Adult Learning Quick Takes: Uncomfortable

Adult Learning Quick Takes: Uncomfortable

We're in the midst of a blog series on some foundational information related to adult learning, focusing on the acronym "ADULT." Today, U:

Uncomfortable-looking statue with baggageAdults are UNCOMFORTABLE with risk. In any learning experience, their egos and self-esteem are vulnerable. They may have unconscious baggage from negative experiences in school or resistance to authority. They may resist your content, your instructions, group interactions, or any form of participation.

Have you ever had a bad teacher or negative school experience? How might that affect your attitude as a learner in a training session?

Activities requiring participants to talk, share, move, act—anything other than passive listening—is a potential threat. But all the research indicates that telling isn’t training and listening isn’t learning. Shift learners out of passive listening mode as early as you can and the session will have more energy and produce more insights. But you’ve got to set up an environment in which it feels safe to participate in order to achieve those benefits.

Adults need two things to help them feel comfortable in a potentially threatening situation: they need to know WHY and HOW. Give them the WHY: the reasons for the activity, how it relates to the content and what benefits they’ll get from it. And then the HOW: clear instructions on what to do, how to team up, how to self-organize.

Giving Instructions. Before you launch into the doing, explain the WHY. If the activity connects to the content and the benefits are clear, they’re ready and not resistant to hearing instructions.

  • Practice, rehearse, and prepare. Make sure YOU understand the instructions fully.
  • When it’s time for HOW, explain the steps in order. Keep it simple, take it slow, and use everyday language.
  • Watch their faces. You’ll see the questions or confusion show up clearly on their faces. Address the confusion right away.
  • Check for understanding before moving into the exercise.

Low Risk/High Risk. When you team your learners for dialogue or sharing, start with small groups. Pairs are lower risk than small teams or table groups. Move to progressively larger teams after they’ve done one pair-share.

Surprise Attack: When it’s time for reporting or debriefing, somebody’s got to go first. “Please don’t start with me” comes up for nearly everyone. Handle the anxiety by moving close to one table or individual while you’re talking, silently indicating you’ll be starting there and everybody else can relax. Then, if you wish, you can pull the old quick-reverse play by suddenly calling on a back table, or the opposite side of the room. This usually gets a good laugh and loosens learners up to stand and share.

What tactics have you found that work to relax a room? Do you have any unique approaches to giving instructions?