Strategies for working with hostile learners
March 19, 2018 8:27 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with adult learners who resent being told what to do?

In my spare time I coach beginners in a sporting activity. It's a sport where technique is really important - fitness much less so - so it tends to attract a lot of over-40s and retired people.

One thing I find with some people, particularly those who have a specific professional skill or have held positions of authority (run a business, for example), is that although they indicate a desire to learn and be coached, they often react in a resentful or dismissive way when I offer advice. Behaviours include things like:

* snapping at me or being rude while I try to help them fix a problem in their technique
* pretending to already understand something that they clearly don't
* asking for advice and then looking like they're impatient to be somewhere else while I try to help
* ignoring specific bits of advice, and just repeatedly returning to discuss their work on improving in another much less important area

I think a lot of these things come from not being used to 'being told' - it puts them in a subordinate position, which I guess might be uncomfortable for someone who sees themselves as an 'alpha' type, or is not used to taking advice.

What are some approaches to helping these people, assuming I don't want to just write them off as rude and refuse to coach them?
posted by pipeski to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
My approach for these sorts of interactions is to never make it feel like you are telling them what to do. Whether they learn something or not is ultimately up to them. For anyone this is actually the case. The best you can do is share your knowledge and experience, praise them when they make progress and accept that everyone’s readiness to learn and potential for improvement is different. You also have to be open to them surprising you and teaching you something new. They’ll more than likely not come away feeling satisfied with some improvement rather than if they were expected to match an ideal. They need to be met where theyre at and the most important thing is feeling good at the end of it.
posted by alusru at 8:57 AM on March 19, 2018 [11 favorites]

You've got to meet your students where they are by figuring out their goal, level of interest and attitude.

Here's my own example: I took group surfing lessons as an adult. I took the lessons because I wanted the experience of learning how to surf, but I never expected to become a surfer. Whereas some of my (most 40 plus) classmates did actually want to be able to surf on their own. After we learned the basics, our teacher/coach would offer tips/suggestions/support for advancing but didn't demand that we demonstrate them. So, for example we all learned to "pop-up" on the board on a wave when she told us to. The next step is to be able to "read" the wave yourself to determine when to stop paddling and pop-up. While I tried to do this a bit, it is difficult and takes some people (including me) a long time to get this. So, for me (and others), she just continued to yell "pop-up". I was there for the fun of riding a few baby waves, not to perfect my technic and whatnot.
posted by Pineapplicious at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2018

I think it is really hard to mentally go back to being a beginner when your day job expects you to be competent in all areas.

What is your actual arrangement with these people - have they asked for your help specifically or just come along to coaching sessions in general? Are they paying for your help? I think these questions really change the power dynamic and therefore the techniques most likely to help.

I think the most generally helpful tip is to try to ask questions to help them pinpoint their own weaknesses and come up with suggestions, while offering your tips as other suggestions with reasons. I think you should also stop feeling responsible for what they do with your teaching once you have given it!
posted by kadia_a at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2018

This is free coaching - usually one-to-one when they specifically ask for it.
posted by pipeski at 9:04 AM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I teach in the arts, and I often set up a problem for students before the class begins.

For example, a perspective still life is set in the classroom for students to draw for the first half of the class. The students work on the still life before I begin the lecture.

This exercise requires the class to focus, and experientially encounter their inability to grasp the topic. It makes the class much more receptive to the lecture, since they have just experienced the fact that they don't understand how to draw in perspective.
posted by effluvia at 9:12 AM on March 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

I sometimes teach fiber arts, and in very introductory classes, I spend a fair amount of time at the beginning on the emotional component of being a beginner as a competent adult. We talk about how challenging it can be to be imperfect at something, about how it's sometimes helpful to put yourself into a playful "kid" space, about how practicing skills that are kind of parallel to the actual skill can help your hands and body learn what they're supposed to do. I sometimes emphasize the process-not-progress aspect of it by trying to do the same thing a bunch of different ways, some of which are silly.

If the lessons are free and they are choosing to be there, I'd not worry at all about folks who claim to understand something they don't or who are polishing the brass on the Titanic. They're getting what they want to get out of the interaction. I'd also consider whether some people get frustrated at having their technique fixed because their body can't do the thing you're asking of them. That's another thing I say up-front in my classes, that we all have different bodies and to let me know if something is uncomfortable so we can work together to figure out a way through.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:22 AM on March 19, 2018 [16 favorites]

When I have to help someone learn a thing while still letting them "save face", I frame it as "here's an option". For example: "Other people I've talked to have found doing XYZ helps to improve ABC for them" instead of "don't do ABC; you should do XYZ"
posted by travertina at 9:58 AM on March 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

Something that generally works is before the sport, consider addressing it as, "For this chukka (or whatever), we're going to focus on swing and stride," and then you've set up what the focus will be and criticism can feel helpful, not annoying.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

This strike me as a 'fixed vs growth mindset' issue.

