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Dear Trainer – Dealing with difficult problems in training reviewed

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Title: Dear Trainer - Dealing with difficult problems in training
Authors: Sara Thorpe and Jackie Clifford
Publisher: Kogan Page
Date: 2000
Format: Paperback, 187 pages
Price £16.99
ISBN: 0 7494 3389 2


Leslie Rae writes:

On many occasions I have heard trainers commenting about the training books they have read, and a common comment is ‘The material was good and useful, but it always seems to be presented in the same, almost conventional way, Are there no different approaches?’. Two or three years ago a major publisher tried out a method in which the material was contained in a novel (story) form. This didn’t appear to work, as the learning material seemed to become lost in the story line. This present book which is presented in a completely different format seems to me to not only have a different approach, but also one that has an impact on learning.

The ‘story line’ of the book stems from the agreement following the meeting after a period of time of two consultants who found they were missing their interactions with other trainers as they had had in their previous occupations. They agreed to keep in touch and discuss their problems with each other, using e-mail as the medium. The book consequently consists of a number of e-mails in which one person describes a problem she is having and the other responds with comments on how she exalt with a similar problem. In some cases two or three e-mails are needed to come to an effective conclusion.

The subjects covered in the e-mail interchanges include such diverse topics as handling disagreement, using videos, confidentiality, evaluation, difficult participants, action planning, giving feedback, etc. The practical experience of the two authors in training shows through very clearly and the advice that emerges is both practical and effective.

The book is completed with a normal text section containing summaries of the authors’ general thoughts on the subjects covered in the e-mails, and includes some useful questionnaires and checklists on clarifying training needs, designing training, delivering training, and evaluating learning. There is also a short (43 items) glossary of training ranging from activist to workshops.

I recommend this book for its novel approach, comprehensive content, clarity and readability, and feel that it is suitable for novice and experienced trainer alike.

Jon Kendall writes:

I've never had a very positive attitude towards to clichés, proverbs, advice, management sayings and pat answers. For reasons that I avoid noticing my tendency is to reject them out of hand as total dross, preferring bitter experience as the route to the wisdom contained within. So when I read this summary (sorry to keep whining about clichés but doesn't this sort of thing encourage the practice of judging books by their covers?) on the back of the book…

"Using the innovative style of correspondence between two highly experienced trainers, this book offers a unique perspective on how to deal with difficult training situations. The main part of this inspiring book consists of e-mails written from one trainer to another - not mentor to mentee or trainer to trainee but colleague to colleague, friend to friend. Each frank communication poses questions and offers practical solutions that are firmly grounded in everyday situations that trainers will recognize and can learn from. Complete with action checklists and a problem solving matrix of solutions, the book offers insights, practical suggestions, new ideas and advice…."

… I found myself in that bleak state you may be familiar with: watching a dog being run over - you can't bring yourself to look; but you can't look away. The bleakness was reinforced when I looked at the further reading list - none of my favourites were there!

Then I read the contents. Then I discovered that it had been written by humans and not by training experts. The back cover words, in my view, constitute an accurate summary which should allow you to assess whether this is a book worth investing in.

But there's more - in their approach and style the authors take a swipe at a couple of cows that have remained sacred for too long. Cow 1: the colleague to colleague stance. This was refreshing and it leaves me wondering about the extent to which hierarchy, both tacit and explicit, in development relationships presents a barrier to learning and change. For instance, have you noticed how often control of the encounter is assumed by the "er" and not the "ee"? Next time you observe or listen to a coaching or feedback situation check out who brings the interaction to a close - if its not the coach I'll be amazed.

The theme is not novel, click on http://deming.eng.clemson.edu/pub/den/files/uneasy.txt for a 1957 perspective. I found this in the current learningwire: the IEE report on appraisals and Robin Cox's reply citing Douglas McGregor's "An uneasy look at performance appraisal" from HBR in 1957. Cow 2 (a close relative of cow 1): taken as a whole the interchanges highlight the ambiguities and maintain the uncertainties inherent in developmental relationships. The posture adopted by the authors illuminates the shadowy territory of how we as trainers, consultants or facilitators could benefit from exploring our behaviour, mental models, perspectives and values with the vigour and lust for improvement imposed upon our participants.


Jon Kendall
Castleton Partners
[email protected]

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