Margin Notes

I remember Miss Bernadette Sperling, my high school English teacher, warning, “Do not write in the margin. Keep your work neat and clean and easy to read.” (This was, of course, in the days when we still wrote reports in long-hand.) “Neat, clean, and easy to read” rarely happens in the training classroom. Recently, one of my clients gave me an updated version of the trainer guide for a course I had been facilitating for the past year. I smiled outwardly as I accepted it, but inwardly I was panicked …. “A new clean guide! Oh no! What about all my notes—everything I’d learned?”

Most trainers will admit to writing in the margins. Because our effectiveness is directly tied to our ability to listen to the group, we are constantly making mental and written margin notes—to keep learning energized and effective. Let’s take a look at what experienced trainers know—about energizing a group, adapting to groups, and impromptu editing.

How to energize a group: perception, action, reaction, traction

The first step in energizing a group is perception. Here’s a light-hearted look at THE TOP TEN INDICATIONS THAT YOUR GROUP NEEDS ENERGIZING:

10.    A small sweat bee distracts over 83% of those present.

9.    Your best contributors have begun flipping ahead to see what’s next.

8.    People are passing around the scented markers and sniffing them.

7.    Three people out of a table of five get up at once to refill their coffee cups.

6.    Newspapers sneak out from under participant guides.

5.     Your most enthusiastic volunteer is suddenly mute.

4.    Doodling becomes more creative.

3.    Someone right in front has fallen asleep.

2.     Participants nod and agree with absolutely everything you have to say.

1.    People are begging in whispers for the chocolate scented markers.

Perception—an honest awareness

When even one of the Top Ten appears, it’s time to do something! Perception is an honest awareness; if trainees look bored, admit it. If they look angry, admit it. If they look like they want to talk, admit that, too. Confused looks, side glances, whispering, brows raised, and giggles are all nonverbal cues to be acknowledged.

I was recently training a group of managers in a two-part session in feedback skills. Throughout the morning, one of them frequently sent negative nonverbal messages (no smile, little involvement, arms crossed in front, quick or partial completion of activities.) When I announced some interim session homework, his reaction was so apparent that I decided to acknowledge it immediately, and said, “Mel, I sense by your reaction that you’re uncomfortable with this assignment.” Mel shrugged and said, “I liked it in the old days when you came to class, read the book, and left,”—a very strong opinion!

Consultant and trainer Eric R. Baron (“Tennis Anyone?” Training and Development, July 1995, pp. 15-19) did some soul-searching about training after attending a tennis camp. When he was assigned to a practice group that he didn’t relate to, he realized that, as trainers, we need to be proactive about managing classroom groups. Do we allow them to change? Do we mix and mingle enough? Do we sense tension? When people are being left out, do we encourage the group to include them? When someone is taking over, do we suggest that he or she allow others to contribute? Honest awareness is an important first step.

Using action, reaction, and traction to energize

“Action” means leading the group to stand up, move, and mingle; for example, finding someone at another table and discussing how they got their name or how they arrived at their job.

Other action ideas:

  • Ask everyone to come up and put something on one flipchart.
  • Ask people to stand in groups by a flipchart to create a graphic.
  • Ask one group to stand and join with another.
  • Ask group members to stand up to indicate their response; for example, “Stand up if you’ve ever gotten a difficult customer first thing in the morning.”

To get a “reaction,” the trainer can ask questions:

  • “What concerns do you have?”
  • “How is everyone doing?”
  • “What questions do you have?”
  • “How does this fit in with your work?”
  • “How do you feel about this?”
  • “What’s going on in your minds at this moment?” (my favorite)

One method of “checking in” is using “I-statements.” The trainer owns the feeling expressed; for example:

  • “I sense people are tired.”
  • “I’d like to check in with you. How are you feeling about this?”
  • “I’m looking for honesty.”
  • “I’d like for you to write down what’s going on in your mind right now and share it with a partner.”
  • “I sense there’s an in-joke.  Should I be enlightened?”

As a tire tread provides traction for a car, writing, reflecting, and applying are activities that provide “traction” for the learner: Because I train in the “soft skills” areas, I frequently need to give participants time for writing scripts or approaches to communication situations. One of my favorite “traction” activities is to ask participants to write and then to share with a partner. Other writing activities include self-descriptions, letters to self, postcards to self, and journaling.

Incubation is an important step in the creative process, and we need to allow learners time to reflect. Thought can be stimulated by art postcards or stories; participants can reflect on how they relate to the issue at hand.

Applying can involve both writing and reflecting. Application “brings it home” to the job and to personal experiences.  One example of an application activity that I frequently use examines causes for conflict and why it occurs in the organization. Participants begin by writing ideas on post-it notes, reflect by silently organizing the notes together on a flipchart; and apply by analyzing in large group the major conflict categories revealed.

Perception, action, reaction, and traction all contribute to energizing a group. But lack of energy is only one group problem. There are other group situations that call for quick thinking.

Adapting to different groups

As trainers, we often need to adapt to the education, experience, and attitude levels of the group. Sometimes the group has more in common than expected; sometimes it is more diverse. Managers alone and managers combined with staff provide two distinctly different cultures.

