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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Handling difficult trainees: The nervous trainee

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Recently, I had to train one of our customers’ engineers on the use of our tools. It was a one-to-one training session. This trainee had recently migrated to Singapore from a neighbouring South East Asian country and had been working with our customer for a couple of months. His English was quite satisfactory so there were no language barriers.

What made this gentleman stand out as a difficult trainee was his nervousness. He was a total bundle of nerves and as I showed him the technical content of the training, I could see his hands shaking. The shaking of his hands was so pronounced that, as he made notes, his handwriting was almost indecipherable, though he was writing in all capitals. I quickly realized that unless I eliminated or atleast minimized his nervousness, the training would be ineffective. His nervousness was creating so much noise in his mind that completely drowned out any information I was trying to convey.

In a bid to assuage his anxiety – without sounding too patronizing, I casually struck up a talk with him about his background. He had been working for over four years in the same industry in his home country and had been retrenched from his previous employer recently. Perhaps, the retrenchment had left a scar in his mind. Perhaps, it was the new environment in Singapore that he found difficult to adapt to. I tried to gently reassure him that it was easy to learn the subject and expressed confidence that he would master it with practice. All this mitigated his nervousness a little, but not enough to make the training effective. He was relieved when time was up, and left with a remark – “This thing is tougher than I thought”. After the training, I updated his supervisor. I had to make it clear that the trainee was in no position to operate independently and needed considerable practice to get there. This was the legal and ethical thing for me to do as a trainer. If I had certified this trainee as competent, he might have been put in charge of operations, which, if bungled, could result in serious losses for his company.

My thoughts on handling difficult trainees:

• First, try to minimize the nervousness. Unless you do this, you are trying to deliver information through a cloud in the trainee’s mind. It is easier and elegant to first clear the cloud and then deliver the message.

• To minimize the nervousness, try changing the topic – try to establish a personal rapport, try to understand the trainee’s background and figure out what’s causing the nervousness. Sometimes a change of place might help..for example, you might want to discuss the subject over a snack.

• Chunking is a great way to get the content to the trainee. Break down the subject matter into bits that are small enough to pass through the cloud of nervousness in the trainee’s mind. Gradually, the content will sink in and, as the trainee gets more knowledgeable and confident, the nervousness will disappear.

• Be truthful in communicating the training status to the trainee’s supervisor. It is best to do it confidentially and get the supervisor to understand the problem. You might jointly come up with a solution that eventually gets the trainee trained. But never certify the nervous trainee as trained, just to boost his/her morale. Reassure the trainee, put him at ease, but still convey the message that there is work ahead before certification can be attained.

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