Overcoming The Lack Of Learning Empathy
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How To Overcome The Lack Of Learning Empathy

Many don't know that I'm a professor of accounting for a highly respected Canadian university. At a recent faculty curriculum meeting for a Financial Accounting course, the conversation turned to the students' responsibility for their learning.

Yes, students should be accountable for their development. But what shocked me more was the faculty members’ lack of empathy. This is Financial Accounting; a topic that strikes fear for most when simply hearing those two words! I'm guessing it sent a shiver down your spine! Imagine a first-year student's reaction? Heck, I'm a CPA and I cringe when asked to teach it.

My colleagues focused on what students should be doing and what would motivate them to be more responsible. I suggested, however, that maybe we should reflect on how we could improve our approach to teaching the topic. And further, acknowledge and show compassion for how they're feeling.

This simple act is called empathy. Regretfully, my university colleagues are not the only ones who've forgotten past learning experiences. I know many learning practitioners who are quick to accuse participants for their lack of understanding rather than accepting responsibility for poor learning design. You know, they're the ones saying, 'it can't be the course design...it's the participants that don't get it."

Upon reflection, it was clear to me that an underlying tone of arrogance and ego play significant roles that lead to the lack of learner empathy. I'm not saying I haven't been afflicted. There have been occasions where I'd implicitly and silently blame participants for not learning. It's instinctive. For most people, it's difficult to admit when you're wrong. It's a natural reaction to be defensive and easier to convince ourselves we're not to blame, it must be them.

Here are some things you can do to remind yourself to be more empathetic with your learners:

First, Dump Out-Dated Learning Methodologies

It's unfortunate, but there are still too many learning practitioners coasting on irrelevant or mythical learning methodologies. There are only three reasons for this. Either the practitioner doesn't know any better; they don't maintain their professional development; or they're just lazy and can't be bothered.

Too many learning practitioners continue to use the latest fad (e.g. microlearning, gamification, etc.), methodologies proven useless (e.g. learning styles, generational ranking, etc.), or believe in methodologies that haven't demonstrated lasting value (e.g. training ROI, return on expectations, etc.). This is frightening and, understandably, why participants and business leaders question the value you offer.

You're a learning practitioner. Practice what you preach to others and develop yourself professionally. Be sure to develop your skills along with other relevant skills, like business or performance acumen. But do your due diligence about what you're learning.

Second, Relate To The Learner's Session Experience And Expectations

This is one thing many practitioners subconsciously forget to do. The faculty meeting is a common example of not adequately addressing this point.

When I teach Financial Accounting, the first thing I do is to share my first experience learning it in university. I openly disclose that I had no clue what was going on well into the course and came close to dropping out. This immediately gets their attention and helps me to build the first layer of trust.

Sharing your experiences is a personal way to show empathy. It demonstrates that they're not alone and isolated. If you don't have a personal experience, then allow participants to share their apprehensions. They'll discover they're not alone and give you valuable insight on their level of understanding and where you need to begin.

Third, Talk With Them

A learning practitioner's responsibility is not only to deliver learning but to also read the room identifying those who need support. Many people will not expose themselves publically fearing embarrassment and feeling they are alone in their ignorance.

Identify those in need and reach out to them privately. Initiate the conversation and reassure them that they're here to learn and not expected to know the topic; that's your role. Ask them what's their concern and help them understand how they can alleviate their fears. Building this relationship will help gain their trust and grow their confidence.

Fourth, Provide Unconditional Support

Two things I share with students and participants:

  1. Always be available to support them.
  2. Develop a culture of learning such that every participant is never left behind.

The first point reassures participants that someone, you, is there to share in their learning journey. It also gives them the confidence to learn through application and experience. Naturally, this presents them with a safety net allowing opportunities to take risks and make mistakes in a safe environment.

The second point offers a support system. It makes participants accountable for each other’s learning. I explain that each person learns differently and at a different pace and why it's essential to share their challenges with peers.

Last But Not Least

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about how you can develop more effective learning initiatives, please contact me, I'd enjoy hearing from you.

Your participants want to learn. They want to improve. But they are apprehensive and fear failure and change. Recognize what your participants want and demonstrate compassion and empathy. Doing so will help you to develop deeper learning relationships. This is your time to shine. #alwaysbelearning

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