Early in my career, I was leading a training in my usual extrovert style—talking loudly, getting people interacting and laughing—when I noticed one attendee who was barely participating. He was sitting in the corner, staring at me intently with his arms folded. Because of my negativity bias I assumed that he must be judging me as a poor trainer. After all, I reasoned, if he thought it was a good training he would be interacting with the rest of us, right? Thankfully I caught myself before I started acting coldly toward him and ignoring him. Instead I decided instead to prime myself by assuming (playing an inner movie) that he was getting a lot out of the workshop. That helped me make sure I was making eye contact with him and giving him the same attention as the rest of the group. After the workshop he came up to me. I was steeling myself for negative feedback, but he said, “Thank you. That was one of the most interesting workshops I’ve ever been to, and I learned a lot.” This was before I knew about introverts and extroverts, and that his staring at me quietly and intently was his version of high engagement. And to think, I came this close to blowing it!
This situation taught me so many lessons! When you’re teaching people, it can be very easy to focus on how you want them to react, what they’re not able to do, the difficult aspects of getting them to understand the concept, or the deficits in their capabilities. This tendency comes from the caveman part of our brain, which is irrational and reactive. I now see that negativity in a learning situation often starts with the instructor.
There has been some fascinating research that shows when people are first learning a new skill, they learn better if negative influences are minimized and the atmosphere is highly positive. The idea behind this is that positive interactions surrounding a new activity will increase positive feelings toward that experience and open you up to enhanced learning abilities. It also keeps us focused on what to do, and less distracted worrying about what not to do.
The same research shows that when people have mastered a skill, they will improve more if they actually receive a higher degree of negative feedback. How interesting!
It makes sense: When you have aptitude in a subject, you possess a higher degree of confidence because of it, so constructive criticism isn’t such a blow to your ego; instead it’s an opportunity to fine-tune your abilities. Yet when you’re just starting a new activity, it can be tempting to give up if the process is steeped in negativity.
Here are a few tips to make learning positive and prime yourself to teach others more effectively.
Watch What You Say
As the one teaching a skill, you can help create a positive learning environment by giving people feedforward—giving them ideas for future success, instead of just telling them how they did in the past. Utilizing the power of feedforward instead of simply telling people what not to do can be extremely effective.
You can even facilitate the process with the words you choose. A lot of times we may say something like, “I want to help you get better.” But when you say that, the caveman part of the person’s brain takes over and starts an inner dialogue that says, “You think I’m not good.”
Instead, try saying, “I want to help you get even better.” This reframe plays a different inner movie for the listener. It implies that they are already good, and adding that one word goes a long way to build on their confidence.
Build on Strengths Instead of Eliminating Gaps
You’ll find that people are a lot less defensive when you build on their strengths versus assuming that they have gaps in skill. In fact, once I started using this approach, I learned that much of the time I had been wrong about the gaps I’d assumed.
Use the Chameleon Effect
When you’re teaching with the expectation that your audience is going to be able to understand the topic and excel, this belief comes across in your body language and facial expressions, as well as the tools and opportunities you give people.
Teaching others well starts with priming yourself. Setting high expectations for their capabilities will cause you to treat them in a way that builds confidence and is more likely to build upon their strengths. This phenomenon is called the chameleon effect because people often adapt to our expectations.
Use Positive Emotion as Learning Glue
Another interesting fact is that emotion helps our memories work better. The more emotional we are when we experience something, the more likely we are to remember it. If you reflect back on many of your most vivid memories, you will probably find that there is an emotion—positive or negative—tied to it.
When you’re teaching, if you can help your students associate the topic with a success story in their lives, it will tie to their strong emotions and help them remember the topic. No matter how good your content is, people only learn it if they’re engaged, so how you present it to them is as important as the quality of the content itself.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful the next time you need to teach someone. I would love to hear about your experiences with teaching and how you positively prime yourself to help others learn. Simply comment below or connect with me on social media and share.
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