Training Tips for creating the best training environment
There is one essential word that describes the ideal training environment: safe!
Until our students feel safe they will not feel comfortable
and if they are not feeling comfortable they will be reluctant to open up and interact,
and until they open up and interact they will probably not be ready to learn.
And of course ‘safe’ can have different meanings for different groups.
For some ‘safe’ could mean ‘safe from judgement’, for others ‘safe from embarrassment’ and for others ‘safe to express themselves freely.’
There are many factors that contribute to a safe training environment and most of them originate from the trainer, which means, that before anything else, the trainer needs to feel safe!
Time spent working with teenagers in state schools in London taught me that if I did not feel safe,
I could not lead and create a safe, productive environment for the training session.
Sometimes it would be possible to chat with the students and reassure them as they came into the room.
On other occasions, it was fairly clear from the outset that they did not want to be there and that they were not intending to make the day easy for anyone, in which case I knew that being too friendly could easily be misinterpreted as being weak and needy.
On these occasions, I realised first of all that I was the one feeling vulnerable and ‘unsafe’.
What then worked best for me was to hold back and just let them arrive, let them slam their bags down and either stare at the floor or stare at me. If they stared at me, I just looked back at them until it was time to start.
This may sound like the advice you would sooner give to someone confronted by wild animals
(then again - have you been in a room with 25 fifteen-year-olds?),
but rule number one when feeling threatened is first of all: show no fear!
This is admittedly an extreme example, but an important ingredient to establishing an effective training environment is already wrapped up in it:
students need to feel that the trainer is in control of the situation before they feel safe enough to trust them and engage with the training.
As for being liked – that may come later, but the trainer’s first job is to display enough self-confidence to show they feel they are deserving of trust and respect!
Clearly, most training situations will not need this level of power play at the start of the day, as hopefully the atmosphere will be more congenial and relaxed and as your students come into the room you will want to be interacting in a much more friendly reassuring way.
However, bear in mind, even on these occasions the students are still sizing you up and asking themselves:
‘Is this trainer going to be worth listening to?’
I remember one adult training session when I was waiting outside the building because the facilities manager had not yet arrived and one of my students arrived early.
He recognised me and we chatted.
I had no thoughts of the training at this stage, I was just talking to a person I had just met outside.
Later he confessed to me that although he thought I seemed to be a lovely person, he was slightly unsure whether this quiet easy-going type would be strong enough to lead the training session.
Happily, he said, once we all got together in the training room I shifted gear!
I am aware of my character and so I have learnt to adapt to respond to different circumstances.
However, when I do, I am doing so purely to help set up the best training environment for my students - because how can the students feel safe and sure if the trainer seems soft and lacks authority?
The reason I would choose to take the strong stance with some of the more challenging groups of school students was because I was aware that socially I can come across as fairly relaxed and non-assertive, which might not set the right tone for that sort of training session, which is why in our Training the Trainer programmes I advise against taking a ‘one size fits all’ attitude for every group of students, but instead to choose the best attitude to benefit each particular group.
Therefore instead of opting for a stance of
‘This is what we always need to do to start the day’
each trainer needs to think about:
‘What are we trying to achieve, and how can we best achieve it with these individuals?’
As trainers we are all different characters, we will have different types of students and we will be training in different subjects, which is why setting up the best training environment on any given day always requires a degree of self-awareness and flexibility, but the ultimate goal is always to establish a foundation for a safe, open and productive training environment.
On other days I found the school students would come into the room happily chatting to each other.
They seemed fairly comfortable with whatever was about to happen and not particularly interested in me, in which case I let them on with it; they showed no interest in interacting with me, and so I just looked at my notes until I was ready to start.
There is an old sales principle which we would do well to apply in the training room:
‘Meet people at their needs.’
If the students need friendly reassurance as they come in, that is what I will give them;
if they are happy to chat amongst themselves until we are ready to start, I will keep in the background; however if their whole attitude is to challenge me and to challenge the day, I will make sure that I quietly assert that I am not going to be intimidated.
Different children; different needs!
However, since we cannot give what we do not have, the first step is to make sure that we feel safe before we can enable our students to feel safe!
