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Dealing With Difficult Learners: Part I

TeamOJT Tip of the Month for November, 2006

The Tips of the Month for November through February will be about difficult learners and how to deal with them. Each month will highlight one of the four types of difficult learners and illustrate how they might cause problems in learning situations. Although most learners are not difficult, you will occasionally run into a discouraged one or two who drive you crazy -- whether you are in a classroom environment, a one-on-one situation, or even online.

The most important thing to keep in mind as you work with difficult learners is to always go with their style. Don't fight the behavior that you don't like, because you will only intensify it. A good rule of thumb -- if you don't know what to do, do the unexpected.

The first type of difficult learner is the Avoider. The following is a description of some typical behavior you might expect from a trainee with this style followed by tips for dealing with Avoiders.


Typical Problem Behavior

The Avoiders are learners whose motto is, It is sweet to do nothing. Comfort is what gives them a feeling of belonging. People who are into comfort love all types of gadgets - anything that will make life easier. These discouraged learners believe two things - In the long run, nothing good will happen anyway, so I might as well take the easy way, and If I do what you expect, you will expect more and that will cause me stress. Stress is to be avoided at all costs. It will be difficult to get Avoiders to dobecause they don't want to take responsibility for their training or job performance. They pay the price of reduced productivity. They will say, You're the trainer -- and will look to you to do for them. You have to make them do. In training or coaching sessions, they might try to manipulate, charm, procrastinate and flatter you in order to avoid learning or doing. They will claim to be bored -- which really means they want you to entertain them. If the training involves task performance, look for them to try to extend the length of the training session and get you to do the task for them instead of doing it themselves.

Tips for Dealing With Avoiders

  1. Show acceptance by emphasizing a shared responsibility in the learning process, a relationship based on equality, and by assuring them that you will go at their pace.
  2. Empathize by showing you understand the strainthey're under.
  3. Express confidence in their ability to master the task. Let them know they can do it.
  4. Since their strengths include good social skills and excelling at putting people at ease, have them help other learners do things. And since Avoiders are good at taking the easiest course, encourage them to find easier, simpler ways to do something.
  5. Every time they do no matter how small, appreciate the effort. Never tell them they can or should do more.
  6. Align with their goal of comfort. Avoid further discouragement by not doing or saying anything that would stress them. Couch things in terms of how easy it will be (but only if it is easy) and give them plenty of time to accomplish tasks. Whatever you do, don't do anything for them. You may have to point out how they will benefit from doing.
  7. Set short-term learning goals. Long-term goals might cause stress. Make sure they agree with the goals, but don't push.
  8. Be patient when coaching; keep emphasizing that it may take time and there is no hurry.
  9. When giving feedback: 1) express appreciation for what they do; 2) avoid feedback which inspires dependence on you.
  10. During performance evaluations, emphasize things they've done. Appreciate progress. Give homework to get them to do.
  11. For self-evaluations, ask what progress they made; don't ask what they accomplished -- it might cause stress.
  12. For self-encouragement and to avoid discouraging yourself, do not succumb to flattery and charm, and do for them. Realize that you will feel impatient, like you want them to get on with it, but don't be frustrated by it.

For more detailed information, download my article, Modifying Motivation: Encouraging Difficult Learners.



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