The Most Difficult Personalities to Train (and How to Train Them)


September 4, 2018

I recently met up with a training manager friend of mine, and we got to talking about the biggest challenges she’s had in training people in the workplace. What she said stuck with me: “I don’t really have challenges training people—it’s training certain people.”

Whoa. If there’s any kind of gossip to be had in a conversation about workforce training, this was pretty much it. I invited her to continue.

It turns out my colleague already had a “Bermuda Triangle” of sorts in her head—three personality types that she always kept in mind when designing her sessions to increase her chances of success. Just as this region is known for where aircraft and ships mysteriously disappear, these three personalities can swallow up a session before you can say Mayday:

The Resister:

These learners can be frustrating because they tend to question or challenge a lot of the information you’re trying to feed them. There’s nothing wrong with constructive discussion or debate—in some cases, such as sensitivity training, you’re there to learn as much as they are—but after a while, the constant back-and-forth can disrupt the learning of other learners while leaving you feeling drained and flustered. This, as we all know, can affect your positive energy and hurt engagement while chewing away at the attention spans of your learners.

So what’s the solution? Inform your learners at the very beginning of a session that questions will be reserved for designated periods and limited to a certain time to keep the session from running over. Then, if the learner tries to monopolize the designated time for answering questions, be firm in insisting that other voices are heard from and that you’re happy to speak directly with the learner separately after the session. You may find it helpful to purposely seek out this individual during a break and start a light conversation intended to uncover the root cause of concern. Whether or not you reach a resolution, just the act of trying to understand will go a long way with this learner personality.


The Nodder:

This learner type may come off as the exact opposite of the Resister, but they can make a session just as challenging, because they’ll give you the impression they’re taking it all in when they’re really only pretending. They may be bored, working on another project, or texting with a friend. It may be more difficult to detect the Nodder in virtual training sessions (as opposed to live sessions that make it easier to observe body language), but you can still help the Nodder learn by incorporating a variety of engagement techniques to both keep things interesting and reinforce the learning. Most instructors are adept at this in a physical classroom, but in a virtual classroom this may seem challenging.

Choreograph your online class to reduce pure lecture time and increase student driven activities. Examples are: quick quizzes (polls or even spot tests if appropriate), opportunities to respond to questions using a directed chat request, yes/no or other feedback icons in the tool, letting a student drive the whiteboard to map out a concept, or holding breakout rooms that require the students to be accountable for their learning through collaboration and problem solving. Adding engagement techniques like these and others, with variety in format and timing throughout the session, will serve to warn or remind the Nodder or other passive learner that the information being presented must be retained, and the way to do so is to actively take part in the class. You can also help prevent learners from inadvertently slipping into Nodder mode by incorporating meaningful and even personalized examples or scenarios, that will keep the learner alert and invested in the session.


The Hijacker/Know-it-All:

This is the mother of all difficult trainees. Like the Resister, they tend to push back on information that’s being delivered. But instead of merely squaring off against certain pieces of a session, they try to redirect the entire session to issues and priorities that matter most to them—not the team at large. It is often painfully evident that this person is more interested in showing off their expertise than in learning something new. Passive-objector versions of the Hijacker may not be disruptive to the overall session in that they keep their opinions to themselves, but they still create a failure for the invested trainer who knows the importance of establishing a connection with everyone.

The know-it-all hijackers are often so frustrating you can feel the weight as the class engagement drops the moment they start to talk…again. So what’s a trainer to do? Advance planning in the session development stage may help you better manage the Hijackers during the actual session. When designing your presentation, solicit input from learners in advance so that their feedback is at least considered before settling on the points you plan to raise. Your solution for the Nodder above helps with the Hijackers as well—assuming you do everything you can to make the training meaningful for the learners. Where appropriate, make a point of referring to the pre-class comments of a specific individual, or mention that at least half of them had a concern or question that this section of the class will address. While the know-it-all tends to lack some emotional sensitivity at times, it will be harder to try to take over when the topic is known to be important to the majority of the class. If that doesn’t work, you may have to put the person politely in their place, and even interrupt as tactfully as possible to redirect the conversation back on track.

Allowing the Hijacker to dominate your class not only steals from you, it takes a significant amount of the training value away from everyone there. A little discomfort is appropriate when you compare it to the value of the time wasted listening to a pushy student talk on and on about irrelevant topics. Listen to what the person is saying though because sometimes an outspoken student can move things in the right direction: perhaps you’ll even find the Hijacker who makes the most noise during the session is actually speaking for other (passive) Hijackers who aren’t as comfortable with sharing their thoughts in the open. Either way, you’ll demonstrate your session is based not just on what corporate wants learners to know, but on their own real-world experiences in the workplace.

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