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When challenging your learners backfires


Alan Matthews has some advice for the community on how to deal with the less engaged members of a training session.

As a trainer, I think your main aim is to change behaviour. Whatever the subject of your training, the outcome must surely be that people change their behaviour, do things differently, as a result. Otherwise, what’s the point?

In some cases, this may mean you may have to challenge their current ways of thinking, perhaps getting them to question some of their existing beliefs, ideas, habits or assumptions. This very fact causes potential tension between you and your learners. Because having to consider these things can make many people feel very uncomfortable.

Where you are training people in skills, you may also have to give them specific feedback about their performance. For example, on my Train the Trainer courses, people may deliver a short training session and then receive feedback from myself and the rest of the group. Again, this is not always well received. However positive and constructive you may try to be, some people can still feel aggrieved at the suggestion that their current level of performance is less than perfect.

Then there are cases where people in your group are behaving in a way which you feel is inappropriate. They may be dominating the discussions, making negative remarks about their colleagues, being disrespectful to you or other people, being deliberately disruptive or expressing opinions which you feel should not be ignored. You then have a choice as to whether, and how, you deal with this.

"There are many situations where it is part of your role to challenge people in some respect - and you need to be aware that doing so can backfire."

I’m not going to go into all the ways in which you can try to tackle 'difficult' behaviour here. My point is that there are many situations where it is part of your role to challenge people in some respect - and you need to be aware that doing so can backfire. What do I mean by this? Well, there are a number of possible negative outcomes:

  • You may get into an open argument or confrontation with someone
  • It may have an impact on your rapport with the group as a whole
  • The group may close ranks to support someone if they feel you have treated them unfairly
  • An individual may feel resentful and switch off for the rest of the training

All of these things will have an impact on the success of the training because they will affect your relationship with the learners and the quality of the learning itself. Another possible result is that you get significantly lower marks, or more negative comments, on the evaluation forms at the end of the course. There’s a reason why evaluation forms are called 'happy sheets'. If people have been made to feel uncomfortable, they tend to give worse feedback on the training.

Of course, this can be quite unfair. As I said at the start, part of your role as a trainer is to challenge people and you may have done this very carefully and skilfully. Even so, it can still make people feel uncomfortable and this almost always results in more negative feedback.

So what can you do about it?

First, be clear in your own mind why you are challenging someone. Is it legitimate to do so? Is it in the context of the training? Is it your place to do this and is this the time to do it? If giving someone feedback on their performance is part of the course then you need to do so honestly - even if it may mean raising difficult issues. If someone’s behaviour or attitude is affecting the group, the learning or your ability to do your job properly, then again it may well be legitimate to address it. If someone is just voicing an opinion which you find disagreeable, even offensive, this in itself may not be sufficient reason for you to challenge it. It may not be the time or place to deal with it and it may not be part of the job you were brought in to do.

Second, of course you need to find tactful and constructive ways to raise issues. Be careful in your language, try to balance positive and negative comments, explain that any feedback you give is in the context of helping everyone get as much as possible from the training.

Third, avoid direct confrontation. Where you have to speak to someone about their behaviour on the course, try to do so away from the group, perhaps in a break. Where possible, tackle 'difficult' behaviour by changing groups around, changing activities or some other subtle technique rather than tackling it head on.

"It can be very dispiriting to get a poor response when you feel you’ve done your best. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you did a bad job."

Fourth, discuss the training (and any evaluation) of it with stakeholders in the organisation, especially the person or people who asked you to do it. If you have received low marks or negative comments, and you feel it is because of the challenging nature of the training, then you need to make this clear. Don’t just hand over the evaluation forms and let them see low marks without any explanation or they may make very unfair judgements about the quality of your training.

As an external trainer who is brought in to organisations, I am aware that there are instances where I may be the one given the unpleasant task of challenging behaviours which the organisation wants to change but does not want (or have) people internally to do the job. In other words, sometimes the trainer is almost set up to take the flak. And sometimes that’s just part of the job. But it’s also fair, in those circumstances, to have some honest discussions with the people who have sponsored the training so they know that low marks do not mean that you did a poor job. In fact, they may mean quite the opposite – perhaps you did exactly what you were brought in to do.

Finally, remember that last point yourself. It can be very dispiriting to get a poor response when you feel you’ve done your best. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you did a bad job. Be honest in your own assessment of your performance and also accept that, as a trainer, you are not there to be everybody’s friend and to make everyone feel good about themselves. You are there to help people to learn and to change behaviour.

And sometimes learning and changing make people feel uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s bad for them and it doesn’t make you a bad trainer.

This article first appeared on Alan Matthews's blog. You can find it here. Alan Matthews runs TransformYourTraining. You can purchase his new book, 'How to Design and Deliver Great Training' from Amazon here. He works with internal training teams to help them design and deliver exciting and engaging training. You can get a free copy of 'How To Be A Top Trainer' from and you can follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanMatthews11

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