Tip #277: Getting Past Embarrassing Training Moments

I thought that this topic would attract attention and it definitely has. As a matter of fact, today’s entire Tip comes from Tom Jackson, who is Training Team Lead for the Division of Strategic National Stockpile, Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response (COTPER), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here is Tom’s story: I have an embarrassing moment I’d like to share with you and the accidental way in which I handled it.

I was going through a portion of one of our courses where we discuss public health and emergency response actions for a large public health emergency’sometimes this can get scary and more than a little weighty. I don’t even remember what triggered this person’s response, but I do remember the response. This participant obviously had an axe to grind and went off on a tangent about how “we” (meaning ‘me’ as I was the guy in front) in the Federal public health field were setting performance standards too high, and that local people were suffering, even getting fired, for not being able to meet those standards.

This was an unexpected bolt as it wasn’t the current topic of discussion. For a moment, I was stunned (here’s the accidental part). “It is not very often that I am at a loss for words, but I could think of nothing to say, so, I said nothing. I let her rattle on for about 2 or 3 more minutes although it seemed like a much longer. When she took a breath, I just said “OK” with a smile and went right back to the subject. I wasn’t trying to be dismissive or embarrass the participant, but I didn’t want to get dragged into a “no win” situation discussing topics that could be flash points.

Later, I had other participants thank me for diffusing the situation and getting back on topic. I really didn’t think much of it, they were impressed, but I just didn’t know what to say, so I said “OK”. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do. Since then, I have gathered some information from encounters like this, and here’s what I have learned:

1. If you are organizing a course with a local person, ask them if there will be any problem children in the course. Pre-identifying those people will be helpful if you know their ‘pet peeves’ and have some prepared material. NEVER, say, Oh, I heard about you! Or, I was ready for you! That would be very off putting. Address the issues, not the person.

2. If you represent management, or, in my case, a much larger organization, remember that you are the face of the organization. There are times when I find myself not as the representative of my organization or parent organization, but the Federal government. Don’t be afraid to say, That’s not my area of expertise; or, Our organization is very large and deals with a lot of issues. I am sure you have legitimate concerns, but that is not something I can address. Unless you are a spokesperson sent to address all these issues, your job is to teach the subject, not host a Q & A about the failures of “higher HQ”.

3. Your participants can have legitimate concerns’ and there are some that are not “legitimate”. If they are legitimate and pertain to the subject, address them. If not, tell the participant that you’re happy to discuss this with them after class but have to get through the material today. Don’t be afraid to redirect the course back to topic, but also pay attention to audience needs. If the audience wants to go in a different direction and you can still tie in your learning objectives go where the audience wants to go.

4. You will always have folks with pet peeves and axes to grind. Let them kvetch, let them grind, but get them back to task. My smile and “OK” did it in this case: It took the wind out of her sails and she saw she had no supporters. And that was it.

5. If it really starts to get out of hand, no one would mind if you said, Now would be a good time to take a break. During the break, you can talk to some of the dominators and make it clear that while they have legitimate gripes and issues, you need their help to get through the learning material.

6. Also, you will always have supporters in the crowd. Most folks are there because they want to learn and don’t want to listen to someone’s pet problem. You can use those folks by saying, That’s interesting “what do you guys think?” and turn it back to them. You will find other participants who are willing to help you re-direct the course.

7. If all else fails, I have three rules:

(1) Take five, slow deep breaths – it helps you take the emotion out of the situation so you don’t say something inappropriate from an emotional response.

(2) If the breaths fail, just say to yourself, Will this matter in 90 minutes? Normally, the answer is “no”, so this too will pass.

(3) If the 90 minutes fail, just remember that there are millions of Chinese people who could care less about what is happening or just happened I know it’s a little silly, but, keep it in perspective. Do you think you’re the first person to get embarrassed or flustered in front of a class?

Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your story and what you have learned about getting past similar training moments. You have given us some wonderful guidelines that easily apply to handling most difficult training situations: stay calm, stay focused, and stay in control while still staying respectful. What a great model!

Next week, we will continue to discuss embarrassing training moments, starting with a classic situation shared by Lois Walton. If you have ever been embarrassed as a trainer and lived to train another day, please send in your stories and we’ll publish them in the next Tip!

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