After twenty years in the business of training people, I’ve learned a few truths about teaching adults:
1. The client will only give you the information you ask for so make sure you find out as much as you can about their goals and the employees’ attitudes and expectations before you develop or teach a class.
2. Something unexpected will happen. Flexibility and quick-thinking is necessary in these circumstances. Preparation and proper fact-finding (see #1) will eliminate most of these surprises.
3. Almost every class will include participants who do not want to be there. Some of them will try to challenge you.
4. What you do about problems/mishaps during training is more important than the actual problem. These occurrences show that you’re human if you handle them well.
I was reminded of these facts with a recent client. I cut my training teeth on a very difficult and challenging population, so when a client hints that their employees might exhibit negative or unprofessional attitudes, my manager puts me in charge.
At the beginning of a recent workshop, the atmosphere in the room vibrated with a nervous tension, but I expected this (thanks to #1 and 3 above) and came prepared to involve everyone quickly. Soon I had everyone talking and laughing and the tension evaporated. Then, Sally (not her name) arrived.
What can I tell you? Some people want to be miserable and are not happy unless everyone else shares in their misery. This was Sally. She entered as I explained an activity. I gave her the information and told her that I would let her go last so she would have time to participate. She shoved the papers away and rolled her eyes at me. Undaunted (see # 2 & 3), I squatted beside her seat and told her that I knew her responsibilities required that she arrive late and that the activity was a simple form of introduction. Everyone had done it and it would just take her a second. She picked up a marker, glanced at the paper, and tossed the marker on the table muttering under her breath. Her arms folded over her chest, she glared at me in defiance.
I decided now was the time to go over simple ground rules: listen, share, be on time, turn off cell phones, and maintain a positive attitude. I hoped that Sally would get it and try to participate. She put her head down for part of this discussion, but when I got to the part about attitude, she began to complain. Not to me, but her body language screamed for attention and she continued to mutter angrily. Her classmates exhibited discomfort with her behavior.
This is where # 4 comes in to play. You can not let a student hijack your class, so you have to be prepared to try something even if it doesn't work. The other participants expect you to do something and will forgive your mistakes as long as you try. So, I attempted to involve them in a discussion about the impact of negative attitudes on other people. Sally countered with loud sighs and eye rolls and irritable body language.
So, I stopped and did something I’ve only done a few times in all of my years of training. I focused the class’ attention fully on Sally and said, “Since you are intent on sharing, why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”
She did. She resented the need to come to training after having worked long hours, plus she ran into a few problems on her way to the class (she described this more fully than I will share here). I asked the rest of the class to raise their hands if they could relate to having days like Sally described. We all raised our hands. We discussed that we often feel stressed and have to do things we don’t want to. That’s just life. In effect, I gave her permission to not like it, but I removed her right to interrupt the workshop.
After that, Sally participated. She smiled. She joked. She shared. She listened. Was she the perfect participant? No. But by focusing all of our attention on her, I gave her exactly what she wanted. Just not the way she expected me to. That's the key to #3 & 4.
I’m sorry to say that the following week I learned that her behavior was the last straw for her employer and they terminated Sally. I’m not sorry that she was terminated—her actions indicated a serious lack of respect and professionalism—but I would have liked an opportunity to work with her sooner. I don’t know if I could have helped her or not, but I sure would have liked to try.
In the working world, most of us know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. What I would love to know is how someone makes it into their mid-thirties without that awareness?