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Engaging Learners with Interpersonal Interaction

by AIMM MAITD

Interpersonal Interaction Is Key

Research on learning over the last few decades has reinforced three key factors that maximize the efficiency and impact of employee training. These three factors, when present in the course design and delivery, combine to engage the learner and facilitate the application of new skills in the workplace.

When the training is goal orientated, program participants have a reason to learn and are stretched to apply the learning to achieve concrete workplace outcomes. Making the training relevant to real work hooks into participants' existing knowledge and aspirations, leading to immediate practical application. Providing plenty of opportunity for practice strengthens neural pathways in the learner's brain, increasing learning efficiency and learner proficiency.

There is a fourth factor that permeates all three of these conditions for effective training, and that is interpersonal interaction. Relationship building mediates the other factors through engaging program participants to strive for goals, connect with existing knowledge and practice skills. The interactions I am referring to here are those between each program participant and the trainer as well as between the participants themselves.

Learning in the workplace is largely a social activity, in which goals and aspirations are shared, experiences are discussed, different approaches are debated and ways of doing things are demonstrated. In some programs, participants will learn more from each other than from the trainer. And when the participants return to their workplaces, shared learning between them will be paramount.

Conversely, the relationship between each participant and the trainer is equally important. Participants that dislike their trainer find it much more difficult to learn. These participants need to put in an extra effort to overcome their disinclinations; an effort that many participants cannot be bothered with. Most times, only the participant with a prior and strong natural interest in the subject matter at hand will persevere in the face such feelings.

Interactions that encourage participation and collaboration will foster engagement. On the other hand, interactions that serve to fracture relationships between the participants and with the trainer will seriously undermine learning. The trainer here has two important responsibilities in cultivating learning:

  1. to act in a way that engenders a positive relationship with each participant; and
  2. to facilitate an environment in which participants are able to develop a positive relationship with their peers

If this is to be achieved, the trainer will need to take an interest in people as people. To some trainers, this will come naturally. To others, this will present a real challenge. Some trainers are heavily focused on being perceived as the "expert", disseminating pearls of wisdom for which everyone should be grateful. These trainers spend little to no time in cultivating relationships with participants. The participants must become the focal point in the eyes of the trainer if they are to come on board the training program.

In addition, trainers will need to create an environment in which all participants feel at ease to question, offer opinions and develop friendships. Participants that feel stupid, ignored, disrespected, humiliated or discriminated against by their peers are not likely to engage with the subject matter. Here, trainers need to be skilled in monitoring the interpersonal dynamics of the group and in acting appropriately when relationships deteriorate to the extent that learning is affected.

Six Tips for Effective Interpersonal Interaction

Trainers must not only be content experts, they must also be experts at managing relationships if learners are to be engaged in the learning. How can a trainer achieve these two aims of developing a positive relationship with each participant and fostering collegial relationships between participants? Here are my top six suggestions for doing just that.

  1. Develop a rapport with each participant by showing a genuine interest in them. As attendees arrive for each session, greet them by asking how they are, whether they know other people on the program, or whatever seems appropriate at the time. Start a new program by asking participants about the jobs they perform, the departments to which they belong, their work experiences, and so on.

    At lunch and rest breaks, mingle with the participants, getting to know them on a more personal level. Tell them about yourself, without bragging. Be a real person, disclosing your interests, hobbies, and so on. Leave participants your contact details, showing that you are approachable.

  2. Be aware of the non-verbal messages you convey in the way you dress and groom yourself. Where appropriate, either match the dress standard of your participants or dress at the next notch up from them. For example, if the participants are manual workers wearing overalls, do not arrive in a suit. Wearing neat casual dress may be the most appropriate here.

    Be aware of your body postures and gestures. Folded arms, for example, may signal that you are feeling defensive. Avoid sharp and jerky movements that can convey anxiety or unpredictability. Similarly, watch carefully how you say things. Language experts call this aspect of communication "paralanguage". How you say something can indicate boredom, sarcasm, contempt, and so on. On the other hand, your voice can convey excitement, interest and respect. Express warmth in your voice, avoiding shrill tones, and speak at a moderate pace.

  3. Ask questions to build bridges. Effective trainers are masterful questioners. They use questions for a variety of purposes, including eliciting information, checking understanding, gaining attention and prompting discussion. Questions are also used for developing rapport. Building on my first suggestion above, use questions to show interest, such as, "What do you like about living in your town?"

