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Dealing With Difficult Learners: Part III

TeamOJT Tip of the Month for January, 2007

January's Tip of the Month is a continuation of the four part series on dealing with difficult learners (November, 2006 through February, 2007).

Keep in mind as you work with difficult learners to always go with their style. Remember the rule of thumb - if you don't know what to do, do the unexpected - or do nothing!

The third type of difficult learner is the Controller. The following is a description of some typical behavior you might expect from a trainee with this style, followed by tips for dealing with Controllers.


The Problem

The Controllers can be particularly frustrating. Their primary goal in life is order. Unlike Pleasers who have super God-like goals, Controllers have only God-like goals. These learners come in two types: those who actively control and those who passively control. For active Controllers, control is a friend. Their motto is, "Everything in its place and a place for everything." They value routine and schedule. In a training situation, they may also try any of these three strategies: controlling through intellect; controlling by being right; and controlling by ruling.

Difficult learners who try to control through intellect believe that, "The more you know, the more you are." Their motto is, "Knowledge is power." They will tend to lead discussions with you by engaging in intellectualism. You will hear them use words you never heard of. Or they may talk beside the point by being literal about everything.

Learners who control by being right, have as their motto, "Right is might." These learners believe they are never wrong; their worth depends on being right. In training they like to have guides to tell them what is right. They have difficulty when there are two rights - they often have the "chocolate bar conflict" - damned if they do and damned if they don't - a double bind. And if they have to choose between two evils, they are paralyzed - neither would be right. If you catch them being wrong, they will be devastated. They like to sit in judgment and tend to see everything as right or wrong. They will enjoy doing an evaluation of the training, and of course you, and can be very critical. Often they come to training not to learn anything, but to prove you are wrong at whatever you try to teach them. They may even use tactics to trap you into making a mistake. They may make a confusing statement and when you say "huh?" they say, "Oh, you weren't listening again." If you're late to the training session, expect to be told exactly how late you are because punctuality is exalted. In training, if there is not an assurance of being right, they will be very cautious and take no risks. Controllers fear above all else humiliation or embarrassment. They may keep asking for more and more information so that they don't make a wrong decision.

Those who control by ruling have to be the boss. They try to dominate the training or coaching sessions. If pushed they may be ruthless and resort to intimidation and threats in order to rule.

The second type of Controller tries to control passively. Instead of actively controlling, they try to make sure that you do not control them. Control is the enemy. Their motto is, "What you want is what you won't get." They are the "aginners" - whatever you are for, they are against. To avoid being controlled they often use shyness, sensitivity, weakness, or sickness to get out of situations where they feel controlled.

Tips for Dealing With Controllers

  1. Show acceptance. This requires a relationship built on mutual respect and equality. Otherwise you could easily get into a power struggle with Controllers. If things get tense, let go your end of the rope and be kind but firm.
  2. To empathize, understand their need to control, to be right, to rule, to go against whatever you're for.
  3. Show confidence by letting them be in charge of something; when encouraged, they make good leaders.
  4. Build on their strengths - sense of order, punctuality, efficiency.
  5. Show you appreciate effort and improvement, especially when they make mistakes. Point out the value of learning from mistakes; that perfection is not always a good thing.
  6. Align with their goal of order. Make sure the training is organized and complete. Don't have loose ends. To avoid further discouragement, never surprise, humiliate, or embarrass them.
  7. Set realistic goals that challenge. Let them take the lead in coming up with goals.
  8. When coaching, redirect incorrect actions, not by pointing out mistakes, but by asking for alternative ways to do it.
  9. For feedback, point out some specific skill or ability first. Then express appreciation for effort and progress.
  10. For performance evaluations, emphasize what went right, and avoid a power struggle over who's right or what's right, who's the boss or who knows the most.
  11. During their self-evaluation, ask what went well, not what went wrong. Ask them if they are ready to take a few risks; you might need to encourage risk-taking.
  12. For self-encouragement, expect that they might want a duel, and be alert! Realize their need for control and do not be intimidated by their behavior. Realize they may be stubborn and resist your attempt to train them, but don't get frustrated by it. Expect to feel some tension around Controllers.

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



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