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Surviving A Mistake As A Trainer

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Mistakes are peculiar. One trainer can make a mistake, and it’s just a hiccup that no one remembers and most important, no one comments on it in their evaluations. Another trainer can make the exact same mistake and it becomes their worst case scenario—creating doubt to their effectiveness and ability as a trainer.

It reminds me of an old FedEx commercial where a group of middle manager types (only men)are sitting around a conference table, and the head guy says they need to cut costs. A geeky looking guy suggests they could save 10% by using FedEx’s online shipping. No one reacts. A moment later the head guy says the exact same thing that the geeky guy had just said only, this time, everyone is excited about the idea.

The commercial is a reminder that reaction to ideas, like reactions to most mistakes, is more about a person’s popularity and perceived power than it is about the actual mistake.

Here’s the not- so- secret to success as a trainer. You have to be likable. That doesn’t mean you have to be an entertainer, comedian, or the world’s best storyteller. You do have to genuinely like people, be interested in people, show vulnerability, and a willingness to listen. It goes without saying that you need to know the material you are training and demonstrate that the participants will get value for investing their time in the training.

Creating an environment where the participants feel engaged and respected will make 98% of the mistakes you make inconsequential. In other words, if you the cover the essentials of being a professional trainer, then an occasional misstep won’t be your undoing.

To take care of the remaining 2% of mistakes, you need to be aware of how certain mistakes affect participant’s attitudes towards your effectiveness. The majority of mistakes that are difficult to recover from fall into two key categories:

  • Saying or doing something that personally offends a participant
  • Creating doubt About your experience or expertise

Even the most seasoned trainers admit to having a slight case of nerves when they start working with a new group. So much is at stake in those early moments.

And then, once the trainer sees that the group is engaged, most trainers relax and feel comfortable with the group. That is a good thing. However, when a good thing goes to the extreme, it becomes a detriment, and that is exactly what can happen when a trainer becomes too relaxed. When that happens, trainers can forget that they are not talking to their BFF’s. As a trainer, you need to remember that:

  • Your friends might not mind when you use profanity, chances are at least one person in a training session, will not be amused.
  • Any jokes, comments or stories shared over a few bottles of beer or a bottle of wine should probably be left out of the training room.
  • Any teasing that is acceptable among friends is definitely not acceptable in the classroom.

How do you recover if you make one of these mistakes?

Step One: Provide a sincere, humble apology. How well that apology is received depends a great deal on what kind of good will you have “banked” with the group.

Step Two: Use the event as a learning opportunity to talk about mistakes in relation to the training topic.

Step Three: Give your manager or client a heads up before they hear about the incident from a participant.

Just as difficult to recover from is the mistake of placing doubt in a participant’s mind regarding your expertise or experience. Whether you have attendees who paid money out of their own pocket to attend the workshop, or you have participants who are attending because it is a job requirement, there is an expectation that you will deliver value and not waste their time. They expect the highest level of experience and expertise.

Potential pitfalls:

  • Teaching a new course. Do you tell the group it’s the first time you’re teaching the material? Or, do you hope no one asks how long you’ve taught this course?
  • Making a statement that a participant vehemently disagrees with.

These aren’t meant to be trick questions, but there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. If you disclose early on that this is your first time teaching the course, there will be a percentage of people who feel they are being short shifted with a less than experienced facilitator. For these participants, no matter what you do, they will wonder if the training could have been better if they had a more experienced trainer.

If you don’t disclose and then share later, there will be a group of people who may feel deceived that you didn’t disclose the information earlier. They will question your candor throughout the rest of the presentation.

The only antidote for this misstep is to nail the presentation and be on top of your game. You need to WOW them and demonstrate over and over again that you may be new to this material, but you are a seasoned expert trainer.

It’s not unusual to say something in a workshop that a participant disagrees with. It’s not unusual to disagree with making a statement that a participant vehemently, However, it can become a unrecoverable mistake if you don’t handle the disagreement correctly.

One of my biggest mistakes occurred when I was beginning my work with DiSC. I was debriefing a group on their behavioral styles. One of the participants was an engineer whose profile indicated she was a High ‘I”-an influencer. Influencers are naturally creative problem solvers. When she shared that, without thinking, I said something like, Wow that’s unusual: “a high ‘I” is usually associated with someone who is a creative thinker and not someone with strong engineering skills.”

The participant went ballistic, giving me a tongue lashing that I will never forget. She said I knew nothing about engineering because if I did, I’d know that engineering is one of the most creative professions.

Although I later apologized to her for misspeaking. The damage was done. I had lost all credibility, and she was not interested in anything else I had to say. She had plenty to say on the end of course survey.

Afterward, as I attempted to unpack my disaster, I realized that I had broken a crucial rule— I spoke without thinking. If I had been thinking, I would have simply made an observation, “Wow, that’s unusual, engineers tend to show up as a “C”-conscientious.   I should have left out all the value-driven commentary. If I had; my answer would not have been taken as a personal attack.

It was a colossal mistake, and I compounded it by not owning it immediately. In trying to diffuse the heat of the moment, I lost an opportunity to own my mistake. What I should have said was. “I owe you an apology. I misspoke. That was a stupid thing to say. And thank you for calling me on it. I hope the rest of you will call me out the next time I say something stupid.”

In addition to owning your mistake and sincerely apologizing for it, there are two more action steps you should take when you make a mistake.

  • Reflect on the Root Cause
  • Forgive Yourself

It’s one thing to think about a mistake, and it’s something entirely different to reflect on that mistake. The difference is in writing down the facts (as you know them). If you start keeping a “mistake” journal, sooner rather than later, you will begin to see some behavioral patterns jumping off the pages. When that happens, you can develop an action plan to address the pattern that is responsible for the mistakes.

As trainer/facilitators, we emphasize that one of the ways adults learn is by making mistakes. We tell our participants that we want to create an environment that is safe enough for them to make mistakes. We need to take our own advice and learn from it.

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Leslie Ciborowski
Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.