    Ask some questions of the whole group so that they can get to know something about their peers. Whole group questions start to dissolve the initial apprehension that people feel when faced with new people and surroundings.

    Also, use questions to reveal something about you. These types of questions show you as approachable and human. For example, you could ask, "What do you think of my new tie?"

    You can also use questions to give participants some ownership of the program. These kinds of questions encourage attendees to feel that they have some stake in the learning. An example of this type of question is, "Would you like to finish this discussion now or after lunch?"

    For relationship building, ask open questions that require more than a short answer. For example, ask, "What do you like most and least about this role-play?" instead of "Is this role-play effective?" The former allows for a genuine exploratory dialogue, whereas the latter requires just a "Yes" or "No" answer. Used skillfully, questions can be used to develop rapport with each participant as well as to promote relationship building between attendees and a sense of collegiality.

  4. In an effort to further encourage participants to help each other, plan for group work in your program design. Use groups consisting of two to six participants to construct lists, discuss a scenario, role-play and solve problems. Mix the group composition from time to time so that each participant will work with a range of peers. Do not rush the group work. Allow time for relationships to develop. Extend opportunities to mix beyond the classroom. Organize lunch with participants at a local café or book dinner at a restaurant.

  5. Establish ground rules at the start of the program. Relationships can quickly become fractured and learning blocked through the actions of one or more attention-seeking, disruptive or abusive participants. Start the program with the questions, "What do you need from other participants to assist your learning?" and "How do you like to be treated?"

    Write up the emerging consensus on a whiteboard or on flip chart paper as a concise list of "Ground Rules", "Our Rules" or "Class Rules". What you call the list is not important. You could even ask the participants what they would like to call the list (that "ownership" thing again). What is imperative is keeping the list visible at all times and enforcing the rules.

  6. Give feedback and reinforcement. Letting people know how they are going develops a sense of trust and openness. Ensure that the feedback is accurate, fair and couched in terms of behavior. In giving feedback, do not allude to people's motives or character. For example, do not say, "You are lazy". This will most likely lead to a defensive response and will only serve to put up barriers between you and the participant. Instead, say, "You will need to put in more of an effort if you are to pass this component of the course." And then go on to ask what barriers exist to putting in more effort and how they could be overcome. The latter response builds bridges whilst the former destroys them.

    Reinforcement is also important. Giving participants rewards to mark their achievements grows a positive emotional association in their minds between their success and you. Success that is recognized also helps to develop team spirit, especially if all of the participants are striving toward a common goal. Rewards can range from the informal and small, such as praise for answering a question correctly, to the formal and more significant. Celebratory dinners, award ceremonies and certificates are examples of the latter. The daily, small, informal reinforcers are just as important, if not more so, than the structured and more elaborate rewards.

Distance Learning and Relationship Building

If the program is conducted at a distance, developing the positive interpersonal relationships discussed here will be more of a challenge. The lack of opportunity to interact with others and having no scheduled learning times are two key reasons for the significantly higher failure rate for distance learning. If the program is delivered by correspondence, build in points of personal contact wherever possible. Weekly telephone contact with the program coordinator or trainer may be an option here. If there are other electronic means of communication, then use these also.

If the program is delivered electronically, there will be many more opportunities available to you. The delivery of e-learning has seen significant change in the last few years, driven to a large extent by the growing realization of the importance of interpersonal connections to effective learning. Many programs now incorporate trainee-to-trainee and trainee-to-trainer communication via email, web conference, chat rooms and discussion boards.

These modes of communication are now typically built into the Learning Management System (LMS) that delivers the training. Some e-learning programs utilize problem-based learning strategies to engage participants in collaborative learning at its core, whilst others use the technology for more peripheral communications.

Some programs encourage or structure in face-to-face communications between participants and with the trainer. Face-to-face contact ranges from impromptu get-togethers by two or more participants to regular scheduled meetings to formally organized social occasions. The key message here is that if you are delivering any form of distance learning, use the available technology to foster personal networking and encourage face-to-face contact wherever possible.

Conclusion

Effective relationship building is the mode by which the other three factors for efficient learning work; goal orientation, real work relevance and practice. Through respectful and helpful social interactions, training program participants engage in the learning and strive to apply their new skills to their jobs. I urge you to use the six tips I shared above to incorporate effective interpersonal interaction in your training design and delivery. But don't stop there. Continually hone your interpersonal skills by reading and watching others.

Further Reading

The above is an edited extract from Leslie Allan's book, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about how to create and deliver goal-focused training. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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