Psychoteraphy, coaching, changework

How To Become a Better Trainer


Having trained with a lot of trainers, from completely unknown, to some world-class people (and some world-famous, as the two don’t actually go together all that often) , I’ve had the chance to observe both what works and what really doesn’t .

Now, my main problem with most of what’s sold as training nowadays is that it’s not. It’s not training, I mean. It might be valuable, it’s often entertaining, but it’s not training. It’s public speaking with some group exercises mixed in – if you’re lucky. But the thing is, it’s not training, and most people who believe they’re trainers are actually public speakers, with very limited training skills. Becoming aware of this is key to actually becoming a better trainer and I know several very good public speakers who, with just a little work on “classic” training skills, could become far more flexible and effective in their work.

Personally I blame the seminar circuit for the state of things. Now, if you don’t know what the seminar circuit is, it’s something with a fairly rich, but progressively darker history. In the olden days (XIX century, basically), people who wanted to learned more about the world, or just get some amusement, didn’t really have many options for it. If they lived in larger, metropolitan areas, they might get access to (usually paid) university lectures and the like, but these living in smaller towns had few chances of anything like that. One of the attempted solutions were public, paid seminars by authorities, writers, scientists, etc. People would go to these like they go to the cinema nowadays. It was a combination of entertainment and education in a time where both were scarce and low quality. It was also the main income source for many famous people, including Samuel Clemens (or Mark Twain, as he’s usually known). Even Oscar Wilde traveled to America on one of these, touring some of the smallest and roughest mining towns along his way.

Since travel was slow in these times, especially over the large distances in America, such seminars were usually set up so that they could be done sequentially in one big, many-month journey, which allowed the presenter to earn a considerable amount of cash. Such a set of seminar locations was called the “seminar circuit” at one point and the main seminar circuit in these days went through pretty much most of the US, with a special concentration in the middle, rural states, where – unlike both coasts, rife with famous universities – such attractions were far and between.

In later years, the significance of the seminar circuit was diminished by radio and TV. Even the lectures changed, with many prominent speakers, such as Ayn Rand, basically sending out their tape-recorded lectures to different lecture locations. Even later, the circuit was basically taken over by the spirituality, self-development and get-rich-quick crews, with “spiritual” teachers like the Hicks, real-estate gurus like Allen or various self-development speakers.

Now, the thing with the seminar circuit is this – it’s about seminars. And seminars are basically a one-way exchange. In general the only replies the public speaker is truly interested in are replies which support his position or let him elaborate on it. That’s because, with the size of the audience, there just isn’t enough time to refer to everybody’s individual issues or problems. Furthermore, if the speaker would attempt that, the general strength of his message would fall, as good speeches need to be clear and direct, not point out to the multiple variables involved. Otherwise most of the audience would simply get lost.

Again, seminars are all good and fine, they have their value (especially when they’re not used as a vehicle for platform sales, as has become a growing trend). However, they are not trainings. But because most self-development trainers have only ever experienced seminars, they tend to believe trainings are pretty much the same as seminars.

Only, they’re not.

And it’s this lack of awareness that haunts most trainers I’ve seen. Writing these words from the perspective of someone who had first experienced a seminar-type trainers training (a public speaker training, basically), and then went through a “classic” trainers training, I can see both sides of the issue.

First of all, most seminar-trainers aren’t really aware that there even is another kind of training, that it can go differently. They usually haven’t experienced any real trainings (if you belong to such a group, I’d recommend trying out something like a gestalt-style interpersonal training). Furthermore, if they have, they usually start by judging the trainers on their public speaking skills (which tend to be worse than in seminar-trainers), and by what they’d expect from seminars, so they don’t get to notice other things going on, like the level of group engagement in the training process. Nor are they even aware of such issues as assessing the long-term effectiveness of the training, so they simply don’t know what to expect.

On the other side, most classic trainers tend to consider the seminar-trainers as showmen or even simply as frauds (which isn’t helped by the platform sales thing I’ve mentioned, so common in seminar-trainers such as Tony Robbins or Robert Kiyosaki).

As such, they don’t even try to explain the difference. In fact, it is quite hard to explain the difference by words – at least words that don’t seem like empty claims – the difference tends to be something which needs to be experienced personally to be fully understood. Nonetheless, I’ll try to point out some differences later on.

At this point it should be enough that classical trainers, who tend to concentrate on business training, don’t usually even try to convey the difference. In fact, because of how a “classic” training is done, it can’t even be filmed all that well (unlike seminars), so it’s hard to make a cheaper product out of it, something which can be enjoyed at leisure. As such the general public has little awareness with this kind of training.

So, what’s the whole thing about? Why do I claim that this “classic” training is so important and valuable?

Basically, because it’s actually training. As such, it mainly involves the participant, the person being trained, and not the person doing the training. This is quite different from the “I am a star” attitude many seminar-trainers have and often even enjoy.

During a classic training, it’s the participant who becomes the star. In fact, many classic training schools openly state that the trainer presenting for more than 10-15 minutes at a time is making a serious error. Now presentation is important, yes, but it should be mixed with other training forms – discussion, exercises, training games and activities of various kinds, debates, case studies and many other available methods which engage the training participants. This in turn makes them learn the skills and knowledge more effectively and in ways better fitted to their individual situations and skills.

Another significant issue differentiating training and seminars is the approach to conflict, especially trainer-participant conflict. In seminars, the standard solution is to consider the participant a “tough cookie”, or even consider the whole group “a tough audience” and to attempt to dominate them. This can work, to a point, people will usually become compliant, especially in open trainings, when they themselves selected to be there. However, a large part of that compliance will come from withdrawal – such people will still be resisting the training, but they’ll be resisting it by being passive and avoiding any engagement. Furthermore, this kind of attitude only tends to work in open trainings, where the people don’t know each other too well and all choose to come there. Try it in a corporate setting, where many people didn’t choose to be there, and where they know each other and support each other against the trainer… try that, and you’re dead meat. You’ll be devoured within a second or run out of the training room

Conversely, the main attitude towards conflict or resistance in classic training is this: the conflict is a result of something that happened during the training, or shortly before the training. As such it is the direct responsibility of the trainer, who either did something to cause this resistance, or did not notice and react to the signs suggesting the participants had some issues (for example, just before the training, they learned some of them could be fired). In a seminar setting, the public speakers attitude would be “I don’t care about your issues, I came here to tell you my stuff”. In a classic training setting, the attitude should be closer to “Let’s deal with any issues you can have, as much as we can, because otherwise you won’t really learn much anyway, now won’t you?”

Please notice I wrote “responsibility”, not “fault”. Conflict, resistance, etc. during training is not a bad thing as such, It becomes bad if the trainer doesn’t know how to deal with it, doesn’t know how to react to the interpersonal process arising during the training. And these skills – the skills to actually deal with group issues and processes, and not just try to ignore or dominate them – are the main skills taught on good classic trainers trainings. They’re the skills which really make the difference and skills which seminar-trainers tend to sorely lack, even if they’re otherwise incredibly professional and skilled.

Also, this is not to say there aren’t “bad groups”. Of course there are. But bad groups do not need to be a problem if you can name the issue and react to it, instead of just treating it as an unchangeable trait of the group. It might require you to turn your whole training plan upside down. It might mean that you’ll do less than you planned with the group. But what you will do will stick far more effectively than anything you can do otherwise. Because the group will be active participants in what you’re offering, and not just passive recipients.

So, that’s my take on the issue. Any thoughts or comments? Add them below 🙂

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