I wish I could be an Interactor all the time!  In fact, I guess I’ve been wanting that for so long (I’ve been with Workplace Interactors since its inception nearly 14 years ago) that it has started seeping into my daily life.  I had a great experience with my friend “Cassie” that used my Interactor training.

Cassie’s normally pretty calm, but this day she was rattled when she called me.  She had a friendship with “Barbara” that needed to be ended.  Things had never gone right between her and Barbara, but Barbara didn’t seem to mind.  I was pretty surprised they ever hung out at all, because I know Barbara fairly well too.  She has a strong and somewhat difficult personality.  Cassie was stressed about how this next conversation with Barbara might go.  I asked her, “Would you like to practice it?”

“What?” Cassie asked.

“Your conversation with her.  You know that’s what I do, right?”

“Oh, man.  That makes me nervous…” she said.

“You’re already nervous, so who cares?  It can’t hurt,” I coaxed.

“I guess,” Cassie relented.

We had already discussed what she wanted to say, and I told her how I had learned that making “I” statements really helps.  “Make sure you don’t accuse her, just tell her how you feel and what you need.”

“OK…I’ll do it!” Cassie said excitedly.

So we practiced the situation, and as I began to really commit to Barbara’s personality, I pushed Cassie’s buttons.  That was when the conversation turned tense and then ended.

“How do you think that went?” I asked.

“It started OK, but then, I don’t know.  It went pretty much the same as it always goes between us…man, you’re really good at that.”

“Thanks,” I chuckled.  “Do you realize that you did exactly what you said you wouldn’t do when I pushed your buttons?”

“Wha- wait, no…yes, I did didn’t I!”  Cassie said.

And the light bulb came on, just like in Workplace trainings time after time!  What a joy to truly impact people’s lives where they may need it the most—in the difficult conversations of life.

My friend lost all anxiety about the situation, and the relationship with Barbara is all cleared up!

I can think of so many applications for Workplace Interactor training (counseling and mock interviews, to name a few) and I hope we get the opportunity to help people in many different venues in many different situations.

Interesting little story (by Valerie Ross) in the current issue of Discover magazine that might shed some light on why we make dumb mistakes when we’re tired.  Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin at Madison kept rats up past their bedtime with interesting new toys to explore. The rats seemed alert, but their EEGs showed that little groups of neurons went offline for brief periods, sometimes resulting in clumsiness or other rat errors. The longer the rats stayed awake, the more often these little neuro-naps occurred.

I wonder if that’s the reason why…oh, sorry.  I’m a little tired this morning.  What was I saying?

photo: D Sharon Pruitt

I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy lately for a wonky shoulder, and much of my workout takes place in a pool.  As I was splashing around the other day, I got to thinking about what makes water exercise so very effective.  I realized that its two big properties also apply to the practice we design.

1.  Support

Water’s the original anti-gravity chamber.  According to aquatic therapist Carolyn Collman,

the buoyancy of the water naturally offsets gravity. In waist-deep water you are about 50% of your body weight, at chest-depth you’re 35%. In deep water you’re weightless and you can literally “off-load” your entire musculo-skeletal system by wearing a flotation belt or using a noodle. Buoyancy also increases range of motion of joints and muscles, further facilitating movement. 

In our form of practice, the Interactors provide the support, just like water.  We give you a realistic situation to handle, but we’re carrying a lot of the weight, in these ways:

  • It’s not real.  No matter what the outcome, you won’t have to deal with the weight of the consequences.  If you botch that uncomfortable situation, so what?  You won’t have to face that person tomorrow.  You’re free to learn from the experience.
  • We give you feedback you won’t get in real life.  After you practice, the Interactors can talk to you about how your actions affected them.  For example, “When you stayed silent at that point, I felt that you were really willing to hear me out.  That gave me more confidence in you.”
  • We’re really good at it.  We’re not talking about an awkward role play with your co-worker, just going through the motions.  We put in a lot of research, design and rehearsal to make sure you’ll relate to the situations you’ll be dealing with.  So you can focus on practicing your own skills, not on how stupid you feel pretending that you’re an angry customer.

Which leads me to the second property of water:

2. Resistance

From WebMD:

[Water’s] natural viscosity, or thickness, challenges your body with a constant state of resistance….wet workouts are as good or better than dry ones in terms of fat and calorie burning, cardiovascular efficiency, and endurance.

