What do “Virtual Classroom” and “Racism” have in common?

In the training environment, the words that we use matter. If we don’t clearly define the terms that are central to our topic and which we will be tossing around throughout our presentations, we’ll leave a lot of room for individual interpretation and confusion.

I was struck by this point last Friday when I was participating in a Tweet Chat on the topic of “virtual classrooms.”

When participants were asked what came to mind when they thought of “virtual classrooms,” there were many comments about web conferencing software and multi-tasking and trying to keep people engaged. This led one participant to observe:

At that moment it dawned on me – discussions aren’t constructive if everybody is using their own, personal definition of a term. It’s possible that people were using the terms “virtual classroom” and “webinar” as synonyms. If that’s the case, some of the discussion participants were clearly annoyed.

In the absence of a standard, agreed-to definition preceding this discussion, people shouldn’t be annoyed or surprised that various participants use the term in different ways. Training will always miss the mark unless the facilitator first ensures everyone is on the same page.

The best example I’ve seen of this principle in use was during a cultural competence training that revolved around the concept of “racism.” It’s a loaded word that means many things to many people. Conversations about race can quickly become destructive and feelings can easily be hurt if a facilitator doesn’t do his or her job well.

In Casey Family Programs’ Knowing Who You Are course, a definition of “racism” is given to all participants toward the beginning of the session. Whether or not the participants personally agree with the definition, they are asked to use that particular definition of “racism” inside the classroom so that everyone can be talking about the same thing.

Unless the point of your presentation is to have a debate over the meaning of a word or concept, take a minute or two at the beginning to establish a definition that everyone can agree to. Otherwise, participants and facilitator alike may end up perpetually frustrated as people use the same word to mean many different things.

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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