When conflict arises during training sessions, your initial reaction might be to shut down the other person immediately - but taking time to analyse their reaction can provide a greater learning experience for both parties.
A few years ago, I was hired by a company to help them through a TUPE transfer (Transfer of Undertakings - to protect employees' rights when the organisation or service they work for transfers to a new employer). I was working with the staff representatives who would help in the consultation about the process.
This was a day-long session – I had worked with some of the people before and some were new to me. The youngest person there was a man called Chris – he was probably in his mid-twenties, while everyone else I would say was in their late 30s or older.
At one point during the workshop we were doing, he began to get very heated and raised his voice at me, and started to gesticulate as well. In the instant, I read this as anger.
My initial feelings were first of helplessness, then anxiety and finally resentment – he was hijacking my workshop (that was my reaction in the moment, not the truth). I shut him down.
I immediately knew I had made a big mistake. Sometimes in my work I do have to get people to move on, so it’s not always a bad decision, but in this case it was. I could feel in my gut that there was something else going on.
Correcting the course
At the end of the module, I called a break. I went and sat down with Chris and apologised for my earlier behaviour. I asked him if he wanted to speak more about what he was saying earlier.
Chris told me about his relationship with the company. The company had recruited him when he was 18, they had trained him, given him security. They had sought him out and now, they were sending him away.
All of a sudden I think we both understood the story in a new way. It wasn’t the TUPE transfer that was upsetting him. It was that he felt that the company didn’t want him anymore.
I think that the outcome was that Chris was now able to look at the change process for what it was, even though he might feel emotional about it, he could separate that out.
The reason I can say this is because this is what Chris told me when I came back to do further training on a different change process (in the end, he hadn’t been TUPE’d out after all).
Chris now radiated confidence. He spoke quietly and slowly to the new staff reps about his experience and he helped me to contain their anxiety. He was absolutely brilliant. I was really proud of him.
Three tips for handling those emotions
Tune into your emotions
The first tip is that I ought to have looked to my own emotional response to help me understand what Chris was feeling. Remember, I felt helpless, anxious and resentful.
Now think about Chris was going through, and what he would most likely be feeling. I would bet that he felt helpless, anxious and resentful about the impending change.
Tune in to the emotional reaction you're having: what exactly is it you are feeling? Does it help you put yourself in the other person's shoes?
Listen before you speak
This follows on naturally from my first tip. Take a breath and don't react out loud. Concentrating on what you are feeling in the moment will allow you to do just that - but don't make my mistake and react to the other person emotionally, as you may be reading them wrong.
Whether or not you react in the moment, it's important to make sure the person knows that you are actually listening to them. Practice deep listening. Hold on, stay quiet, listen.
Follow up - carefully
Either open it up to the group if it's a relevant conversation, or ask if you can pick it up at a break.
What do you do when you feel emotionally overwhelmed during a training session?
Interested in this topic? Read The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace.
About Jasmine Gartner
Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion.
She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas.