A Little Empathy

One of the techniques that I picked up when working as a teacher in a secondary school is that sometimes producing technical content is only half of the job – one of the biggest challenges that needs to be met is getting learners to engage with the content in the first place.  Sometimes as trainers, we need to look to other professions and industries to find different ways of building engagement with training and development courses.

Social scientists promote the idea that human beings are pre-set to relate to each other and find a sense of belonging.  As a species, we respond to affection and to understanding.  Advertisers have spent billions of pounds over the years investing in finding out about the human psyche and find ways to exploit it.

If you think about the adverts and campaigns that have really resonated and have driven you to buy specific products or brands, you’ll find that the most successful are the ones that speak to our hearts, anticipate our deepest needs, understand our wordless desires, and provide solutions to our most pressing problems.

We might not naturally choose such eloquent descriptions for our training courses, but really, why should they be any different?  At the end of the day, we want the same thing as the advertiser promoting their latest must-have gadget – we want to inspire learners to engage with our [training] product and influence their behaviour [through a better understanding of its content].

Often, people tasked with writing training material will focus heavily on applying specific learning theories, delivering key objectives, meeting deadlines and living up to the expectations of the wider organisation, but will side-line the concept of empathy with their learners.  Unfortunately, without empathy you will struggle to win the trust of your learners and get them to buy in to the training messages you’re trying to deliver.  A little empathy really does go a long way.

Empathy as a mindset can be learned and cultivated. Given practice and enough time, it can even develop to become second nature in your work.  Empathy brings people closer and creates lasting bonds. Your learners have left their school days behind; they no longer have to learn for fear of being punished, and may often have a choice to take or not take your course, meaning that you will need to go that extra mile to create that bond of empathy with them.

There are two key elements to using empathy effectively in training material.  First is to develop a much clearer understanding of the learners that you’re aiming the material at.  This means looking further than just the demographic profile - look beyond statistics like age, educational qualification, and occupation to understand your learners.  Each learner is an individual with different experiences – professional and personal – and different goals and expectations.  Their learning style may be influenced by a whole range of factors, from their access to technology to their cultural upbringing.

If you’re developing material for your own organisation, try to take some time to find out more about the people that you will be training.  You might be able to find out more about them from their social media accounts, or even just by talking to them in their normal work environment.

Once you’ve built up an idea of what your learners are like, you then need to show them that you understand them better – you need to demonstrate your empathy.  With face-to-face training courses, this might be quite easy and natural, but with e-learning courses it can be much harder.

You’ll need to consider the different techniques available to you – from choosing language carefully, using powerful verbs to convey emotions and spark the imagination of the learner, to choosing colours to trigger appropriate mood responses.

With screen-based content, you’ll quickly find that images are one of the most powerful design tools available to you, and when used carefully can provoke strong emotional responses from your learners.  Provoking these responses helps to engage learners with the material and in turn promotes retention of what they’ve learned.  Photographs of faces can be incredibly effective at evoking emotions, building on that human need to relate to other people, but carefully chosen images of objects and scenes can also evoke strong responses.

The Development Zone includes a range of topics to help you develop your skills further, but if you’re interested in finding out more about the role of empathy in the workplace, why not start with the course “Empathy in the Workplace” in our content catalogue?

About the author

After gaining a degree in Computer Science, Tim spent nine years teaching in a number of secondary schools (11-19 year olds) in Wales.  For the majority of his time teaching, Tim led a highly successful team of teachers delivering vocational ICT qualifications and reached the level of Associate Assistant Headteacher before leaving teaching.  He has also been a senior examiner and moderator for one of the UK's largest awarding bodies.  Since 2013 he has been the senior developer for the Development Zone.

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