Do We Empower Learners Too Much?

For effective adult learning to occur, you must have a safe learning environment where the student is respected, and expression of ideas, reasoning, and feedback are encouraged.

“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”—Josef Albers

By Kristy Westfall Moyer, Training Account Manager, Signature Worldwide

On a follow-up call after one of my training classes last month, a client shared with me that while he was pleased with the overall class and I met his goals and objectives, he felt I gave his team too much power in class and made them feel their ideas mattered, potentially giving them false hope.

“Hmm,” I thought. “How to respond to this comment in a positive way?”

We talked through some examples, and I learned that with this company, the owner happened to be very involved and hands on and liked all suggestions to go through him.

I thanked my client for the feedback and told him I would be more mindful of that when I met with his group the next time. We briefly discussed my company’s theory and approach to adult learning and why we structure our classes the way we do, but ultimately he is the boss and my client, and I need to follow his lead.

Later, once I had exhausted all the defensive, “I should’ve said this,” remarks to myself, I started thinking about this in a more constructive way, wondering how I could learn from this and ultimately make a better learning environment for my class participants. Do I give people too much power in my training classes?

There are many circumstances where one must say a direct “no,” and there are times when clear right or wrong answers in a training room are necessary. Technical training, is one example where every step must be precise. As the majority of our classes are about customer service and/or sales, we start by talking conceptually and, based on the buy-in we achieve at the beginning of the day, put together a set of skills to follow to achieve certain business objectives that can be measured. As a general rule, I do my best to avoid saying a flat out “no” to someone as I believe it will shut them down and I might lose them for the rest of the training. If I don’t have their buy-in, nothing I say will stick, and there will be no behavior change.

While I was reminded of a valuable lesson from this client—to talk with my decision-makers extensively before training about how to handle employee ideas and suggestions that pop up in class—I also decided to go back and study up about how best to reach adult learners and to keep them engaged.

Theories on Adult Learning

There are many proven theories on adult learning; some have six principles, some have eight, some have 12, and so on. All are similar with reoccurring points, three of which directly relate to my current quandary. For effective adult learning to occur, you must have:

  • A safe learning environment where the student is respected, and expression of ideas, reasoning, and feedback are encouraged
  • A sound relationship between teacher and learner
  • A collaborative approach in which facilitator and pupil are equal

One way of establishing a solid relationship with everyone in class is to inspire them to think for themselves and look at all scenarios as an owner would. We always have a “parking lot” flipchart in our classes. Should anything come up that we cannot solve in class or that is not directly related to the chosen content and agenda for the day, we “park” it and give it to the client. My parking lots are never empty! If someone has a suggestion or question that is important enough to bring up in class in front of their co-workers, I show them respect and put it on the list. If something pops up that is illegal or against company standards or policy, I do nip those in the bud right away but still do it in a way that doesn’t close the person down or embarrass them.

Some of my typical responses when people make suggestions that might be above our pay grade include, “That is an interesting idea and your manager/corporate office/owner might like to hear about it, so let’s put it in the parking lot.” Or, “Keep up these great ideas and make a note to go over that with your supervisor.” If someone has a complaint or brings up a negative topic, I steer them back to our topic at hand but tell people to share their feelings with their leadership team as things cannot be fixed if no one knows they are broken.

When an interesting comment or question comes up about our subject matter, I often throw it back to the group and ask them how they would handle it or what comments or tips they can offer the questioner as adult learning also tells us to include participants as much as possible and put them in the driver’s seat. People rarely learn from a “no” answer, so instead I like to motivate people to come up with alternate ideas based on their own experiences, which makes them feel important and involved in the process.

It’s All About R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Going through these adult learning principles again showed me that while I need to understand my customers well enough to know how much encouragement I should give their employees, overall I will get the best responses and, thus, the maximum results from people when I remember how adults learn best. That means creating an environment in which all feel respected and know their ideas do matter, knowing my relationships in the classroom matter, and making sure our collaborative efforts matter when class is over.
These ideas work when managing employees, as well—in or out of the training room! Saying “no” closes someone down. Find a way to inspire them to look for another way, and they will hear and feel a “yes!”

“Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds, do not overload them. Put there just a spark.”—Anatole France

Kristy Westfall Moyer is a trainingaccount manager for Signature Worldwide, a Dublin, OH-based company offering sales and customer service training, marketing, and mystery shopping services for a variety of service-based industries. For more information, call 800.398.0518 or visit You also can connect with Signature on Twitter @SignatureWorld and on Facebook.


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