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Graham David

How to overcome the myth of “difficult learners”.

Recently I was involved in delivering a series of “Train the Trainer” sessions to some managers who had to roll out a new training initiative with their teams.  These were people who, on the whole, had never been involved in delivering any formal training, so I focussed on some simple planning and process techniques to make their lives easier. I showed them how to make their delivery more effective without increasing the amount of time and effort they would need to spend preparing.

On several occasions during each session as I would be explaining a key idea, at least one delegate would start to look concerned or less happy with what I was saying and then the question would come.  Usually a variation on one of these…

“Graham, this is all very well, but what if the audience don’t get involved?”


“I see that works today with us, but it won’t work with the people I have to deliver to.”

or simply

“You don’t know my team.”

These questions and challenges are never hostile, but they do contain a serious concern for the person asking.  The answer ( which I’ll get to in a moment) is never quite what the person asking wants to hear but does need to be addressed.

The other key time this same issue comes up is when I’m involved in the pre-work for a training or conference event.  Once the content and outcomes have been agreed there will often be an email from the contact wanting to give me a “heads up” on some of the people in the audience.  Again, the concerns are usually worded in the same few ways…

“I love your approach Graham, I would just tone it down for this team, because I don’t think it will land as well with them.”


“Just be mindful that Bob (or whoever) is the most senior person in the room and if he doesn’t like it then we’ll all know soon enough.”

and the classic

“This is a lovely team, but (always a but) they have been messed about in the past so they may be a little resistant to the message.  I ran a session with them and it was like getting blood from a stone.”

Like the challenges in a session these are always offered as help and advice to me but they tell me more about the client than the team in question.  What they demonstrate may not be very easy to take on if you have said any of the things above, but I think they may be true for you too.  You see, these concerns demonstrate that the training provision these people are used to is not good enough.  They show that the training you buy for your organisation is not delivering as well as it should.  They show that your own training and facilitation skills are not as good as they might be…

Those are bold statements and deserve a little scrutiny.  In the last twenty years, with all the thousands of training events and conferences my team and I have delivered, to all the tens of thousands of learners and conference attendees how may times have we had to deal with “difficult audiences”?

Not often, actually.

How many people have I had to ask to leave a session?

Three.  In twenty years.

How often has everything gone wrong and delegates not got involved or challenged throughout?

I don’t know.  Not enough for it to trouble me.  Perhaps a handful of times, but statistically irrelevant really.  Even when we have had questions, or times when individuals or groups have challenged, not got involved and lacked enthusiasm, it’s nearly always a moment, or a topic, or a limited number of individuals – and it nearly always passes.

Have we just been lucky with our audiences?

Of course not.

The fact is that for training and conferences to work better than they do currently, there are three key areas that must be addressed with an equal weight of importance.  These are

  • Why are you delivering this training?
  • What are you teaching?
  • How are you going to teach it?

These three key areas apply to as much as possible of your training, whether buying or designing or delivering the training, in-house or for a client.  No matter what the topic – no matter how “dry” the content is.

Let me give you an illustration.

Why – not just because its mandatory, or you were told to, or delegates “need to know” but rather what changes do you want to see and what will be a measurable outcome for the audience and the business.

What – not just what you are going to tell them, but a stage on from that, what can you tell them they can actually use and put into practice?

How – your event needs to be genuinely engaging, funny, interactive, challenging, engaging, whatever.  Changing the font on the Powerpoint isn’t good enough – find ways that teach and inform, and excite and awake your audience.

You see when you approach all training and conferences with these three key areas in mind you are starting to create what I call Self-Sustaining Training.  Work that audiences WANT to attend, WANT to engage with, find GENUINELY useful and practical and can see a REAL world benefit to.

When you start to buy, design and deliver Self Sustaining Training the concerns and worries mentioned above simply don’t happen.  People do get involved, teams you thought you knew start to interact, “toning it down” is replaced with audiences wanting it to go further, Bob starts to enjoy himself and support the new approach and previously “messed about” teams start to open up.

Embrace Self-Sustaining Training and I can guarantee that the “Difficult Learner” will be far less of an issue for you.

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