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Article No.: 08-3

Article Title: It's Showtime: The Emotionally Intelligent Trainer in Action

Authors: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, EQ-i Cert. and Sheri Caldwell, Ph.D., SPHR, EQ-i Cert.

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You’ve been through an exhaustive needs assessment process.  You’ve thoughtfully designed a seminar in line with specific objectives.  Now, it’s “show time” - the make-or-break component of the training process.  At this juncture, the trainer’s emotional intelligence level is critical.  The stakes are high.

If you’re an Emotionally Intelligent trainer you have:

  • The ability to understand one’s emotions
  • The ability to recognize, analyze, and understand others’ emotions
  • The ability to appropriately respond to a situation given the environment and the situation

In this article, we will address how an emotionally intelligent trainer ensures a successful training event, starting with establishing a positive environment for learning and moving on to specific behaviors that will enhance the experience for participants and the trainer.

Establishing a Positive Environment for Learning

Not only does an emotionally intelligent trainer design a positive training environment, he or she is in tune with workshop participants during the course of training and can adapt from moment to moment to ensure that there’s an energy flow throughout the event.  In this section, we’ll share some techniques from our research for our upcoming book, EQ-Squared:  Leadership Moxiethat successful trainers use to maximize learning and behavior change.

Emotionally intelligent trainers ask a lot of questions during the training event that are designed to heighten participants’ awareness of key points and critical lessons.  Questions we like include:

  • What did you just learn about yourself?
  • How can you use this information tomorrow?
  • What do you think about this approach?
  • How can you adapt this technique to your work?
  • How would you explain this concept to a coworker?

In addition to asking a lot of questions, effective trainers listen to the responses and tailor their training style to meet participants’ needs.  In a recent time management training session, I (Linda) asked, “How can you use this activity log to plan your week in the future?”  One person said, “My experience with activity logs hasn’t been very good.  I don’t know if I want to try these again.”  I needed to ask some more questions before moving on!  I inquired about the reasons why the tool didn’t work for her previously.  She – and others – were able to articulate experiences with poorly executed activity logs.  Now we were getting somewhere.  This discussion provided me with an opportunity to share concrete ways to avoid the pitfalls that the participants detailed.

Emotionally intelligent trainers become students of body language.  We’ve found that body language communicates what people are truly feeling, more so than words.  For instance, have you heard trainers ask, “Are there any questions?” or “Does anyone want me to review this segment again?”  and then barely glance around the room to determine whether anyone is  confused or frustrated?  The emotionally intelligent trainer instead asks, “What questions do you have?”  This shows the participants that questions are expected and that it is okay to actually ask.

Just as you need to read and interpret others’ body language, you’ll want to be aware of the messages your own body language is sending.  I (Linda) distinctly remember the first graduate-level class I taught several years ago.  I was nervous about leaving out essential points in the lecture portion of my classes.  I had extensive notes, and I placed them on a small table beside me so that I could refer to them often.  I was tethered to those notes.  My eye contact was good; I invited class participation; but I confined my movement during class to a two-foot radius of the table.  I was very surprised to read this comment (often) in the student evaluations at the end of the quarter:  “Linda is not approachable.  She doesn’t walk around and talk with us during class.”  That was not the message I intended to send!  Now when I teach, I walk around freely, notes in hand for easy reference.  It works for Oprah Winfrey, why not for me?!

Emotionally intelligent trainers acknowledge that workshop participants have expertise and experience.  Yes, the trainer has (or should have) a high level of subject matter expertise.  In our research, we found that workshop participants weren’t especially enthralled with trainers that had knowledge of the topic but didn’t invite participant discussion and interaction.  People want to share their own experiences and suggestions.  To be successful as a trainer, it’s necessary to foster a give-and-take dialogue within the classroom (without letting one or two participants dominate).  Here’s an example provided by one of our surveyed trainers:

“I was facilitating an in-house workshop on the business case for diversity initiatives.  I noticed that a guy in the back kept making comments to people at his table.  The entire class became distracted.  So I broke the class into breakout groups to discuss some real-world scenarios.  I asked ‘the talker’ to be the reporter for his group.  That quieted him down for the rest of the morning . . . at least from the sidebars.”

An emotionally intelligent trainer shows respect for participants’ feelings.  Especially in a technical training session, participants may feel insecure about their ability to learn new skills.  The trainer who fosters an environment in which all questions are valid and can be repeated more than once will be valued and appreciated.  We know of a computer software trainer who walked into the training session for the first of several classes wearing a giant fake thumb on his left hand.  His opening line, as he held up his hand, was “This is probably how most of you feel right now…and that’s normal!”  Everyone laughed, and tension was eased tremendously.  If a workshop participant is feeling anxious, frustrated, or unmoved by an explanation, that feeling should be acknowledged and not discounted.  Then, the trainer can move forward to address the person’s unease, starting with a question such as, “What would help you feel more comfortable about this tool/technique/approach?”

