How Adults Learn

“If you’re looking for someone to give you the answer, you’re in the wrong place”.

I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.  Fall 2012 was turning towards Winter as I walked down Broadway crunching leaves with my boots on my way to the 1 train.  My evening class of “How Adults Learn” had just finished and I called to debrief (okay, to complain) with my friend and mentor Cheryl.

In between breaths spent exclaiming how much I loved being in New York City, I was having a hard time with the way my Grad School classes were being taught (note, I didn’t frame it as having a hard time with my role as learner — although that self-knowledge came later). This was my first semester, and so not how I expected it to be (unmet expectations, cue disappointment).

I had a lot of questions I wanted answered by experts in the field, I wanted to feel I was getting my moneys worth.  I wanted content, slides, frameworks, solid answers, lots and lots of sage in front of stage moments.  I was curious and thirsty, yet impatient. I wanted to be taught with a capital “T” and to sit back and take it all in.

In a class called “How Adults Learn”, this struggle seemed quite ironic.

The ever-wise Cheryl gave me a virtual hand slap: “if you’re looking for someone to give you the answers, you came to Grad School for the wrong reason”.

I continued to reflect on what Cheryl said on the subway ride home, the next morning, in the next class session and throughout the rest of my two years in Grad School. I think about what she said most days, when I spend my days creating and delivering curriculum to curious, thirsty, impatient adult learners in corporate settings.

By the time I reached my final semester in Grad School the uncomfortable-ness of not knowing the one right answer hadn’t lessened, but my confidence and ability to figure it out had increased. I learned that experience was my best teacher, and that the best teachers were educators instead of lecturers.

As we grow up and continue through school many of us are institutionalized to believe that learning should be a certain way. At many points in our life we want to be told what to do. Anything that strays from that expectation feels uncomfortable and unnatural.

There is power in feeling uncomfortable, yet safe. Know that in some situations or subjects you might not get an answer, or the one you were expecting. Know that when it comes to teaching and learning, your educators are as curious, and sometimes more impatient than you. But … they know you have the answer, and you can count on them to help you unlock it.

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Leadership Development via subtraction

Doing more with less.

Doing more by doing less.

No these aren’t faux business article headlines, but they might as well be. In an increasingly fast-paced, hectic work environment, learning professionals are working to create learning opportunities that are relevant, applicable, and personal.

But one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on creating leadership development experiences in particular adds one more piece to the puzzle:

Many leadership development experiences identify what a leader should be doing more of. What if instead we helped them focus on what they should stop doing? 

Learning experiences can sometimes leave us feeling bogged down by new behaviors we should be incorporating, or knowledge we should be applying. It can become so additive that its hard to focus or feel that we can apply it all. 

To help ease the transition from learning to application we can work to remove some of the barriers that are keeping others from doing great work. We can do this by shrinking the change, helping others identify what they should be doing less of (or stop), and getting really clear on what is getting in the way of the change we seek.

Chances are your learners will breathe a huge sigh of relief when behavior change efforts become crystal clear, tinier, more specific, and hopefully more manageable.

In these busy times our focus for programs that stick can be on removing whatever it is that is getting in the way, and what we could stop doing, instead of piling on more.

The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.

 

What’s the drill – April 14: A new approach to problem-solving

If I were to write a country music song, which, let’s be honest might never happen.. I’d call it:

“Focus on the person, not the problem”.

It seems like it could be a catchy song, if only people would listen to it.

When an employee comes to you with what you see as an unsolvable problem, it’s time to dig deeper. As an Improviser, I’d ask you what the “offer” is. What is the employee really asking for? Furthermore, what does your employee need right now?

Our basic human need is to be heard. When managers respond to an emotional need with rationale data, an employee is not truly heard. Besides, chances are it’s not about the data. There is something else going on.

Get clear on the issue.

Our goal is not always to problem-solve. It’s to build relationships. That comes from noticing the offer in the room, accepting, and building off of it. We can’t “yes, and” if we aren’t fully paying attention to the other person.

How to “Yes, And” by saying “No”

When I first started Improvising, I took the phrase “Yes, and” very literally. My mind was blown by this new concept and I wanted to play with the idea of saying YES to everything I could.

And so… I went skiing. I really dislike skiing. Those darn chair lifts! As the chair lift wobbled and swayed in the cold and my kind friends distracted me from my fear by talking baseball and “Friends” trivia, the phrase “Say, Yes And” pierced through my head.

I thought, I really should say YES…when in my gut I knew I wanted to have said no.

This “Yes, And” experiment lasted a few more months. Until I realized a key distinction:

It’s more important to “Yes, And” your instincts than to say yes to everything.

Well-timed NO’s are strategic. They allow us to create space for more YES’s. 

Improv helps us develop our instinctual muscle, so that we are attuned to what feels true for us and what doesn’t.

This attunement also helps us feel what’s true or not true for the characters we play on stage. We know what makes them tick.

Most of us work-out our NO muscle more often than our YES muscle. Usually there is a reason for it. Ask, where is the NO coming from? As long as the “NO” comes from a real, honest place we are still supporting our partner, ourselves, and the scene.

The key is to not feel like we have to say YES to everything our partner says or does on-stage, but to still find a way to accept it and build on it.

A tricky nuance perhaps. I’d argue that the key is balance — How does your “NO” keep moving the story forward? What about this offer can you still accept?

The more we Improvise (on stage and in real life) the more we may realize that “Yes, And’ing” is less about rules and more about intention and instinct.

The art of feedback – why we should serve more than a “praise” sandwich

A couple of days ago, my good friend and classmate Kendalle Harrell sent me a link  to the latest research article on Performance Feedback… I know what you’re thinking…quite a sexy topic for an Organizational Psychology grad student.

Yes, gosh darnit, it is! We’ve all been given feedback – welcome or unwelcome, formal or informal, yearly or monthly.

Performance feedback is an art. So let’s draw some connections to the art of Improvisation, shall we?

Peter Sims gets us thinking about how, and compares this art to the artsiest folk of all, Pixar animators.

  1. Make it personal – no cookie cutter feedback here. Not everyone likes a praise sandwich, in fact, some people will throw away what’s inside and just focus on the praise, or visa-versa. Strong performance feedback has…
  2. A narrative – a journey, a co-created one at that… between the feedback giver and receiver. Decide on a vision that you can co-create. To help you write this narrative focus on…
  3. Agreement – what can the feedback receiver agree to (and come up with themselves) to improve? Utilize the power of give and take (Thanks, Adam Grant!).
  4. Be specific – focus on specific behaviors, action items, and examples.

Pixar utilizes “plussing” as a developmental tool (you may call this “Yes, And…as you wish).

“The point, he said, is to “build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.

Here’s an example he offers in his book. An animator working on “Toy Story 3” shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. “Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?”

Using words like “and” or “what if,” rather than “but” is a way to offer suggestions and allow for the creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.”

Performance feedback is a muscle that can be developed with practice.  I’d argue that many of us inherently know this already, but don’t always put it into practice. If we want to improve, we can think about it as we would our own performance feedback. Focus on the specific behaviors we can improve on tomorrow, and who can help keep us accountable as we learn and grow?

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.