothing like what I thought it was going to be. I thought people were going to rant and rail at me. I thought it would be a punishment session. But really, I learned a lot today.’”

Of course, whether they really learned something is usually borne out over time.

In November 2004, DeBerry, the football coach at Air Force, hung a banner in the athletic complex that said “I am a Christian first and last … I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” The banner was ordered removed and DeBerry received religious sensitivity counseling that had been instituted campus-wide in the wake of complaints of religious intolerance at the Academy.

But last year, DeBerry got into trouble again when he blamed a loss on the fact that the opposing school “had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did.” He was reprimanded but not fired for those comments.

Rocker, meanwhile, was sent to sensitivity training after offensive comments he made in a Sports Illustrated story in 1999.

“The guy told me when I got there I had to show up to make it look good for people, so after about 15 minutes I left and walked right out of the room and it satisfied the powers that be,” Rocker recently told the Chicago Tribune.

And Guillen, who will attend another session after next week’s All-Star Game, said he was glad he did it.

But will it change him?

“I will be the same guy,” he said, “use a different word.”

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