Trainer Talk: Got Empathy?

How deep is our understanding of what it takes for the average adult learner to return to a learning mode once again after years on the job?

By Bob Pike

As trainers, we naturally believe we have large stores of empathy for the people we train. After all, we want our trainees to learn. We also want them to master the skills and knowledge that will help them to perform better. And we want to help create a workplace that will support them in applying new skills and knowledge after the training has ended.

Of course, all of this proves we do, indeed, possess empathy. But do we really understand what it’s like to be an adult learner? How deep is our understanding, for example, of what it takes for the average adult learner, whose formal academic experiences are probably long since past, to return to a learning mode once again after years on the job? Or let me ask the question another way: How readily and how easily are you able to put yourself into an environment in which you have to learn and master a new set of skills or learn and apply new knowledge?

Juggling Act

I learned an interesting lesson several years ago while developing a seminar on needs assessment and evaluation. I wanted to create an activity that would help participants to understand what it’s like to be a novice at something again. As I considered various possibilities, one activity struck me as being perfect: juggling.

Juggling, I reasoned, was a skill almost everyone had seen demonstrated at some point in their lives, so it did not, on the surface, require a great deal of explanation. It also was an activity most participants were likely to have attempted before, even though most likely had failed. However, it also was an activity that, when approached in the proper way, could be accomplished by almost everyone.

During the pilot programs, I told participants we all worked for a company whose product had been rendered obsolete. “We have just two days to learn a new, marketable skill,” I told the participants. “If 75 percent of us cannot meet the minimum standard, we will all be out of a job for a minimum of two years. The skill senior management has identified is juggling.”

I found a way to establish the criteria for minimum performance that would constitute “being able” to juggle. I also provided participants with various objects to juggle and allowed them plenty of time to practice. Additionally, during various breaks in the session, we encouraged people to keep practicing.

The results were interesting. Some people became convinced they couldn’t juggle and quit trying altogether. Others quit because they viewed the exercise as “just a game”—not something they really risked losing their jobs over. Others were able to master the task of juggling, thanks to continued practice.

Interestingly, even when these successful participants surpassed the minimum standards I had set, they did not stop to coach others who were struggling. Instead, they just kept practicing on their own.

Later on in the session, we introduced extrinsic motivation in the form of valuable content that would be available only to those participants who met the minimum standard. We also took the time to analyze why some participants were able to juggle and others were not. Additionally, we analyzed the lack of peer-to-peer coaching and discussed which mechanisms needed to be established for coaching to occur. We also analyzed the types of juggling materials participants had used and discussed whether the best materials for novice jugglers had been made available.

Walk in Another’s Shoes

In the end, the object lesson of juggling became a rich metaphor for helping participants to understand what it feels like to be a novice all over again—and perhaps to experience a portion of what the adult learners they train daily may feel. The lesson? We all have more empathy when we find a way to walk in another person’s shoes. With that in mind, what are you doing to gain more empathy for the people you serve in your organization, especially the managers who are so often critical of the process of training? What could you do differently? Spending some time thinking about this question is bound to help you become more effective in making the impact you want to make.

Until next month, as always, add value and make a difference!

Have a question you’d like Bob to answer? E-mail him at

Bob Pike is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.