Creating Safety in the Classroom

With experiential learning, there is no way of knowing what participants are going to do or say or how they will react during a workshop. At times the trainer has to be creative in responding to unexpected behavior.

I came to think that occasionally I could do “magic” if I stayed alert to the possibility for a creative intervention. This was a big part of what I enjoyed about my job. But even I was taken back by the following experience.

One day Tom Bentson, the manager over our whole group, asked me to step into his office. This was unusual because Tom was my boss’s boss and I had little direct contact with him.

He offered me a seat and then told me about a phone call he had just received. It was from a manager at our installation center in South Carolina. The caller had asked: “Do you have a guy named Van Horn working for you?”

Tom said: Yes, is there any problem?

“What is with this Van Horn guy?

What do you mean?

Well one of my guys just came back from your Train the Trainer workshop and he has been going around telling everyone that Van Horn is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ”. What is this all about?

Tom assured him that he had no idea what it was about but he would talk with me and get back to him.

“Do you know what this all about? he asked.

I replied: “Actually, I think I do know what it is about”.

I had conducted our Train-the-Trainer workshop the previous week. This is an intense experience for 6 people requiring two trainers. During the first part of the week we focused on the mechanics of good presentations. Participants made presentations which were video-taped and critiqued by the group. On Thursday after lunch we made a sharp and unexpected shift. We asked people to tell us about a meaningful personal experience and we secretly taped these talks. When we looked at these tapes, we saw trainers who were more relaxed and engaged with their audience. They were also more interesting as presenters.

I asked the participants: what was the difference?

The key thing is the presenter’s desire to really have the audience understand what they are talking about. These talks were personal to them and they wanted to make their experience real for the audience. This, we would suggest, is the key to effective training. You just did it, so you know it is possible.

At this point I would pick up any threads from the discussion and elaborate on them further if I could. In this particular group, I wanted to make a point and I needed an example to illustrate what I meant. I could not think of any real-life examples so I would have to make something up. I paused and waited until inspiration came to me.

When I was ready, I wove a picture of a frustrated father trying to connect with his dis-engaged son. One man in the group was now staring at me intently, as if hanging on my every word. I had obviously touched a nerve.

When break time came, he walked up to me a started firing questions. These were things he really wanted to know and he asked deep, probing questions. No quick or flippant answers here; I had to dig deep within myself to come up with what I hoped would address his genuine concerns.

I tried my best to give him what he wanted or needed to know. I got the impression that he had found the workshop experience very helpful, and I felt good about our inter-actions.

But the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? Now really…..

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