As trainers and facilitators, our continual focus is on developing and equipping people with the skills they need to be more effective at work. To accomplish this, we utilize various approaches and methods to ensure that our training resonates with participants, including thorough analysis, design, development, and follow-up. However, while these basic tools of our trade are necessary, they are not sufficient for delivering truly transformational training.
Effective training is about more than sound learning objectives, logical design, and measurable outcomes. It’s about connecting emotionally with your audience so that learning “sticks.” We suggest that leveraging the tenets of emotional intelligence can help achieve this goal.
Emotionally intelligent training (EIT) enhances participants’ emotional connection to the content. It not only fosters insights about oneself but about one’s relationships and interactions with others. EIT moves training beyond the rote delivery of material and skills practice into a much richer realm of self-discovery and deep learning.
There are four primary aspects of emotional intelligence that can be woven into soft skills training programs:
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
Self-awareness is about knowing what makes you “you”—your triggers, hot buttons, strengths, weaknesses, etc. It is the foundational dimension of emotional intelligence; without it, one cannot expect to function successfully with others. Some people are naturally self-aware, others less so. The good news is self-awareness can be enhanced through self-reflection and honest self-assessment. Trainers and facilitators can work on raising participants’ self-awareness even before the actual intervention. For example, have the group answer some questions prior to the first meeting. These could include:
- What do I hope to learn from this experience?
- What beliefs do I have about training that could compromise my learning?
- What beliefs do I have about myself, my team, or my organization that could compromise my receptivity to new ideas?
- How can I make the most of my time in the session?
Such questions allow for reflection and can lead participants to important insights about their mindset for learning. Trainers and facilitators can do the same for themselves by asking similar questions prior to the start of training:
- What is my goal in conducting this training? What do I hope to achieve?
- How can I build rapport with this group to enhance the learning environment?
- What obstacles do I need to anticipate? How will I address them?
- Am I in the proper frame of mind to deliver a powerful experience that achieves my client’s objectives? If not, what’s holding me back? What conversations might I need to have?
Throughout the session, trainers and facilitators should stay tuned in to their emotions. This can be difficult with all the distractions associated with training sessions. One idea is to check in with yourself at breaks or while participants are working in groups. Ask yourself: “How are things going? How am I feeling? Do I need to ‘course correct’? What is the emotional climate in the room?” Briefly leave the room to reflect on these questions if you have to. The key is to maintain a “lifeline” between yourself and your emotions so that you can be at your best. As Lao Tzu wrote, “At the center of your being/you have the answer/you know who you are/and you know what you want.” Now go for it!
Self-management is defined as the ability to keep impulses in check, adapt to change, and navigate through ambiguity with confidence. This is an area where the trainer or facilitator can model optimal behaviors for participants. As we all know, despite the best planning, trainers and facilitators often find themselves throwing away the script and having to adjust “on the fly.” Modulating your emotions effectively when things don’t go as planned is critical to success; when participants observe you handling problems and challenges deftly and self-assuredly, they will take a cue. If you have ever seen a facilitator keep calm under difficult conditions, you can understand how important self-management is!
Self-management can also be addressed directly in the session, as with the well-known group exercise called “Broken Squares.” This activity involves the assembly of puzzle pieces into individual squares. It can be done at the beginning of a session with minimal instruction and takes about 30 minutes (you can find instructions online). Normally, some participants give up quickly and disengage from the exercise. Others, however, keep at it until the solution is found.
The facilitator can then conduct a debrief around self-management—who got frustrated and checked out, who stayed engaged, who was able to regulate their anxiety, confusion, or annoyance effectively, etc. The facilitator should include his or her own stories and best practices around self-management to complement the exercise. The experience is typically quite powerful and serves as a potent reminder why staying calm under pressure and stress is so critical in today’s workplace.
The next dimension of emotional intelligence, social awareness, is about understanding and having empathy for others. Only once an individual understands him- or herself (self-awareness) and is able to keep emotions in check (self-management) can he or she begin to connect with others in a meaningful way.
Social awareness plays a crucial role in training when considering differences among participants, including age, learning style, cultural background, etc. Of course, it is impossible to download in-depth biographies of each participant prior to the session. However, trainers and facilitators can do a few simple things that make a difference:
- Chunk learning into smaller blocks of time to accommodate shorter attention spans
- Use different learning modes and methods to appeal to different kinds of learners
- Be sensitive to cultural and ethnic differences in the classroom
- Let little things go, e.g. if someone is late, welcome them and make them feel comfortable
Exhibiting empathy can be challenging if a participant is giving you a hard time. Press the pause button and think: “Why is this person behaving this way? What is at the root of the behavior?” Maybe the person is under stress at work and being out of the office is exacerbating the situation. Maybe they have a sick child at home. Few people are ornery or hostile without a reason. Consider pulling the person aside at a break and having a quiet conversation. Often, the person will admit to and apologize for their behavior. As author Steven Covey wrote, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it.”
Relationship management touches on the notion that it takes networks, connections, groups, teams—that is, relationships—to get things done. To leverage the concept of relationship management in your training, consider discussing “zero sum” thinking in your programs on conflict resolution, communications, negotiations, or team building. Zero sum thinking is the idea that there must be a winner and a loser in every conflict. In other words, for every gain there must be a loss. This “lens” can compromise our ability to seek mutually satisfactory resolutions. Relationship management is about all sides working together to achieve a “win-win” outcome.
Another example of leveraging relationship management in training is including a unit on trust. Trust is the linchpin of successful relationships; without it, relationships quickly turn toxic. An exercise in which participants must demonstrate trust can be effective in building high-performance teams. There is no shortage of these types of exercises on the web. Pick one that makes sense for your participant group and subject matter.
Familiarizing yourself with emotional intelligence and thinking about ways to leverage it in your training can distinguish you from other trainers and facilitators. Not only will you be perceived as a capable, confident, and competent professional in front of the room, but your participants will get more out of their experience. Their learning will be more memorable and valuable—and isn’t that what great training is all about?
About the Authors
Dr. Michael Brenner works with organizations to design and facilitate workshops to help strengthen the essential people skills that both new and experienced leaders need to achieve great performance. He weaves principles of emotional intelligence into each workshop. Dr. Brenner earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is currently the Chapter President for the Association of Talent Development in Philadelphia.
Dayna Williams served the Philadelphia market for TrainingPros and has designed training solutions for Fortune 1000 firms over the last eight years. She specializes in sales training, onboarding, and leadership. Dayna earned her graduate degree in Organizational Leadership and Change and also serves on the board for the Association of Talent Development in Philadelphia. She is passionate about working with people groups and using creative ideas to improve performance.
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