Once a positive workshop environment is established, the emotionally intelligent trainer takes additional steps to sustain an environment conducive to learning.

Balancing Listening with Telling

Think about someone you know who you believe to be an excellent listener.  What exactly do they do (or not do) that leads you to characterize this person as a good listener?  Perhaps some of the descriptors you identified are similar to ours:

  • Maintains eye contact
  • Asks questions
  • Doesn’t interrupt when you answer questions
  • Doesn’t judge or appear shocked by what you’re sharing
  • Paraphrases to ensure understanding

An emotionally intelligent trainer exhibits these skills during training sessions, and the result is that participants want to share their ideas, make suggestions, and ask questions.  This in turn promotes an energizing and productive training environment.

On the flip side, consider how you would respond in this situation . . .

Mary tuned out two hours ago, but unfortunately the training is scheduled for three more hours.  Three . . . more . . . long hours with Joe, the trainer.  Joe has been expounding on his sales exploits without pausing for breath since early morning.  At first, his stories were interesting.  But no one can get a word in to make a point or ask a question.  Yes, he’s an experienced sales professional…but Mary wants to learn from others in the workshop.  If Joe would just shut up for a minute . . .

Learning for adults must be interactive and experiential.  Students won’t experience anything except drowsiness if trainers aren’t astute enough to balance “telling” and “listening.”

Encouraging Interaction

If you’re a trainer, you’ve probably experienced a group that was introverted and (seemingly) unresponsive to your attempts at promoting a two-way dialogue.  We’ll share some approaches from successful trainers that will jump-start your sessions when this happens.

Our first message is for you extroverts out there….you know who you are!  The message is this:  a moment of complete silence is OK.  Ask a thought-provoking question.  Pause.  Let people know they can have time to think.  Not to worry – someone will respond.  We don’t recommend, however, that you goad participants into responding with comments like, “Come on…somebody knows this,” or “Don’t you guys talk?!”

Consider asking two or three people in advance to be prepared to share their perspective on some of the discussion questions you plan to use.  Even introverts will be talkative during class when they’ve had some time to process their thoughts and ideas.  For that matter, why not share your workbook in advance for people to review?  If there are articles or books you intend to use as a reference, provide an advance reading list.

Sometimes individuals are not as comfortable discussing questions or concerns in front of the entire group as they are in small breakouts.  The emotionally intelligent trainer for in-house training will do some homework to discover which participants work effectively together.  Mixing up groups can also be an excellent way for participants to meet coworkers in other departments and expand their understanding of others’ work.

Using Emotions:  The Skillful Trainer

Another important aspect of Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to use one’s emotions, whether they are anger, joy, empathy, or frustration, in a way that is productive and positive.  For example, consider this scenario from a training event:

Mary was at the end of the training day and “at the end of her rope” in terms of her frustration level.  One of the workshop participants, Joe, had just interrupted her explanation of a problem-solving technique.  He had been doing this all day long, and it really was getting to her because she was having a difficult time concentrating as it was.  Mary was leading a workshop on problem-solving for the first time and was feeling insecure about her level of expertise.  Joe, an engineer, was clearly experienced in this area and Mary felt that he was just showing off.  As Joe started to interrupt, Mary held up her hand to ward off his question and said curtly, “wait until I’m finished with my explanation.”  Joe, and everyone else in the room, looked stunned.

Early on in the training day, Mary could have made the decision to include Joe in leading some discussion groups or capturing peoples’ comments on a flip chart.  This might have alleviated his need to insert himself at inappropriate times and could have provided Mary not only with extra time to think about the concept being put on the flip chart, but also with an ally instead of a foe.  Instead, Mary was so caught up in her insecurity about leading this workshop that she had a hard time feeling empathy for a person who himself might have just needed a little extra attention.

We have some techniques that we use prior to conducting a training event that help us sustain a level of energy and calm and in turn manage our emotions regardless of how others are behaving.   Activities that help us to gain focus and concentration prior to training is to practice either yoga or T’ai Chi for 15-30 minutes.  Both are ancient arts that help one to call in energy, flex tired muscles, and reach a level of calm.  During particularly stressful training events, we may find a quiet place and take 15 minutes during breaks to do a few light exercises or practice deep breathing.  If participants want to join in, we invite them along!

When to Throw Out the Program Agenda

Several of the successful trainers we interviewed said that they will occasionally throw out their pre-planned agenda or go “off-course” if the classroom discussion warrants.  We recommend that trainers discuss this possible tactic with the Training Coordinator or person bringing them in to conduct the training, so they aren’t unhappy when word gets back to them that the agenda they wanted covered wasn’t covered in full.

We are not promoting a “loosey goosey” approach towards conducting training, where there’s no planned agenda and everything is free flowing.  Unless you’re in an “open space technology” environment, some structure is necessary to assure that key points are addressed.  We’re suggesting that trainers remain open to veering off the agenda occasionally to be certain to cover those areas that are most relevant to participants.  The more up front time is spent in the design process, the less likely will this be necessary.


If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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