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Jackie Clifford

Clarity Learning and Development


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“But it’s different here!”: Helping learners to embrace the new


I wish it wasn’t true, but I’ve heard it too many times to be able to ignore it...

“Ah, but things are different here at XYZ ltd.” Or “That’s all very interesting, but it’s an idea from the private sector and we’re a charity.” Or “Here in the public sector, we have very specific ways of doing things, so that could never work here.” And I’m sure that you could add a few comments of your own to this list.

These comments don’t just come from cynical, change-weary employees, they also come from innovative and open individuals who really want to make a difference to their organisations.

So, what is it that causes people to erect barriers to learning and how can these be overcome?

I want to share some thoughts and ideas that have evolved for me after working with many groups of learners. Feel free to comment on them, refute them and add your own thoughts in the comments box.

New ideas = an attack on me and my existing frame of reference

All organisations have their own identity and belief system (a very simplistic and high-level view, I know, but I hope it resonates…). Add to this the expertise, personal beliefs / values and experience of each individual – perhaps built up over many years and you have an onion-like scenario with layers of different reference points, ideas and deeply held views.

We need to practise offering our ideas with humility, neutrality and objectivity – without losing passion and enthusiasm for our content.

Anything that challenges these beliefs may feel somewhat threatening – or even like a full-frontal attack. And this can lead to defensive behaviour, which is a real barrier to learning.

As L&D professionals, it is our job to help people see that there is no need to be defensive and to make it safe for our learners to consider ideas from a neutral and objective standpoint.

Staying in neutral

Because we L&D people are human beings, we too have our own beliefs, values and experiences. We also have insecurities that sometimes manifest themselves as the need to ‘play the expert’.

What this means in reality is that we can sometimes present ideas as if they are the only ones, the panacea and the answer to all questions relating to the topic at hand.

Of course, we know that this isn’t true. There may be a set of fundamental principles, but even these are open to debate and challenge.

We need to practise offering our ideas with humility, neutrality and objectivity – without losing passion and enthusiasm for our content.

When we present ideas, concepts, tools and techniques, we should present evidence to back them up, but we should also encourage our learners to challenge that evidence with their own thoughts and experiences.

By doing this we can help individuals and groups to examine information, tools and techniques, and encourage them to ask questions such as:

  • To what extent do I see this in action in my workplace? How well does it work?

  • What are the merits in this idea?

  • If I chose to, where could I apply this to my role?

  • What benefits might adopting the idea bring to my daily work?

  • What might get in the way of me using this tool / technique? Is this barrier real or perceived?

  • What do I think about this technique? How do these thoughts impact on my motivation to try it out?

To create the environment where we are open to challenge, we need to separate ourselves from the ideas and techniques that we are presenting.

And we need to use all our non-verbal communication to let our learners know that it’s ok to question our ideas – and sometimes we might need to let our learners know that we know that they are not attacking us personally!

Setting the ground rules for learning

At the start of most training workshops or facilitated sessions, there is a conversation about ground rules. Sometimes these are set with the group, on other occasions they are offered by the trainer, for the group to agree to.

I’d like to propose that we offer some ground rules that help the learners to create a learning environment in their brains.

Grounds rules or guidelines of this nature might include:

  • When you think “Yes! This is the answer that I’ve been looking for all these years”, ask yourself, which elements of this do I already use? (This will help learners to see that they don’t need to change everything, all at once.)

  • When you think “Yes, but…”, ask yourself where your ‘but’ comes from and is it real or perceived. Is an experience that you’ve had or a comment that you’ve heard impacting on how you view the idea that is being offered? (This will help learners to challenge their own thinking.)

  • When you think “No way, not for me / us…”, ask yourself why you are rejecting this idea so immediately and so definitely. What is the strength and validity of the evidence that tells you that this could never work? (This will help learners to challenge their thinking and the steps that led to the formation of these thoughts.)

Stop selling – start meeting needs

I remember when I first started my career into learning and development – it’s quite a few years ago now! I’d been working in retail, field sales and recruitment. I was confident that I could use my selling skills to convince learners to take on board whatever it was that I was training them to do. And to some extent that thinking has served me well.

Over the years, my thinking has evolved – yes, I can apply what I learned from selling, but now I believe that it’s more about meeting the learners where they are.

I now firmly believe in the power of holding up the mirror and letting the learner see the benefits for themselves.

To facilitate learning, I need to ask people what they need to learn and why they need to learn it. And then I need to come alongside them to show them some concepts, tools and techniques. Finally, I need to help them to reflect on those things and support them as they decide whether or not to apply them.

I do understand that some learning and development interventions are about implementing non-negotiable processes, and perhaps that’s where some of the selling will still be required. However, I now firmly believe in the power of holding up the mirror and letting the learner see the benefits for themselves.

And finally…

I am well aware that there are many different barriers to learning and to change – I couldn’t address all of them in a short article. I hope my words have stimulated your thinking and it would be really great if you could share some of your own thoughts on this topic. Thank you!

3 Responses

  1. This article really stood out
    This article really stood out for me. As an aspiring trainer and current classroom teacher, there was so much that I was thought was spot on, especially about presenting ideas with humility, neutrality and objectivity. Being open to challenge is so important, the more people do this, the more they are engaging with the application of what is being taught to their own lives.

  2. I personally don’t think that
    I personally don’t think that I’ve ever been good at accepting change, but as a business owner, I have to do my best to make sure that that I help the people that are affected by it as it happens. Change is inevitable and can happen for so many reasons – because your services need to be refined, or prices change, or you have problem with stock in storage… What matters the most is that you try your best to manage the situation and move forward!

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Jackie Clifford


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