Venue booked… check
Adequate climate control… check
Comfortable seating… check
Technical set up: Laptop, projector… check
One employee in attendance who is pleased to be there… check mate.
It is not uncommon for employees to not be thrilled with the prospect of attending training related to health and safety. I’m referring to workplace based, internal health and safety training that takes place on a regular basis between a facilitator and employees.
The subject of health and safety is commonly considered a ‘necessary evil’ in most workplaces. Generally speaking, employees grit their teeth when informed that some sort of health and safety training will need to be attended. They prepare to be bored and restless for the duration but console themselves with the fact that it is a temporary reprieve from workshop conditions and that they can perhaps get away with 40-winks during the period.
But what causes this perception with regards to Health and Safety training? Maybe because it is considered mostly common sense and nothing new or interesting is on the cards for learning? Perhaps it is perceived to be unforgiving in all the rules and regulations that are constantly in play at work? Possibly, because it is considered an obstacle in getting work done rather than a lifesaving companion?
Undoubtedly, the answer to this question is, all of the above and then some. However, there are methods and techniques that can be manipulated to ensure that training isn’t simply an endurance or a mandatory chore to suffer through, similar to that of washing dishes or jury duty.
“what can be done to prevent the gloom? The solution lies in encouraging participation”
Accommodation for participation
Let’s be fair – I have a passion for all things health and safety but at the same time, my last choice for spending my time at work would be sitting in a room listening to someone droning endlessly on, about a topic about which I consider myself to have a fair idea.
So, you ask, what can be done to prevent the gloom? The solution lies in encouraging participation.
This tactic is successful, threefold. Firstly, it prevents one person from having to drag the others through the subject material alone and automatically makes it more interesting to others by simply hearing a different voice.
Second to this is the fact that participation encourages the airing of other opinions and experiences. It adds to the mix and increases overall stimulation.
Thirdly, once trainees start to feel comfortable in the setting, they realise they enjoy swapping stories and talking about their own experiences. There is even a chance of learning something valuable regarding current health and safety related obstacles or concerns, that otherwise would not have been raised.
Training sessions provide the ideal catalyst for employees to be open and honest about real problems. They are coaxed into addressing real-time issues that otherwise (despite the consistent drive concerning the importance of reporting), may have not be mentioned.
Note above that I mentioned “once trainees start to feel comfortable in the setting…”. The importance of creating an environment where everyone can lose their inhibitions in terms of possibly, ‘sounding stupid’ or being unable to answer a difficult question in front of their peers, cannot be over emphasised.
Often, even the paperwork involved in a training session is enough to freak out the bravest of workshop hearts, and it is important to consider this fact prior to the training kicking off in depth. Naturally, this depends on your audience, but for now, I’m referring to your blue-collar workers who are often the target market for such training.
How is such an environment created? I am not referring to scientific solutions or proven training theories, I’m talking from my own experience. One must be sensitive to the fact that these employees don’t spend much time on paperwork and are rather hands-on with their methods of daily work.
English is the generally accepted medium in which to present training to all; however, when living in Africa, it is often the case that the training and writing involved is not in the employee’s mother tongue. Ensuring that everyone understands where to write their names and other information required should be performed in a calm and endearing manner rather than expecting it to be obvious. How employees are made to feel within the first ten to fifteen minutes of these training sessions sets the tone for the duration of the training.
Ring of ice
With the exception of the obvious, such as receiving employees in a friendly manner when they enter the venue and assisting with the paperwork, breaking the ice is an important part of calming any nerves and creating familiarity. In larger organisations, it is not a given that everyone knows everyone.
Icebreakers (as they are known) are a great way to handle introductions and add a bit of variety, and sometimes some excitement early in the session. Again, when choosing an icebreaker it is important that you are conscious of your group dynamic and that you do not force anyone into sharing personal information that they are not comfortable with sharing.
“training sessions provide the ideal catalyst for employees to be open and honest about real problems”
An icebreaker I’ve tried and tested is one where the topic of training is utilised during the introduction. Start at a point, (choosing yourself to go first is sometimes helpful) and ask the trainees to provide their names and any experience they may have with said topic. For example, work in confined space may be the subject for the session. Guide the answers and keep them short – there may be some overzealous participants who want to present a step-by-step account of the three years they spent inside a vessel!
