Every trainer has had the ‘nightmare’ delegate… someone who, when you saw their name on the attendee list gave you knots in your stomach. “Oh no, not him, he’s going to sabotage the training, I just know it”. I’m no exception.
A few years ago, I was delivering a high-profile leadership development programme and I saw his name… let’s call him Dave (obviously not his real name); a respected employee, highly skilled technically but notoriously prickly, and that’s being polite. I’d met him once before and recall that he spent 20 minutes venting about some management initiative or other and about how no-one listened to the shop floor... “Blah blah blah” I’d thought at the time. Now, I was going to be forced to spend a week in his company. Great!
I started to tell myself stories: he’s going to be negative; he’ll try to get others to dismiss the training; he won’t join in, and so on. So, when I ran my first exercise and needed a team leader, I didn’t pick Dave, why would I? He’d only ruin it. Then, when I ran the next one, I didn’t pick Dave again. A pattern started to emerge over the first couple of days. With each exercise where Dave was left out, he became more withdrawn and less co-operative. “See! I was right”, I told myself, “look how he’s behaving. What is wrong with this man?”
Over lunch, on day three, I sat with the delegates. Dave was sat close-by and I noticed he seemed to be holding court, with those around him hanging off his every word. But when I listened in, what I heard was not the old “management just don’t listen” complaints I’d heard before. Instead, he was talking about managing a kid’s football team at the weekends. And he talked about music; it emerged we shared a love of the same artist. Hmm? This isn’t the Dave I know, or at least thought I knew. I listened some more… Gardening was a passion, so was cinema and he spoke eloquently on his vision for the future of the company, in particular how to recruit and train the next generation of technical specialists. Hang on! This doesn’t match the ‘story’ I’d told myself when I saw his name of the attendee list, the one where he’s the villain.
If he was capable of being utterly charming and positive at lunch, surrounded by colleagues, then the problem isn’t him, it must be something extremal. It dawned on me – it’s ME! I spent the last few days of the training ‘mastering’ my story; I noticed my role in this ‘problem’ and I thought about what I really wanted from Dave and thought about how I could get to that outcome.
I realised very quickly that, in fact, what Dave wanted the most was to be listened to and have his ideas taken seriously and, in actual fact, we had a lot more in common than we thought; we agreed on the importance of developing new technicians and we both thought there would be a better way for ideas from the shop floor to be encouraged and explored. Over the remainder of the course, the more I listened to Dave and showed him the respect he’d wanted, the more he got involved and by the end he became one of the strongest advocates for the training I’d ever had. I’m delighted to say that now, years after the training took place, we’re still in touch and even when we occasionally disagree, we are able to have meaningful dialogue.
I’d written Dave off. I’d allowed my ‘story’ to affect how I felt about him and, in turn, how I treated him. Thankfully, by mastering my story I was able to separate facts from fiction and get work on what really mattered. Are you letting the stories you tell yourself stopping you from getting what you really want?
By Jane Hodgson, Management Development Trainer at Grahame Robb Associates Ltd