Impromptu ideas: changing paddles midstream

Most trainers are notoriously organized. To think “impromptu,” we need to “disorganize” ourselves.

1. Give up some control. Get off the agenda.
Recently, I was taking a hospital through major changes in staffing. I was training a group of very experienced nurses who were feeling defensive about the changes. I quickly perceived that they preferred to ask practical questions of their superior who happened to be in the class, rather than listen to me discuss delegating. I allowed them a half hour of question/answer time with their superior and later asked them to generate their own delegation models based on their years of experience. Their models were well thought out, and though I sacrificed about 45 minutes of the original lesson plan, I gained a better informed, less defensive group.

2. Adapt activities to meet different education levels.
Imagine that you are leading an interpersonal skills course for an entire manufacturing organization—from the shop floor to middle managers. You are discussing behavior styles. How would you adapt your questions about their behavior styles? For the more basic level, you might ask, “What are your style’s strengths and weaknesses?” Adapted for management, the question might be, “How does your style approach a new project with a tight deadline?”

3. Re-think use of games.
Certain groups of employees like playing games more than others. Research has shown that women, people under forty, and sales and marketing personnel tend to be more enthusiastic about games than others.  Alter a game to make it comfortable for the group.

4. Vary the role-play approach.
Triad (groups of 3) role plays are good when most of the class seems able to work well independently, but fish bowl (one role play observed by the group) works better when many group members need encouragement. I facilitate fish bowl role plays using “team consultants.” The team is allowed to help the players at any time: the players can call “Time-out!” to get help or the team can call, “Cut,” to give suggestions.

How to edit impromptu

A lot of my margin notes are about this. Many trainer guides are written with too much content. However, now and then, a session can zoom and the content needs to be stretched. Following are some ideas for speeding things up and slowing things down.

How to speed things up

  • Delete flipcharts, slides, or overheads.
  • Use a visual instead of a wordy handout.
  • Break down ten things to three major things.
  • Take away a job-specific example to de-intensify discussion.
  • Delete a video or a piece of a video.
  • Ask for large group discussion instead of small group breakouts.

How to slow things down

  • Give the first three items in a list of ten and have participants come up with the rest.
  • Ask for each participant to share personal stories.
  • Have small groups discuss and report something.
  • Start with three pieces of content information and ask the group to come up with the rest for a longer list.
  • Have the group do all items instead of just one.

Borrow from improvisation.

“Thinking on your feet” is easier for some of us than others. In Chicago, the improvisation headquarters of the Midwest, impromptu thought process training is at our fingertips. I recently took an improvisation class, which after 18 weeks taught me a lot about how to survive severe embarrassment in impromptu situations. My finest hour was singing “Us snowflakes don’t get no respect,” in some sort of nature-related skit. I had a lot more respect for Shelley Long when I graduated.

As trainers, we can use basic improvisation concepts to help us adapt to groups and situations. Here are a few of the tips I learned:

Say “Yes, and…”
If someone gives you an idea, don’t argue it but build on it: “Yes, and…” as opposed to “Yes, but…” Here’s an example: one of my interpersonal classes was discussing how to handle a difficult coworker. We were eliciting good suggestions until a participant suggested, “Be abusive and aggressive right back to them. I learned that in the army and that’s the only way it will stop.” Obviously, this is not a recommended approach, so I might have said, “Yes, and you need to be prepared for the increased emotion that will result as a result of your aggressive response. What will you do then?”

Be inspired by others’ ideas.
All the wisdom in the world is not in the trainer guide. Participants remember what they say more than what we say, anyway.

Don’t be afraid of silence.
A diversity trainer I know does a wonderful job of pausing after she asks: “What questions do you have?” She knows that people are often reluctant to contribute on diversity issues. When asking a question, it is important to allow silence; someone will most likely respond.

Conflict is not as interesting as agreement; find agreement.
In my improvisation class, we learned that it is important to agree with each other. In an imaginary scene, if a scene partner turns to you and says, “Boy, this elevator’s slow,” you would not want to respond, “What do you mean this elevator? We’re in line at McDonald’s!” Often, as a group facilitator, the challenge is in finding the agreement.

Less is more. Keep it simple.
Our wisdom in front of a group is directly tied to our ability to listen. My associates tell me that the longer they are trainers, the less they talk. I try to remember “TLC” as I begin the training day: “TALK LESS COACH. TALK LESS. TALK LESS.”

Don’t let the ego get in your way.
Enough said.

Don’t say “no” to your own ideas, but don’t force connection.
We need to honor own creative standards, and never ask participants to do anything that we wouldn’t do in a classroom. Some creative training techniques are good and some push the point. The experienced trainer finds the right blend.

A final note: cautions
There are cautions for allowing freedom. Here are some important self-check questions for the trainer:
1. Have I taken the group temperature frequently? (“I sense that” …. “It seems as if…”)
2. Is this a sincere group feeling or an individual character acting out?
3. Can I still relate this back to the objectives?
4. Is 85% of the required material still there?
5. If my superior walked in, would I be happy with what was going on in the classroom at this moment?

What experienced trainers know
We don’t need to be topic experts to be able to facilitate learning. We don’t really need to have years of experience. We do need to listen and to be very interpersonally aware. We need to be observation experts. We need to keep writing in the margins.