What’s Missing from ATD ICE?

Searching (Blank Face)

ATD’s annual international conference and expo began yesterday, and I have a feeling it’s missing something (and I’m not necessarily talking about me… although really, what good is a conference without me?).

I’ve been to several ATD conferences and a SHRM Talent Development conference over the past few years and they all seem to be missing something.

The crowds I’ve encountered at the ATD conferences have primarily included instructional designers, training program managers, classroom instructors and some independent consultants. The SHRM conference was primarily HR professionals – business partners, generalists, department heads and consultants.

I imagine it’s similar at major conferences for professionals in coaching or organizational development. On the one hand, it’s to be expected. These conferences, after all, are for specialized segments of the greater human performance field. On the other hand, none of these initiatives can be successful if professionals from across the human performance spectrum don’t have opportunities to cross-pollinate.

Recently, as I got involved in my local ATD chapter, I was given an opportunity to work on an annual program called the Allied Professionals Event, which will take place on June 9th in Seattle. I’m looking forward to it because it is the one night of the year when people from across these specialized areas – learning & development, human resources, coaching and organizational development – can all come together, spend some time networking and discussing what’s on their minds, and then listen to some of the region’s rock star executives in both HR and business operations speak to the impact of human performance initiatives on the people within their organizations.

If you’re in the Seattle area, I’d like to invite you to attend (here is the registration information) and I’d love to hear what you’re working on. If you’re someplace else in this world, I’d love to hear from you – have you found similar opportunities to engage with your counterparts from other areas of the human performance spectrum?

While I know large national conferences are organized for specialized groups that make up their membership, are they completely serving their members’ best interests with such a narrow focus across all conference programming?

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear it in the Comment section.

Know someone who might be interested in this type of initiative, please pass this along!

Are You A Racist? When It Comes To Training, Words Matter.

I was participating in a session on coaching last week when an argument erupted.

The facilitator suggested that a continuum exists in which consulting lies at one extreme and coaching lies at the opposite end.  Once we got into a demonstration of what coaching looked like, one participant (with a consulting background) observed that the coaching demonstration – in which the coach asked a lot of questions in order to better understand some of the root causes – looked exactly like consulting. Others insisted that consulting is just another word for being directive and having all the answers while coaching is a process to help others find their own answers. We were using the same words in fundamentally different ways.

I’ve seen these arguments before, perhaps most dramatically in a training course focused on diversity. Some people used words such as discrimination and prejudice and racism interchangeably, while others felt these words were quite distinct. Tensions rose quickly, feelings were hurt and discussions quickly got out of control.

Conversations can’t be constructive when people are left to assume that everyone uses the same definition of key terms and concepts.  Over the course of today, several hundred people will read this post. If every reader was to write the definition of the word “racism” in the comment section below, we could easily collect more than a hundred different definitions.

Diversity of thought and experience can lead to some great conversation, but only if everyone agrees to use key words and concepts in the same way. We can only have a constructive conversation around things like coaching vs. consulting or how to “undo” racism if everyone in the training room first agrees with how the words will be used.

Definitions of key words or concepts within the training setting may not be the exact way that participants would use these terms outside of the training room, but it is absolutely crucial that everyone agree on how key words and concepts will be used during the training. I remember sitting through a training course when the definition of racism was reduced to a mathematical equation: racial prejudice + systemic power = racism (therefore all white people are racist and people of color cannot be racist).  I completely disagreed with the parenthetical conclusion that seemed to be attached to this definition, but at least I could participate in the conversation because I understood how the word “racism” was being used.

Spending some time in the beginning of a training session to establish definitions for key concepts can help avoid arguments that otherwise would arise when people use the same word to mean different things. Establishing a common vocabulary from the beginning is an essential job duty for anyone who has been given the responsibility to facilitate a conversation.

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Boomerang Questions: Answering Questions with Questions

boomerang questions?Training Participant: “So when do we just break down and give them an answer?”

Me (the facilitator): “When do you think is the right time to break down and give them an answer?”

I was demonstrating the “boomerang technique” – not answering my learners’ questions directly but instead throwing the question back to the group.

Why are Boomerang Questions Useful?

I find boomerang questions useful for several reasons:

1) They allow other learners to share their experiences and expertise and get involved in the conversation.

2) The allows the facilitator to assess what the learners know and if they’re “getting it”.

3) Learners often have better answers rooted in a more familiar context for everyone in the room than the facilitator can give.

4) Asking a boomerang question demonstrates that the answers don’t always need to come from the front of the room (the facilitator) and offers an opportunity for the learners to take ownership over the learning.

5) Boomerang questions give the facilitator time to think, especially when you don’t have a good answer off the top of you head.

Boomerang questions remind me of a game called Questions Only from the improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyways” (check out a sample here). It’s a fun game, but as you can see from this link, even professional comedians who know they’re supposed to respond to questions with questions struggle to do it consistently.

It’s a simple concept, but it requires a conscious effort and some practice.

How do Participants React to Boomerang Questions?

Sometimes the reaction of participants can be amusement, and I’ve received such tongue in cheek responses such as: Didn’t your mother ever teach you to never answer a question with a question?

Sometimes the learners’ reaction can be frustration: You’re the teacher (or facilitator or expert or supervisor), just tell me what the answer is.

More often than not, the response is excitement. People like to be able to share their knowledge, experience and expertise. I’ve also found that when someone in the class offers an answer that I might have given, his fellow learners are more apt to give the idea credibility. The answer has come from “one of their own.”

Boomeranging in Order to Correct Errors

Sometimes the responses offered by the audience are incorrect. As a facilitator, you can’t let incorrect answers go. But it’s important to be mindful of how you correct the error.

During a diversity training, I once had a participant answer a question by telling me that breaking the law and stealing was ok in certain circumstances. Once again, I boomeranged the comment to the other learners: “What do you all think about that?” The participant’s co-workers, who had an established relationship with this gentleman, offered some counter opinions.

Boomeranging in One-on-One Supervisory Sessions

One final note about The Boomerang is that it’s an extremely effective tool in managing staff. One on one meetings with employees are one of the most important (and in my opinion under-utilized) training opportunities.

Checking in with direct reports on a regular basis and leading with questions is an incredible needs assessment opportunity.  And answering direct reports’ questions such as “What should I do in this situation?” not with your own answer but rather with a simple “Well, what do you think you should do?  What have you tried?  What have you done in the past that has worked?” can help direct reports own their challenges and begin to solve their own problems (with your gentle, probing, questioning guidance).  Asking questions and teaching direct reports to solve their own problems can free managers up to work on bigger picture work.

In Conclusion

Leading with questions and resisting the temptation to throw out your own answers and solutions can be a challenge.  As a trainer, facilitator, supervisor, it’s natural to want to be the “expert”, but using boomerang questions – in large-group or one-on-one settings – is a powerful tool in helping the learners own the learning.