In our practice, Interactors provide plenty of resistance.  They don’t roll over and play dead.  As you practice with them, they’ll sometimes reveal hidden information you hadn’t reckoned with.  They’ll try to divert the conversation.  They’ll disagree.  They’ll be tough to win over.  Just like real life.

Interactors bring feelings into the mix, just like the people you deal with every day. They give your emotional intelligence a workout. They also respond to what you do. Push them, they’ll push back. Understand their motivations, and they might buy in. And they give you the invaluable chance to try something until you get it right.

Well, I’ve got to get down to the pool now.  If you’d like to know what Workplace Interactors practice looks like, you can see us in action on our website or on YouTube.

More provocative stuff from Dan Goleman:

Computer-aided instruction, a current vogue in training, has limits when it comes to offering practice for emotional competence. …computer-aided techniques are generally better suited for training in technical skills than for developing personal and interpersonal capabilities.

“People say you can sit at your computer, assess yourself, and find out how to develop a competency,” observes Richard Boyatzis, of Case Western Reserve University.  “But you can’t do this without relationships — you can’t learn this in isolation.”

Social networking has helped learners stay in relationship with each other, sometimes even in real time.  And the technology of online interaction is improving constantly.

But for me, there are two issues with interpersonal practice:

1)  Are you practicing in the mode that you’ll be working in?

2)  Is there room for the spontaneous and unexpected?

By mode, I mean that if you’re managing people via phone (for example), you should be practicing your phone communication skills, You’ve only got your voice to work with, so you’ll need practice in the subtleties of listening, imparting information, getting and giving feedback, and so on.  You’ve got similar restrictions with email, teleconferencing, Skype, etc.

Same for in-person relationships.  If you’re in the same room with people every day, practicing virtually won’t give you the skills you need.  We pick up all sorts of cues in the face-to-face encounter that aren’t present when technology is between us.

To my second point:  online learning tends to be standardized, which makes sense, because we need numbers of people to have a similar experience with the material.  But human encounters are anything but standardized.  People are constantly surprising; conversations we expected to be calm can escalate, and meetings we think we’re prepared for often veer onto a different path.

For practice, it’s much easier for live people to simulate these unexpected interpersonal twists.  (Our Interactors are brilliant at it.)  Even computer games have a limited number of possible responses, while the real human factor is infinite.  So I argue that practice with real human beings, whether in person, over the phone, or even in teleconferencing, adds a level of realism that can’t be reached in any other way.

Learners deserve to try out new skills in a situation that recreates the complexity that they’ll be dealing with back on the job.  Nothing can replace practicing with real live people.

Revisiting Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence is always worthwhile.  Today I noticed this, from Working with Emotional Intelligence:

“Training programs that offer people a chance to practice the desired competence through well-focused simulations, games, role-playing and other such methods can offer a strong beginning for practice….The overall recommendation…is that they be carefully planned, focus on specific competencies that are clearly described to participants, and end with a debriefing of the experience.”

Our sentiments exactly — and more important, our practice.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned from our years of designing practice experiences:

Target the learning points.  The design of the practice situation should require learners to try out the behavior you want to teach. Because new learning feels uncomfortable, most participants will want to repeat their usual patterns.  Close the escape hatches by creating a situation that can only be solved by putting the learning points into practice.

Focus on a small, important piece of behavior.  Don’t try to do too much in a single practice session.  If you’re training people in a process, work it section by section (for example, in sales training, focus on establishing rapport, then on asking probing questions, etc.) Give feedback or coaching after each part, with an option to try it again.

More lessons learned in future posts…

Photo lens vector by Naver.com.  License: Creative Commons

From the current Discover magazine (not yet online) on why teaching by lecture doesn’t work:

“The latest cognitive science research on effective learning…points to more interactive approaches that include immediately and repeatedly putting new information to use.”

The author, David Freedman, quotes Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize-winning associate director of the Office of Science and Technology at the White House:  “They say [the lecture] is the way it’s always been done, and it was good enough for them, so it’s good enough for their students.”

Freeman goes on:

Were this attitude to hold in medicine, we would still be bloodletting; in physics,we would be trying to reach the moon with very large rubber bands, and in economics we would still be suffering major worldwide financial crashes.  (Well, physics and medicine are advancing, anyway.)

