When people have nothing left to learn

You know when you get asked a question and then three hours later you think of the answer you should have said?

Frustrating, isn’t it?

It drives me nuts.

Not to the point where I want to go on a furious rampage through the city streets, more like I want to write a terse LinkedIn post. Each to their own …

It happened the other day when I was being interviewed for TLDChat about L&D, change management and leadership development. I was asked about what to do when you’ve got a room full of leaders and you get one who thinks they already know everything and have nothing left to learn.

If this happens in real life, I’d know what to do … much as I enjoy working with open-minded professionals who love learning, when you do this sort of thing a lot, you kind of like (in small doses) the awkward buggers who make it harder. I wouldn’t want a room full of them, and would tire if they persisted for the whole session, but now and again it’s fun to test your wits against the tougher cookies.

What I said during the interview was fine, but it was incomplete and vague.

It would be misleading to suggest there’s a secret one-size-fits-all formula that always works, and it is correct that it’s a judgement call where you need to flexibly apply soft skills honed through years of thorny experience, but there is some solid ground beneath our feet here, and there are a series of steps you can take that will increase the likelihood of you being effective.

So this is what I wish I’d said …

First, build the relationship and establish your credibility.

  • Contact people before the sessions and show interest in their individual circumstances and challenges
  • Use the organisation’s senior management to set the scene and show their confidence in you
  • Run virtual sessions before the face-to-face workshop
  • Arrange social interaction before the workshop if appropriate, and use social media to enhance this (create a WhatsApp group for example)
  • Design the face-to-face session so that you are not butting up against people early in the day, there is plenty of time and opportunity to build the relationships and let people establish themselves within the group


Second, talk about how you learn, the importance of an open mind and reflection

This can be done a pre-work, but it’s worth reiterating early on in a face-to-face workshop.

Discussing the importance of being a reflective practitioner based on a learning mindset is a safe way of encouraging positive behaviours.


Third, spend time contracting, or establishing the ground rules

It doesn’t take long, but it’s worth discussing what’s expected, and what’s not acceptable.

People usually mention things like respect and confidentiality, and these are important, but it’s establishing the idea that we’re all here to share our ideas and challenge ourselves and others. It’s our duty to challenge respectfully, but also to be open to challenge from others.


Fourth, allow people to share their expertise, show you value it

You only need 2 or 3 other people in the room and there’s already more experience among the participants than with you, so use their experience and show you value it.

Allow participants to answer questions that are raised, encourage people to show and use their expertise. Just because you’re the person at the front doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers.


Fifth, when you spot something to challenge, ask for permission

Just saying “Can I challenge that?” makes it less confrontational and leaves them in control.


Sixth, challenge clearly and directly, but respectfully, it’s not about making anyone feel bad

It’s never about cutting people down to size or putting them back in their box. It’s not even about winning the argument … they might feel the need to defend their position, that’s OK … but it’s also OK for you to challenge it.

Challenge the idea not the person, and do so directly, clearly and with respect.

If necessary back off, “We don’t need to agree, that’s OK


Seventh, find a way to reward their willingness to be challenged

… without being patronising.

Find a form of words that works for you that sounds like you’re genuinely grateful that they disagreed but were open to challenge.

Thanks for that, a good discussion, and thanks for being open to challenge, it’s great to work with open minds!

This doesn’t guarantee success, but it improves your chances, especially in the longer term.

That’s what I meant to say.


Add a comment ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s