Here are some tips to help students switch from a fixed mindset (where all that matters is the result) to a growth mindset (where what matters is learning and challenge)
posted by Dwardles at 10:19 AM on March 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

+1 to tchemgrrl's answer about getting into beginner/playful mindset, and Drawdles on growth mindset.

How are you setting up the beginning of the class? Is there some kind of opportunity for students to get comfortable and learn a little about who's in the room? As much as I personally dislike classic name icebreakers, ice-breaking-light-type activities could help relax the room at first (like people sharing their favorite athletes in the sport, or something they really enjoy about it). Then once folks are a little more comfortable with one another, and oriented to the learning environment, consider asking individuals to share their personal goals for the class and what they hope to get out of it. This can be something you come back to as the class progresses, both in a group sense ("I know some of you are thinking about ways to improve your X motion! Here's one thing we can try out together") and individually as you help folks out.

I think cultivating a bit of this warm learner community feel goes a long way to mitigating those later points of frustration. It's not always easy, but maybe something you can tweak/iterate on over several sessions.

Good luck!

(source: I used to have to teach 5-hour Microsoft Office night classes to adult learners. "Five hour night class" is a concept that should reaaaally not exist.)
posted by elephantsvanish at 10:31 AM on March 19, 2018

I took a couple of ski technique lessons this year from a handful of different people. The coaches who were able to help me the most:

-met with me at the beginning of the lesson to go over my/their goals and talk about how they were going to help me meet them in the next hour

-explicitly explained each exercise we did and why it might help, which gave each activity focus (ex: "okay, we're going to double pole for a while here in the tracks- I want you to practice dragging your thumb on your hip a little bit as you do it. It's an exaggeration and we wouldn't necessarily do it in a race, but it is going to help you feel what it's like to really get your arms close to your body and help you waste less movement and energy in the long run.")

-checked frequently for understanding and comfort ("Hey, did that feel better? Worse? Weird? Different at all? Do you understand what I asked you to do? I'm not seeing a change in your poling yet...does it feel like you *made* a change?")

-gave me a couple key cue words to make in-the-moment coaching more efficient/less yelly. I was working too hard and gassing myself on hills- when I heard "baby steps" going up I remembered that was how I was going to use less energy overall.

-explicitly told me what was going well and compared it to previous attempts "Okay, look at your tracks- here's what you were doing before, and here's how the last one was better. Did it feel better to you?"

-were casual about helping and (as mentioned above) gave me a "some people" out: "I see that you're lifting your feet a little bit high. A lot of people find that drill X helps them with that- let's see if it works for you." Then I'd try drill X and we'd talk about whether it was working and why.

-ended each hour with a refresher and some steps I could do on my own before the next lesson to reinforce what we worked on

I am pretty coachable, but I learned a lot more from the folks who really explained what they were going to do with me and why, specifically, it might help my skiing than than the others who just started with a bunch of drills I didn't necessarily know the purpose of.

I find this in my own teaching, as well...I teach middle school orchestra. If I yell at a bunch of kids "fix your bow hands!", mostly I get ignored. If I stop and give them one specific tiny part to fix for a specific reason- "Hey! Tap your round thumbs with the bow on the string and make sure they're curved and on their corner; I see a lot of crooked bows over fingerboards and we're not getting the tone we need because of it."- I can coax better technique out of them.

And also: some people are difficult, and harder to coach. If you're trying hard and volunteering your time and they're not listening, that's kind of on them and you don't need to feel bad about it.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

Is there a reason you have to put up with people snapping at you or being rude? This sounds really obnoxious. Maybe you could just say, “Please don’t talk to me like that.” I have been an adult beginner in a sport, and I can’t imagine acting like this. I’ve seen other adult beginners disrupt the class with constant jokes, which is another obnoxious way to assert dominance, but nothing like what you describe.

As far as people not wanting to work on what you know is actually important, it might be best to just let that one go. You aren’t training them for the Olympics. If they aren’t going to achieve the level of success that’s possible because they’re too proud to take instruction, maybe that can be their problem, not yours.

Another thing I’ve observed is that a lot of adult beginners drop out when they find out how hard it is to achieve mastery. That may solve your problem over time, though I guess new obnoxious people could come in.
posted by FencingGal at 11:02 AM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ask them, what's the best way you learn new things? They'll have some examples, you'll talk back and forth, and the process will feel more collaborative to them. [And you'll have an 'in' when you need to stress certain approaches and achieving specific milestones -- you can reference this conversation and their own past experiences.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:06 AM on March 19, 2018

Is there a gender, race and /or age dynamic here as well?
posted by twoplussix at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you have to let some people fail until they are ready to learn.

You can also try ascribing the advice to an accepted authority. "I remember Joe Torre saying they had to teach hitters to be intense without being tense."
posted by SemiSalt at 3:35 PM on March 19, 2018

Tell me something like "I need to speak with your nerves, muscles, and sense of timing, but those body parts don't speak English, so we have a problem. Please try to turn off your brain and let your body listen." I think I learned this from Tim Galway's Inner Game of Tennis, or his Inner Game of Golf.
posted by at at 10:04 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

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