How to End the “Check-the-Box” Approach to Training

3 techniques to use as a roadmap for rebranding relationship training and the value you offer your participants.

With rapid and seemingly continuous changes rocking the workplace and business environment, training has never been more important to success, both at an individual and an organizational level. With our learners’ time and attention at a premium today, the training experience often is viewed as an unwelcome interruption or distraction. This apathy—some might say cynicism—is more than simply a byproduct of an overloaded, overwhelming environment. It’s rooted in the value proposition we’re delivering to our participants.

The workplace is only going to get noisier, and the demand for higher-level, more nuanced interpersonal skills is only going to intensify. To be effective and get the results our organizations and clients need, we, as a profession, will have to face some tough questions about what it is we’re offering: Is it just an exercise in “checking the box” and getting it out of the way so participants can go back to their “real work”? Or does it connect with them on a more meaningful level and create real value that has lasting impact back on the job?

“Thinking” Training

When it comes to creating and delivering knowledge-based learning, the training profession has done a fairly good job. The content includes areas such as safety, technical skills, regulatory compliance, and job-specific tasks and processes, and the courses usually are developed and administered according to strict quality control principles. These activities represent the bread and butter of training across most organizations, in part because they are well understood and easily measured. Generally, there’s not much ambiguity in what’s being covered—the processes or safety requirements or legal standards are what they are, and there’s no room for interpretation—and the consequences for failing to perform the task or process are clear and identifiable. Typically, there’s also an immediate feedback loop or mechanism so people know if they’ve missed the mark, and, importantly, the stakes are low from an emotional perspective.

One of the key characteristics across much of this type of training is that it is directed at the cerebral cortex of the trainee’s brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language and where most information processing occurs. Training aimed here is, by nature, “thinking” training.

“Relationship” Training

Many of the new responsibilities and make-or-break skills on which our organizations are becoming increasingly reliant in the face of growing business complexity, however, require a different kind of training, one that is by nature more subjective and comes with higher emotional stakes and a lengthy, often ambiguous, feedback loop. This type of “relationship” training relates to our primitive limbic brain, which drives human interactions, intuition, and feelings. It includes leadership development, communication skills, sales training, customer service training, and other types of learning and development activities that depend on interpersonal dynamics, not just a transfer of information. In most cases, it is only effective if participants are emotionally open and vulnerable because it asks the person to honestly and objectively evaluate his or her own patterns of behavior. It considers how each individual affirms and actively protects his or her own notions of how relationships work and what impact that has on an organization’s ability to function effectively and be successful.

If we want our participants to embrace this type of training, we as professional trainers have to rethink the value proposition of our offerings and how we evaluate their effectiveness. Too often, training professionals deliver both types of training as a content transfer experience. Episodic, transactional training may be sufficient when it comes to “thinking” training, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise when it comes to “relationship” training, which requires more than just providing information or building knowledge.

The first step in making the shift is to redefine relationship training as development within context versus understanding of content. Because context keeps changing and evolving, our learners constantly have reconsider how they apply what they’ve learned—and they have to be intentional about it.

Implementing Development Within Context

There are three factors you can immediately begin to incorporate into your own training initiatives to implement development within context. The first is repetition, which addresses our basic orientation as humans to focus on ourselves—our tendencies toward comfort, selfishness, and fear. We recently conducted a coaching-focused training initiative with 40 experienced and successful sales leaders. While the training encompassed four different phases spanning six months, only one coaching model was covered during the entire engagement. We spent 7 percent of the time on the model and the remaining 93 percent on primitive limbic brain activity to evaluate patterns of behavior. Every participant documented significant hard and soft business value creation and commented that they were able to evolve their behavior because of this repetitive, laser-like focus. Ongoing repetition heightens participant awareness of their counterproductive tendencies and allows them to create effective counter measures, apply those measures, and celebrate success.

Second, development within context addresses the nuances of human interaction, which include tone of voice, non-verbal communication, environment, culture, and power leverage. All of these influence the nature of the training and how participants experience it. We call this the context of a multitude of factors because it is shaped by the many currents that affect each of us on a daily, if not moment-by-moment, basis.

