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How to Respond as a Trainer or Coach

At the beginning of March, I attended ICMI’s Training Symposium in Orlando and sat in on a Workforce Management Boot Camp taught by Laura Grimes, ICMI Senior Certified Associate. As is so often the case when I observe our Senior Certified Associates, I was very impressed by her delivery and how she engaged participants from several different companies in different industries and from different parts of the country. One incident in particular has stood out in my memory as a great example of how to respond to people who are learning.

performance conversation Late in the four days of training, a participant commented that his quality team was being required to take on more duties, so they were primarily monitoring new agents and not monitoring the more tenured agents. As a former Quality Director, my entire body tensed when I heard this as I knew it was a bad idea, but of course, I looked to Laura to respond. Did she say “That’s not a good idea,” or “You shouldn’t really do that” or even, “That could cause some problems for you”? No, she didn’t. Instead she said, “Let me tell you a story.”

Laura then told us the story of a large manufacturing company that was doing a study about the impact of lighting on productivity. This is my paraphrase of that story. Company management brought in the team with white coats and clipboards, interviewing workers and trying different levels of lighting. They concluded that higher levels of lighting increased productivity. The company raised the level of lighting, the team departed, and productivity stayed up… for a little while.

After a bit, productivity gradually settled back at the level prior to the lighting study. Management wondered what was going on, so they sent the team of white coats with clipboards back in to study the situation again. After a week or so, the team concluded that a lower level of lighting was better on productivity for the long term. The team departed again, leaving behind a new level of lighting and increased productivity.

But after a bit, productivity gradually settled back to the old levels again. The company managers were now really puzzled, so they brought in the team of white coats again. This time, however, they came to a totally different conclusion. It was the fact that the workers were being observed that caused the workers to behave differently, not the lighting levels at all. Observation all by itself raised performance.

Laura didn’t even have to finish telling her story before the participant got the point and turned to a co-worker and said, “As soon as we get back, the team is going to start monitoring everyone. We’ll figure out some other way to handle the increased workload.”

By responding with a story, Laura gave the participant the chance to learn the lesson and apply it himself rather than being told his actions were right or wrong. He did not feel crushed but rather, felt empowered. Which is exactly how we want learners to feel—in the classroom or during coaching (where they are learning how to get better at their jobs).

But we don’t always have an appropriate story available when learners tell us something that we know is not best. That’s when we fall back on questioning skills rather than telling them something is wrong. Laura could have asked the participant, “How is that working for you?” and “How do your tenured agents feel about not getting any feedback?” or “What message does that deliver to the tenured agents?” Sometimes these questions uncover more about the situation and sometimes they do not, but it gets the learner thinking about things from a new perspective.

Even if the learner reports that everything is working well in their situation, the trainer or coach can respond with something like, “That’s good. Others in similar situations have reported that tenured agents still want to get feedback and affirmation of what they are doing, and in some cases, the tenured agents have been less careful and their quality has actually deteriorated since they feel like no one cares what they do.” The learner can still draw their own conclusions and decide to make changes or see a new perspective on a situation without feeling condemned or told they are wrong.

It takes practice to respond to learners’ statements and questions in such a way as to empower them to make their own good decisions. Reading a wide variety of news and blog articles, and thinking about how what you read applies to work and life situations will help you acquire a larger repertoire of stories to use. Become conscious of how often you respond to learners’ with a statement rather than with a question, and practice responding with a question instead. Brainstorm some questions you could use, or that you could have used in a situation that has passed.

Using these techniques for empowering learners will help you make a more enduring impression and be more effective in training and in coaching.