A workplace learning practitioner’s primary role is to promote learning but to also be learners themselves. This is not meant to be an ideological statement but rather a practical one. In the past year, we’ve encountered some resistance with many practitioners regarding this thought and got a subtle hint of cynicism as well.

We don’t want to lump all practitioners in this bucket. But regretfully, we are encountering this worrisome trend that appears to be more the rule than the exception. At a recent regional learning conference, one participant came right out and blasted the presenter with, “Why should we even believe that what you say would work?” Even though we were shocked, the audience appeared to endorse this comment.  Many would say, “The presenter must have said or did something to deserve this question.” In certain situations we would agree with you, but not in this case. The learning practitioner could have asked for clarity by phrasing their question as, “Could you provide examples of how you see this working?” Ultimately, the initial attack was unprofessional and the cynical tone demonstrates the participant’s resistance to learning.

Hopefully, you became a learning practitioner because you have a love for learning. This is the reason why we are in it. The discovery and the privilege to help others learn is what fuels our passion. But unfortunately, we increasingly encounter audiences and meet individual practitioners alike who are defensive about their own professional development. Why is this the case?

Learning is an open, sharing and democratic process. Those with protectionist attitudes have no place here. There are also some learning practitioners who hoard their knowledge out of fear of loss or fear of change. In either case, this does not bode well for the learning process.

While it is human nature to be defensive and cynical at times, it is a serious issue if you are a learning practitioner. Here are some points to help you overcome being drawn to the dark side.

1. Allow Learning to Happen

We like to say that you really never know when you learn. While learning practitioners set up environments to stimulate the learning process, learning can occur at anytime and anywhere. We just don’t always realize it.

But when you are present in a learning environment, such as a conference or workshop, it is not about whether you agree or disagree with the presenter, it is about what you learn from the experience. Your objections are second to the need for you to acquire the knowledge.

Ironically, it is more powerful for you not to agree as it makes you more cognizant of what is said. Just don’t let the cynical side take over. Simply recognize your bias and allow the knowledge to enter your mind.

2. Spin Your Cynicism

The previous point speaks to temporarily “parking” your cynicism. Continue to do so but use it to your learning advantage. Rather than be cynical, be thought-provoking not just for your benefit but also for those around you.

Recognizing negativity places you in a very powerful position, allowing you to assess what you are learning from a variety of perspectives. Doing so gives you the opportunity to either develop counter positions or to appreciate what the learning is attempting to convey. Either way, you win.

We often realign our cynicism through a process of critical thinking. In our fast-paced, soundbite society people are quick to criticize rather than evaluate. It is easier to do so. But critical thinking is about accepting knowledge, carefully assessing it, gather missing facts, and then reiterating a position that promotes further learning and growth. So, spin your cynicism into critical thought.

3. Challenge Existing Knowledge

As a learner, you do not have to accept everything you are told. Just like the practitioner in the session attacking the presenter. They have a right to do so if the content is unjust or demonstrates factual flaws.

But that is the point. Challenging someone for the sake of doing so is not only unprofessional but bad etiquette. Those that challenge existing knowledge do it from one of two perspectives. They either challenge to discover more learning or they are testing the robustness of what is said. Those in the former are simply being inquisitive and curious. Those in the latter group are sold on the idea if it withstands validity of what it proposes. In either case, the process is a healthy one.

When challenging new knowledge, however, come to the table with substance. You do not need to know the topic well, but if you are challenging the topic, do your homework. Rather than challenging to criticize, challenge to develop yourself and those around you. This is what learning practitioners with depth of experience regularly practice.

4. Don’t Fear Loss or Change

The term “learning” implies change. Most humans rely on some degree of stability and consistency. That said, the human species exists for change since we possess the ability to learn. It is likely that you will experience a fear of loss or change at any given point in your career so it is essential that you look at these events from different perspectives. Both words, fear and change, convey the need for something new. We usually associate “new” with the unknown, or even risk. Regretfully, they have negative connotations.

Rather than view learning as an agent of change or loss, look at it as beneficial and opportunistic. When you are open to learning, new ideas come up, new experiences take place and more opportunities present themselves. Even though change is in play, your risk of failure actually decreases. At worst, you possess new knowledge that will lead to more knowledge. At best, you will have more options to choose from even if the choice you initially made doesn’t work out.

Learning is about growth. It is always sad for us to witness someone, like the practitioner at the outset, close themselves to learning. What they fail to realize in that one moment is that not only did they cheat themselves from intellectual growth, but they also cheated those around them. Don’t become an agent of change, become an agent of learning. Strive to leave this as your learning legacy.

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