There’s a common facilitation technique used in training situations that needs to go away. Let’s call it the “Gotcha.” This technique intentionally leads learners to fail in some way, by leading them either to an incorrect answer or to fail an activity. Sometimes it’s used as an engagement or attention-grabbing technique. Other times, it’s used to test learners’ prior knowledge or highlight deficiencies in their understanding.

While these are respectable goals, the Gotcha can destroy the trust and goodwill of learners. Here are a couple examples.

Imagine a trainer asking a group of learners this simple question:

“How many times does the average person check social media during a typical work day? One or two? 10? 20?”

While the question may have come out of nowhere, it focuses on a topic everyone has some familiarity with, so learners feel comfortable taking a stab at the answer. A few answers are called out, most on the high end: 10 to 20. Then the trainer delivers the Gotcha:

“Well, then, you will be surprised to know that the actual number is 50!”

The trainer’s point here is to emphasize how surprisingly high the actual number is. But she has done so by purposefully misleading the group, offering low numbers as possible answers. While learners went into the interaction with a positive attitude and open mind, in the end, they feel they’ve been tricked.

Sometimes a Gotcha shows up in exercises. Let’s say the trainer has placed a puzzle at each table and asks each table group to solve it in a short period of time:

“Each table will have 60 seconds to complete this puzzle. Ready….go!”

As the clock ticks down, most of the groups scramble to get at least some of the pieces together. When the clock reaches 55 seconds, the trainer counts down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Stop!” None of the groups has completed the puzzle, because it was too difficult. Here’s the trainer’s response:

“I see no one finished in time. I’m not surprised, because I have to be honest with you: It would be almost impossible for any group to complete this puzzle in 60 seconds. But did you all notice how your ability to work together as a team diminished as panic set in? Do you remember how frustrated you felt as I counted down? That’s the point of this exercise. External pressures often destroy teamwork.”

Again, the Gotcha is meant to make a point, but it does so by making learners feel they’ve been taken advantage of. It undermines trust and wastes time. Learners just spent 60 seconds of their day on an activity that they were intended to fail.

There are very simple alternatives for both of these situations. For the social media question, the trainer could have skipped the question and simply given learners the statistic. After that, she could have said that she found that number surprising and asked if it surprised anyone else. This approach would get the group talking and eliminate the unnecessary drama of the Gotcha.

For the teamwork activity, again, the trainer could have led a discussion of the learners’ frustration working on teams, since everyone has no doubt experienced it. Both of these conversations would have reached the same learning goal for which the Gotcha was used, but they would have shown more respect for the learners’ experience and been less gimmicky.

As trainers, we must remember that active participation in the learning process takes effort from learners, even if it’s just answering a question or raising their hands. They do not crave participation, and mere participation does not guarantee engagement. What they want instead is a sense that what takes place in the classroom is relevant for them, a good use of their time and managed by a trainer they trust.

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