Coaching in the moment is a core training tenet and integral to recreating these nuances. In a leadership engagement designed to strengthen cross-functional leaders’ ability to partner in a matrix, a strategy Dale Carnegie trainers use is to focus on tailoring communication to different stakeholders. In one exercise, participants define audiences, thinking styles, and meeting formats that require tailored communication. For example:

  • Audiences: Sales, Marketing, R&D, Supply Chain, Engineering, Operations, Customer Service, and HR
  • Thinking Styles: Intuitive, Action, Emotional, and Intellectual
  • Meetings: Bowling chart reviews, gate reviews, daily rodeo and team meetings

Participants prepare a presentation but do not know until they arrive at the front of the training room how they’ll have to tailor their message. The trainer may say, “You are talking to the supply chain group: Start your presentation.” The participant then practices tailoring his or her communication on the fly.

Mid-presentation, the trainer changes the audience again:

“Now you are talking to a group of people with emotional thinking styles.”

The participant continues to practice on his or her feet with coaching in the moment from the trainer. The trainer will change the audience and meeting format two to four times during the presentation to provide ample practice at addressing the nuances of tailoring communication. These kinds of exercises allow trainers to recreate the context of a multitude of factors.

Finally, it’s important to accept that circumstances change continually. While training focused on knowledge transfer largely is divorced from outside circumstances, development within context acknowledges and accounts for these changes in circumstances, often in real time. Ingrid Bens defines a facilitator as “one who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions.” Integrating these changes in real time tests a trainer’s skills to become a true facilitator, one who can focus solely on the person.

We call this step contextualizing circumstances. Here are six targeting question types you can ask participants as part of a best practice facilitation structure to put circumstances into context during a training session:

  1. Scenario-based questions recreate changes in circumstance for participants.
  2. Future-oriented questions allow participants to answer “what’s in it for me?”
  3. Fact-based questions have a correct response.
  4. Opinion-based questions allow the facilitator to gather opinions and emotions.
  5. Action-oriented questions force specific, observable behaviors that demonstrate understanding and transfer of ideas.
  6. Impact-benefit questions analyze the benefits of new habits and uncover motivation.

Each of these questions helps participants to link training concepts to their personal, organizational and cultural context.

A Roadmap for Rebranding Relationship Training

Redefining relationship training as development within context instead of understanding of content is, at its essence, a rebranding process, one that will be critical for achieving the outcomes we and our learners need going forward. We suggest applying these three techniques as a roadmap for rebranding relationship training and the value you offer your participants:

  1. Repetition: Consider program and sustainability design.
  2. Context of a Multitude of Factors: Address the nuances of human interaction.
  3. Contextualizing Circumstances: Truly facilitate through strategic questioning.

To make the strongest impact, consider incorporating an opening activity that engages both the cerebral cortex and primitive limbic brain by generating a discussion about these three techniques. Then throughout the training, you can circle back to the integration of the three techniques through summary activities.

By rebranding, you’ll overcome skepticism and cynicism about the value of the training you provide because you’ll be changing the paradigm. Your learners will find value not only in the initial training, but as they experience the training again under new circumstances as context evolves.

Matt Norman is president of Dale Carnegie Training in the North Central U.S. Dale Carnegie Training is represented in all 50 states of the United States and more than 80 nations worldwide. As a senior consultant, Norman has delivered transformative results in Fortune 100 corporations, government agencies, and small to mid-sized firms. He has trained sales leaders around the world on coaching and developing their salespeople; coached physicians and clinical staff on leadership and teaming skills; enhanced the marketing and business development skills of attorneys, engineers, and commercial bankers; and led a Web development firm to significantly increase the quality of its production. Last year, Norman was named to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal 40 Under 40 list, recognizing the community’s top young business and civic leaders. He has led his organization to double-digit revenue growth over the last two years. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named Dale Carnegie Training Minnesota a top small company in its Best Places to Work awards for the third year in a row.

Mike Scott is the general manager and executive vice president of Dale Carnegie Training in the North Central States. Scott is a certified Master Trainer for Dale Carnegie Training, and he has ranked among the top 35 Dale Carnegie Training trainers in North America. Besides training an 1,000 people per year with Dale Carnegie Training, Scott addresses a variety of mission-critical leadership and development needs for the firm’s Fortune 500 clients. At the enterprise level, his areas of expertise include workplace collaboration, leadership without authority and in cross-functional/matrix organizations, HR/business alignment, organizational redesign, and change readiness. At the individual level, Scott leads client efforts in training needs analysis, talent management, leadership presence training, employee engagement, executive coaching, and presentation skills development.


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