E.A.R.: The Secret Sauce That Makes Great Trainers Great

You’ve heard the saying, “those that can’t do, teach.” In the corporate world they say the same thing about trainers. “They” aren’t necessarily wrong; there’s a lot of bad training and bad trainers out there. They’re not necessarily right, either. The best trainers have the ability to lift the performance of an entire organization. Navy SEALs, whose lives literally depend on their performance often quote the Greek poet Archilochus (650 BC): “We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” And the training, more often than not, falls to the level of the trainer.

Trainers are indeed difference-makers when it comes to training outcomes. A beautifully designed workshop delivered by a mediocre trainer will be mediocre. But mediocre training delivered by a great trainer can influence a learner’s performance long after the workshop has ended.

Which begs the question: what qualities do the best trainers exhibit? Clearly all trainers must have the platform skills and the subject matter expertise to be credible with their audiences. But those are table stakes these days.

Ridge has been training trainers for 43 years. In our experience the “secret sauce” that separates great trainers from good trainers includes three qualities that pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers identified as empathy, authenticity, and respect. Simply put, when trainers exhibit empathy, authenticity, and respect (which result in the handy acronym “EAR”) they positively impact their students’ learning and do so in measurable ways.

Empathy is a sensitivity to how participants feel about what is happening in a workshop. Trainers demonstrate this understanding by listening to participants’ questions, comments, and resistance. Being empathic also involves tailoring the content to participants’ roles and frames of reference.

Authenticity reflects a trainer’s willingness to be a real person when relating to participants. It means avoiding the roles of “teacher,” “expert,” or “defender of the teachings.”

• Trainers model respect by developing a relationship with each participant, by actively tapping group and individual wisdom, and by reacting non-defensively to criticism of the course or the trainer(s).

In the 1960s, researcher David Aspy and his colleagues evaluated the effect of these qualities on learning. Aspy’s group recorded and assessed more than 3,500 hours of instruction from 550 teachers in various grades of elementary and secondary school. The results of his research showed that teachers exhibiting empathy, respect, and genuineness created measurable gains in such diverse areas as reading achievement, grade point average, cognitive growth, creative interest and productivity, and self-confidence. The location of the school, the race of the teacher or the racial make-up of the class did not influence these gains. Given the achievement gap in America’s public schools, perhaps it’s time to revisit Aspy’s research and findings.

It turns out that empathy, authenticity, and respect are even more essential to adult education. Adults expect to be treated with respect. They expect that what they learn will address their needs, goals and concerns (that’s empathy). If they experience a trainer being inauthentic—either pretending to be more authoritative than he/she is or being a slick “edutainer”—they tune out or act out. Either way, they’re not learning.

When clients ask us how to develop these “EAR” skills within their trainer corps, we suggest the following three ways of getting started.

Rate trainers on their empathy, respect, and authenticity in the classroom. This will let trainers know that these aren’t simply “nice to” skills, they’re foundational performance expectations. Collecting performance data on trainers’ use of these skills should be easy. Trainers are some of the most evaluated workers in business. Add a few questions that correlate with these qualities to your workshop evaluation forms. As participants begin to expect to be treated with EAR skills, their ratings will become more discerning. You can use this information to champion those trainers that excel and coach those who need further development.

Include these core qualities in your hiring criteria. Training departments often assume they should hire trainers for their subject matter expertise. In fact the opposite is more true: it’s easier for trainers to learn the subject matter they’ll be teaching than it is for them to learn how to be great trainers. Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, advised his colleagues to “select the naturals.” His advice holds true for training departments today: look for people who possess high levels of empathy, authenticity, and respect. They’ll become impact players more quickly.

Include these qualities in your trainer training. Like “soft skills” in leadership development programs, these skills take time to learn and integrate into everyday performance. Even those who are “naturals” need to learn how and where to use them for real impact. Trainer development workshops need to encourage trainers to express the facilitative qualities in all they do—in making presentations, asking questions, working with resistance, debriefing learning exercises, etc. To deliver results, these skills must become second nature for your trainers.

In an era where competitive advantage is often linked to skilled and knowledgeable employees, the importance of trainer selection and training is more important than ever. By adding some “EAR” to your trainer development you can increase what participants learn, and boost their chances of successfully using their new knowledge and skills on the job when it counts.

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