“Who Cares?”: How to Reach Challenging Adult Learners Using Your Head & Your Heart

“Show respect even to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of yours.” —Dave Willis

“Who cares?” is a question sometimes posed by apathetic students in the classroom, but it’s not a question that I expect to hear from professionals who work with them. Considering the research relating to how teacher-student relationships correlate with academic performance, one might wonder if the same holds true for instructors with challenging adult learners. My experience says it does.  

That old adage, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” reminds me that as a consultant, I must consider how to best adhere to that “care,” especially when working with challenging educators. Since my goal is to help best influence student learning, how should I engage that challenging 3–5% of the population to learn best practices? What is the greatest strategy?

Though no one approach fits all, I’m happy to share four factors that work effectively for me.

Heart Factors

I’ll start with the most important—the heart factors, or those things that influence the emotional equation. Number one? Connect! Greet participants, ask questions, and find a chance to acknowledge something they do well . . . or is well with them. From small talk about family or hobbies during a break to professional discussion regarding a successful strategy they’ve implemented, attempts at kindness are likely to help forge a friendly connection, which may prevent rude behaviors.

The second thing? Invest . . . but don’t infest. That means find ways to value appropriate input by investing in what participants have to offer. Allow their input and expertise to be shared throughout the learning for the benefit of all. Decline to be a “sage on the stage” by practicing (or pretending) to “know it all.” Nothing turns people away as quickly as arrogance.

Yet, politely but firmly shut down any attempts to infest; that is, to allow any person to dominate, bully, or influence the learning process with toxic airtime or behaviors. If a negative Ned or Nancy attempts to engage you (or others) in a public argument, professionally decline with a comment such as, “Interesting thought. I’d like to hear more about that during the break. For now, however, let’s move on to learn about . . .” More often than not, the refusal to allow that person an audience, as well as the invitation to sacrifice a break, will discourage even the most determined from continuing.

Head Features

Next, let’s explore the “head” features, or those things that allow others to participate best on an intellectual level. To eliminate undue criticisms and the need for second impressions, be sure to heed this first feature: prep! To allow learners a more industrious climate and yourself more productive instruction, preparation is key. Be certain of the training location, connect with your contact person, be aware of the schedule, and know your stuff. Arrive early to ensure all equipment works, the room is arranged and materials are available and accessible.

Do research on the site as well as the people with whom you will be working. Realize that new processes can sometimes be frightening, and some would rather you think they don’t want to do this, rather than they don’t know how. Attempt to hook them into the process by weaving in relevant stories as well as interactive and fun strategies. Be aware of pacing, distractions, and the need to adjust as your informal assessments drive the day’s progression. By preventing reproach of what you can control, you may let go of those factors that you can’t. When you’ve done your best, you can confidently rest, at least for the moment.

Last but not least, reflect. Take time to consider what worked well with those challenges (or challenging people) during the training. Consider alternatives and possibilities to grow your own skills through this process. Know that sometimes, no matter what you do, someone may still be unhappy and/or difficult. Those are the few who—even if handed a million bucks—would complain that it wasn’t received in twenty-dollar bills! And, while the feedback is valuable, it is equally important not to take it personally. Refuse the inclination to allow the “pats on the back” to make your head swell, and decline to let the “beatings” make your heart stop. After all, tomorrow is another day, and when you hear that apathetic adult learner in your next training reply, “Who cares?” you’ll need both to drive down that road again.