For those who have no experience, dispel any potential feelings that they have nothing valuable to offer, by responding with something like, “that’s fine, that’s why we are all here, to learn”. Or my personal favourite, “that’s ok, me neither!”
Icebreakers can be creative such as dividing employees into groups to fulfil a specific challenge or to put verbs or random words into a hat and allow each participant to choose a word from the hat and mention a point or two about the word. The list is endless, however, the objective the same: to create a friendly, non-judgemental learning environment.
Learn faster with laughter
Regardless of the group dynamic, there is always one given. Everyone enjoys some humour.
Tedious as the subject matter may be, it is always easier to digest when a few giggles are thrown in the bag.
There are no defined means or tricks to achieve this feat, it’s a sort of ‘hit the ground running’ type of technique. I’ve found that being open to situations as they unfold or making a couple of cracks myself can assist in bringing a few jovial moments to the session.
Encourage and anticipate those moments that may invite a little laughter. Remember of course, you are not a stand-up comedian and that it is not necessary for the class to be permanently rolling on the floor in pleats of laughter. It is, however, a good means to allow everyone present to relax a little and will assist in alleviating any boredom.
“regardless of the group dynamic, there is always one given. Everyone enjoys some humour”
More than just a valuable lesson
Pretty early on in my career, I was confronted with numerous interviews for a position, for which I had applied, at an immensely large engineering and manufacturing company.
To be completely honest, at the time I thought I was pushing my luck by attempting to get in there as my experience was minimal and the expertise that I had managed to harvest along the way was not in the slightest manufacturing related. Anyhow, you do what you must at the time (fake it till’ you make it) and at interview number 500 (or so it felt, realistically, it was probably number three) I was faced with the completion of an aptitude test of sorts. Some psychological challenge to enable the interviewer to determine where your strengths, as well as your weaknesses lie… I thought I was done, however, after muddling through, (and a few more interviews later) I was informed that training was in fact, one of my outlying strengths.
I recall being somewhat amused by this revelation as at the time, I had little training experience on which to evaluate this assessment. I automatically tossed it into the pile of skills such as the ability to find parking at a congested shopping centre or having a good track record at matchmaking and left it there, doomed as an attribute I might (surely not) find valuable someday in the future.
Well, contrary to my belief, I landed the job and low and behold, training became my strongest ally. It forced me to work on my presentation skills, to brush up on areas where I knew I needed additional knowledge, to work according to tight schedules, be prepared for anything and probably most important of all, to build relationships with the employees that I was training, and fast.
I think initially, I was the one who learnt the most during those sessions, both about myself and the environment into which I had been hurled, (with no life jacket, I must add!). The stories and factual content that were bred from those sessions provided me with the armour to move forward. To build on my own confidence and knowledge as to my surroundings, of which I knew so little.
Training sessions became my umbrella in the storm, and to this day, it remains one of my favourite and most rewarding activities within my scope of work.
Leader of the pack
As enjoyable and rewarding an activity as training may be, it is not without its challenges.
Later in life, I attended training programmes of my own to ensure I stayed ahead in the game.
One of the most valuable of these interventions was Train the Trainer.
Training was assessed from front to back and upside down. From presentation skills to the different manners in which people learn as individuals.
One of the most interesting sections was on how to deal with difficult groups and handle them as a training professional. I have adapted my own version of these guidelines. (Leigh, D. 1991. A Practical Approach to Group Training. London: Kogan Page)
So, instead of running for hills, try these tips out for size when confronted with a tough crowd.
“training sessions became my umbrella in the storm, one of my most rewarding activities within my scope of work”
I could hear a pin drop…
Chrpppp, chrpppp, the crickets in the background are the only evidence of life. The group is silent.
Try reverting to humour. Ask the group to stop bombarding you with questions. Have they been through this or similar training recently? Are they at grips with the subject matter? Maybe it’s time to revise your method of presentation, and quickly. It may be a shy group or something deeper rooted… find out and address it fast.
Sometimes the group is full of enthusiasm and things move at rocket speed. You can find yourself wondering what you are going to do with the additional time (not as per schedule), following the material being covered? This one is relatively easy to manage. Ask more questions, allow the individuals to elaborate intensely on answers. Ask for additional opinions and responses from other participants. Last resort, pose difficult questions and give them time to work it out.
