What makes a world-class trainer?

When coaching or facilitating learning to an international audience, effective trainers are culturally aware and learn about their cultures beforehand. It’s Train-the-trainer 101.

But why do so many culturally aware professionals fail while others succeed? What makes a learning engagement successful, and is it different depending on whether the delivery is to a homogeneous or a diverse audience? The truth is that cultural awareness on its own is insufficient, as is subject matter expertise or charisma. Learning happens at a deeper level.

Every training professional knows that the first few minutes with participants are crucial to build a favorable rapport. Laughter and comfort can aid instructors and their learners through tricky subjects, which is especially important when speaking with people who are from a different culture.

Everyone has tried to learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in different languages to impress an international audience and get them laughing at an accent or difficult pronunciation. Then, there is that other old reliable: relating a funny incident that happened at the airport or on the way to the venue to exhibit an openness to learning about the host culture.

Do these simple tricks really work? A lot of them do — or, at least, they open up the door to easier conversation — but they don’t work alone, nor do they work for the reason we might initially think. Cultural awareness is important, but in front of a global audience, learning professionals need to do more than establish rapport, show credibility and create trust. Today, learning professionals must create a psychologically safe environment for their audiences.

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” It is a belief that team members are safe to take risks and will not be seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive.

In the learning context, a psychologically safe environment is the space facilitators create for their audience to engage, be vulnerable, and discuss topics without the fear of making a mistake or the fear of judgement at the hands of the facilitator or the other learners. Psychological safety is especially important when addressing an international audience who may hold differing beliefs or ideologies. Facilitators must allow participants to make mistakes during and after the learning experience, without judgement or embarrassment.

Project Aristotle, a Google study of hundreds of its teams to find the formula for creating the perfect team, discovered that the most effective teams are the ones with members who are unafraid to bring their “whole self” to work. In order to be fully present, they need psychological safety. Similarly, in learning environments, participants must be present and bring their whole self. They need to be engaged, sharing their successes as well as their failures for everyone to learn from.

Facilitators often overestimate the level of safety they create for their audience. In more cases than not, they unconsciously hurt the learning environment, not just through their words but also through their reactions and body language. If anyone in the audience feels self-conscious or judged, learning will stall. Ever seen facilitators roll their eyes at participants or smirk at their ideas? Such behaviors create hostile environments and are learning-killers!

So, how can you encourage your instructors to create a safe space for effective learning engagements? Here are seven things world-class facilitators do:

1. Set the Tone

Early in the learning experience, world-class facilitators set the expectation that mistakes are allowed and judgments are not.

2. Lead by Example

World-class facilitators allow learners to discuss relevant topics, ask questions and propose ideas. They never say, “no,” and they never say, “You are wrong.” There are many ways to disagree with someone without making him or her feel humiliated or self-conscious. Suggest that your facilitators use the phrase “Yes, and …” to transform conversations into a positive experience with a higher level of learning.

3. Check Unconscious Biases

Everyone is biased in one way or another. Before starting any learning engagement, world-class facilitators check any predispositions or inclinations they have about the members of their audience.

4. Don’t Interrupt

World-class facilitators listen carefully to conversations and never put blame on anyone. They respect all ideas.

5. Challenge and Support

World-class facilitators challenge their audience for greater learning results, but they also provide support when needed. They are present and are there to answer questions and provide guidance.

6. Promote a Safe Environment

World-class facilitators ask participants to behave the same way toward one another.

7. Be Vulnerable

Simply standing in front of an audience establishes credibility. World-class facilitators tell stories about personal failure as much as success. Their vulnerability will encourage participants to go deeper into their reflections and share their experiences.

Creating a psychologically safe environment quickly and efficiently is a must in any learning engagement, whether it’s face to face or virtual. Doing so goes beyond cultural awareness, building rapport and building trust. The best learning happens when participants are allowed to make mistakes and discuss ideas and experiences freely.