This can be likened to an athlete going through their pre-race routine on the starting block or a musician preparing to go on stage, because it will vary from situation to situation and from person to person, but what is crucial is what happens next.
Even though there are many ways to start a training day - and we will look at these at a later date – any method you choose needs to be able to reassure the students of three things:
(i) that the training has a clear purpose
(ii) that the training will be of direct benefit to them
(ii) that the trainer has the necessary credibility and competency to add value to the programme.
Only now have we established the basis for a successful learning environment and our students will now be ready and hopefully eager to learn.
Once we have answered these three questions, only now we can think about what else we might need to continue to create the best training environment.
A clear Purpose
If the training is the journey, the Purpose is the destination. Unless the students are only attending training to pass the time they will need to be engaged early on with a clear vision of the purpose of the training and not only will the purpose need to be clear, it will need to be expressed in terms that relate to the student.
Rather than just seeing how the training will benefit the company, they need to see how the training will benefit them.
An attractive training environment
This may not always be totally in the trainer’s control, but:
is the room well-ventilated?
is the lighting sufficient?
is there enough space?
I remember running a training session and feeling somehow enclosed and stifled.
the room was reasonably spacious and the lighting was strong and it was only when I realised that there were no windows that I understood where the sense of discomfort came from
Well-presented training materials
This does not necessarily mean expensive-looking workbooks and handouts, although some organisations seem to put a lot of emphasis on appearance. I would like to think that the content and its relevance were more important. So even if you are using fairly simple-looking tools: are they clean; are they easy to navigate; are they free from spelling errors and crass punctuation mistakes; are they in a consistent format? If you are using PowerPoint: are the slides clear, simple and uniform?
Having spent many years as a professional musician, it became clear that although many sins were forgivable, poor time-keeping was not. Putting aside everything we have covered so far about engaging the students and setting the tone, for some students the simple fact that a trainer cannot manage timekeeping – and that starts with arriving on time – indicates that maybe other aspects of their training might also be suspect. At best it suggests a lack or organisation, at worst it could lead to the student questioning whether the actual content of the training is trustworthy.
The trainer’s CV
The trainer’s introduction of themselves needs to be no longer than whatever is necessary to assure the students that the trainer is competent and credible. I have heard many trainers mistakenly thinking that the students were actually interested in who they were. What the student wants to know is:
‘Are you qualified to help me?’
Therefore be aware of societal differences.
In some parts of the world, the students just need enough to know that you know what you are doing, in other parts of the world the students want to hear how brilliant you are so that they feel they are in the company of ‘the best.’
The right ice-breaker
I say ‘the right ice-breaker’ because on some occasions the right ice-breaker is no ice-breaker at all!
If the training will benefit from everyone doing an introductory activity to get to know each other or to take the edge off awkwardness, then an ice-breaker might be an option.
I remember a student saying to me that what annoyed him most in daily emails and phone calls was when the person contacting him opened up with a long ‘How are you today?' And then lots of friendly social chat This student's response was:
‘I am busy. Why do you care? What do you want?’
Maybe a bit brutal, but it might feel similar with an ice-breaker if the students are time-pressed; they either already know each other or don’t need to know each other and just want to get down to business, in which case an ice-breaker will just be annoying.
This could be an agenda laid out at the beginning of the day, but also little pointers during the training:
how soon we will take a break; what we have just covered and why; what we are about to do next; what the plan is
If you feel that the training needs or would benefit from certain codes of behaviour, it is worth setting that out at the beginning of the day.
I choose the word ‘contracting’ rather than ‘ground rules’ because ‘contracting’ implies that the rules of the day have been agreed together with the students, rather than imposed on them.
So anything you feel might help the day run smoother is worth contracting – ‘and if we are all in agreement with that, let’s get going.’
Show the training is for them
This should be part of the whole planning and the concept of the training, but make sure from the very beginning of the training session that the students understand that the training is to:
‘make your life easier…’
‘free you up...’
We come back to the word ‘safe’. Let them know that they won’t be exposed, ridiculed or laughed at; that maybe you made some pretty silly mistakes yourself when you first started; that there are ‘no stupid questions’; that they will be listened to, taken seriously and maybe most important of all:
that they matter!