Why do some of us still think that being talked at (even online) constitutes knowledge transfer?  We wouldn’t let people work with dangerous equipment without practicing first.  Why do we assume that learners can simply hear about how to handle a difficult conversation and then be able to do it weeks later while under stress?

All true learning needs a component that goes beyond the theoretical:  some form of practice. When it comes to new knowledge, it really is “use it or lose it.”

In reading a fascinating profile of brain researcher Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, I came across this:

The left hemisphere takes what information it has and delivers a coherent tale to conscious awareness. It happens continually in daily life, and most everyone has caught himself or herself in the act — overhearing a fragment of gossip, for instance, and filling in the blanks with assumptions.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration…. We narrate our lives, shading every last detail, and even changing the script retrospectively, depending on the event, most of the time subconsciously. The storyteller never stops, except perhaps during deep sleep.

In other words, story is how our brains organize the vast amount of information coming to us in each moment – as well as the competing ways various parts of our brains interpret what we perceive.  Apparently, we need stories just to exist as conscious beings.

So it stands to reason that story is a powerful tool for learning, for adults as well as kids.

We’ve found that having Interactors demonstrate specific workplace situations (say, a manager having to deliver bad news to her team) allows learners to share a common story.  They can talk about the situation we’ve presented, rather than reveal their own struggles at work.  And each learner can fill in the story line with his own experiences, so he takes away useful ideas and behavior to try out back on the job.

Of course, we’ve found that practice is crucial for actually applying new learning, and creating effective practice is our mission.  And the most powerful way to practice is within a strong story.

People sitting in a classroom are already telling themselves stories about what they’re experiencing.  Why not harness that power to further the learning?

Postscript:  Here’s comics great John Ostrander on how everything is story.

In nearly fourteen years of inventing practice for workplace learning, we’ve always said that practice changes behavior.  If you’ve had a chance to try out a new and challenging approach to a workplace situation, you’re more likely to remember it when you really need it on the job.  And remembering is the first step to doing.

But lately we’ve been realizing that practice also changes attitudes.  And that may be the most important element in creating real, long-lasting improvement.

Say there’s a situation that you feel you have difficulty dealing with — for example, having to deliver bad news to your team, your employee, or your boss.  Getting good advice on how to handle it can be valuable information, but often you think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” (Perhaps if you thought you could, you would have done it already!)

Getting a chance to try out the new approach in a low-risk environment lets you see how really feels for you.  And that can be surprising.

We hear people say things like, “Oh, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.”  Or as unpleasant.  Or as strange.

When you practice a new behavior, the experience can change your attitude.  Instead of thinking “That’s not me,” you may find yourself thinking, “Of course I can do that.”  And so a new solution jumps out of theory and into your life.


Powerful article in the New York Times over the weekend about employee satisfaction and productivity.  The authors, Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and Steven Kramer, point out a connection that should be obvious but isn’t: dissatisfaction on the job connects directly to a lower bottom line.

Employee engagement may seem like a frill in a downturn economy. But it can make a big difference in a company’s survival…. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

What do employees find most engaging?  Amabile and Kramer’s study showed a clear result:  “of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.”

Managers can facilitate this progress.  But Amabile and Kramer found that they’re missing the boat:

Unfortunately, many companies now keep head count and resources to a minimum and this makes progress a struggle for employees. Most managers don’t understand the negative consequences of this struggle. When we asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance, they ranked “supporting progress” dead last. Fully 95 percent of these managers failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.

Here’s a clear call to action:  let’s humanize the workplace, encourage creativity and meaning, and help people feel that their presence makes a difference.  It’s not just good-heartedness; it’s good business sense.


Photo:  Creative Commons

Erika Andersen has an excellent post here about helping leaders figure out what they need to do themselves and what they should be handing off to others.  It’s a common problem we’ve seen, too: after a promotion, people often find it difficult to stop doing their old tasks and focus on the demands of their current job.  Whether it’s the school principal who keeps hanging out in the classroom or the executive who can’t stay off the manufacturing floor, we all like to continue with tasks that we enjoy and do well.

Erika’s rule of thumb:

Only do what only you can do.  In other words, only do those things that no one below you is capable of doing. And if you’re doing tasks that someone else less highly paid and skilled than you could do…but there’s no one in the organization to do them…consider hiring someone.”

Good advice for all of us, from one-person consultancies to CEOs of multinationals.

Photo:  Creative Commons

By akeg