Any slower and we’d be in reverse
This scenario is a little trickier to handle. Are the group not motivated to listen? The solutions to apply to this problem remains the same. Ask for participants to comment. Nominate people to reply. Deliberately misstating information can sometimes spark a response from a group. If not, wake them up. Let them swap seats, move the group around, whatever it takes. Do not make the mistake of speeding things up to get to the end with this group, as this will not work.
Mr or Mrs Chatterbox
This participant does not stop talking. Sometimes not the worst situation if it is controlled. A couple of talkative learners can add to the total value of the session if it does not become distractive to the rest, if so, you need to step in. Try and use their peers to get them to quieten down. Failing this, cut them off, summarise the content of their point and move on. Last resort, when on a break, thank the person for their interaction but ask them to allow space for the other learners to participate.
There may be a participant who is dramatically quieter than the rest of the group. This person keeps a distance and is silence personified during the session. Try posing direct questions to that person, keep the questions easy until you’ve sussed out the situation. Maybe try enquiring about their past work experience relevant to the topic,
anything that may draw them in without deterring them from further participation.
The typical know-it-all
This person knows everything and then some. They will contradict, correct and confront you. The trick is to remain calm and not be provoked by this behaviour. Oddly enough, the group will usually sort out this individual without you having to intervene. Try to politely ignore this person and allow yourself to call on other members of the group. The person should eventually lose interest in being the smart alec.
The pointers as above are by no means all-inclusive as to what may define a difficult group. People being what people are, have different reactions and behaviours that will surface during any situation, and training is not exempt from this.
As difficult as it often is, the most important trait as the facilitator is to remain in control of the group in a professional manner. Do not be tempted to lash out or get defensive if a particularly problematic trainee confronts you, stay calm and do not get ruffled by the situation. Remember it is more than likely a fleeting few minutes and that you will eventually win that person over by proving that you are fair, neutral, and open minded.
“when finding yourself in a situation where training is required, relish the experience”
Shake it up
As challenging a situation as training may be, in that the real objective is to impart knowledge whilst simultaneously trying to balance a multitude of people from diverse backgrounds, personalities and experiences, I do stand by my own opinion that keeping it interesting is the key.
I will now share some tips and tricks that I use to keep a group focused (and sometimes, awake).
I fully understand that Trainers and Facilitators have their own methods that work for them, as we too are individuals, as are the trainees. Use them, don’t use them; either way, here is my list:
- Handy for tackling legal information – send a couple of trainees out of the venue, into the workplace to literally find the answers to questions, i.e. on notice boards, legal posters etc.
- Following a tea break, let everyone move two seats from their last seat. This can promote a fresh perspective simply from a different angle. Asking everyone to change seats is sometimes met with resistance, especially if the formation changes the person to whom they were previously sat next to. Roll with it.
- Allow a member of the group to read from a slide or text where you would usually do it… (be a little selective here ensuring that the person can read and enunciate properly). If it gets a bit shaky, you can jump in and thank them profusely for their assistance.
- Pose questions – make sure they are open questions that must be answered with more than a simple, yes or no.
- Be supportive, understanding, and empathetic in ensuring that you understand that not everyone learns at the same speed or in the same manner.
- Use props. It doesn’t always have to be equipment directly related to the subject matter. I recently made use of a nearby fire extinguisher to illustrate manual handling and lifting techniques to a group. I then roped in participants to carry, lift and hold it a distance from their body to illustrate the varying effects on the body. It is an attention-grabbing technique that can jazz up topics that are perceived as dull.
- At the risk of being repetitive, (because it works so well!), encourage laughter. If familiar with the group, you can call them out by using personal experiences or conversations with the individual such as “Yes John, I know that you are familiar with this concept as you’ve asked me this a million times before now…”. If you are new to a group, listen and pay attention closely, there is always an opportunity to encourage a couple of chuckles.
In closing, when finding yourself in a situation where training is required, relish the experience.
There are not many functions at work that allow you to impart knowledge, share experiences and pick up a few things yourself along the way. It can provide copious amounts of job satisfaction when members of your group are lively, participative, and learning to boot!