It’s a bit of an elephant in the room isn’t it? Those of us involved in facilitating the learning of others see it as our goal to support, challenge, test and stretch our learners so that they reach new levels of ability and discover new things about themselves. But in the process of delivering these learning experiences we generally don’t want to see people upset. Or maybe I should say, we don’t want to feel responsible for upsetting anyone ourselves.
Over the many years that I’ve been involved in delivering high-impact learning experiences for people at work (usually leaders, managers and customer-facing teams) I’ve occasionally worked with someone who has become emotional. Maybe they’ve nearly cried, or maybe they’ve actually shed tears as a result of an activity, discussion or group exercise.
Typically the tears are shed in response to some pressure they are experiencing…the pressure of demonstrating a new skill in front of an audience (that is really scary for many people), such as delivering a presentation on a Presentation Skills course. Pressure can come from the fear of looking foolish, for example in a role play situation (few people’s favourite training method, but such an effective way to encourage participants to practice verbalising responses in a given situation), such as on a Managing Performance Discussions course. Pressure can come from someone’s realisation that they’ve been ‘getting in wrong’, and with new perspectives they can now ‘get it right’ – tears very often seem to go hand in hand with the personal development journey that many successful leaders and managers go on in their quest to improve, advance and achieve more in their careers.
Whatever the reason for the tears, few trainers actually want to have a participant crying. It is natural to want to keep your participants upbeat and happy, enjoying the training and to have them all leaving feeling motivated and inspired. After all, if people are having fun, they are learning more, right?
Maybe not actually. Tears often come at a bit of a crux moment for participants. People tend not to shed tears easily in front of work colleagues, so when this happens it can often be a clue that something very significant is happening internally for them. They are responding to something, working through a challenge maybe, questioning themselves, shifting some ‘stuff’ perhaps. What the tears definitely show is that the participant is engaged in learning. They are choosing to work with the ‘material’, it might be scaring them, but they are engaged nonetheless. They haven’t distanced themselves or chosen to revert to safe old ways, they are trying to make a change – and it is having a big emotional impact.
So could some absolutely amazing learning be taking place? Dare we think that in fact, the participant in question is learning more in this moment, than maybe they have learnt in years?
So back to the question ‘Is it OK if delegates cry’? My answer (although I don’t like it when it happens on a course I am running), is yes – it has to be OK. In my 20 years of experience I have seen tears from participants on several occasions, and those tears don’t come lightly. When I’ve witnessed these levels of emotional response I’ve always seen intense learning taking place. My role in that moment changes slightly – I need to be even more aware, to check in with the person concerned to see what they need and I need to also be aware of who else might be feeling similarly. I need to know when to give the group an unscheduled break so that everyone can get a breather, and how to support each and every participant through whichever activity they are working on so that they can engage fully and draw learning from the experience.
No-one likes to see anyone else distressed, but tears come as part of the learning process. As trainers and facilitators we must accept that this can happen, acknowledge what’s happening so that the group feels safe and be able to move the group on.