The W(h)ine list: quality training techniques for people with baggage

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

Jan 9, 2015 11:22:00 AM

Issues that get in the way of facilitating learning



As a learning facilitator, sometimes you have a group hungry and open to learning. Other times you know you are going to be working with a group that brings a lot of baggage to the training room.

We developed an innovative strategy for a client facing some specific challenges – and I want to share a strategy with you in this article. First, a bit of background.


Where does all the baggage come from?

When your participants walk in with these sorts of issues, typically it is due to change of some sort:

  • There has been a merger that felt more like a takeover
  • There has been some downsizing or restructuring
  • A new manager has come in and changed old ways of doing things – ways that had been comfortable for a long time under the previous manager
  • Systems have been updated and the new systems don’t feel embedded or comfortable yet

Occasionally, the baggage can be related to a discrepancy between the topic of the training and the organisational culture.

For example, I worked on an innovation program for a company in which many staff believed their managers weren’t open to new ideas.

Derailing learning

Whatever the cause, this baggage can derail a training session and compromise learning outcomes. It can make a day in the training room feel very long and have you leaving the session feeling unfulfilled – the best learning facilitators are there because they are deeply motivated by helping create positive change. When that doesn’t happen, it can sit very uncomfortably. 

To deal with these situations, facilitators need some active learning strategies and techniques.

An example of the baggage people bring


A number of years ago I was asked to facilitate a weekend retreat for a media organisation. The staff who were attending the retreat were paid a reasonable base salary that could be turned into a very attractive income through a system of performance bonuses.

A new CEO had come to the company recently and conducted a review of remuneration plans. It would be fair to say the new structure wasn’t perceived as favourable!

The CEO wasn’t attending the retreat but a number of senior managers were. While they weren’t in favour of the changes, they had to publicly support them and were responsible for implementing them.

When different focuses cause double vision!

Based on my briefing with the client, one thing became very obvious: the focus of the retreat was on moving forward, the future, new ideas and innovations, and creating greater success in the coming year.

The focus of the people attending was on the past, on resentment over what they believed to be unreasonable changes and on why change was even necessary given they had been achieving good results.

In short, these people weren’t ready to embrace the future because they hadn’t let go of the past.

The only thing that most excited them about the upcoming retreat was that it would provide an opportunity for them to be heard, to voice their opinions and resentment – and that was the positive perspective!

Many people were angry about having to give more to the company by sacrificing a weekend when they felt the company was already taking too much from them.

The elephant in the room

It really didn’t matter what the management wanted to put on the agenda or that I wanted to get the group focused on positive forward focused things. It didn’t matter that I wanted to get them to focus on the things they could control. These people just weren’t ready to have that conversation! deal_with_the_elephant_in_the_room_in_corporate_training

It was obvious that the ‘elephant in the room’ needed to be discussed and that we would need to draw on our experience and training strategies to devise a creative approach.

We needed to find a way to have a bit of fun with the issue rather than letting it settle like a blanket of gloom over the whole weekend – remembering that it wasn’t in my brief to resolve this issue. My job was simply to make sure the issue didn’t derail the purpose of the retreat.

By the way, I agree with what you are probably thinking. That issue needed to be addressed properly and not just have a band aid put on it. Fortunately, as a result of the success of the weekend, I was given the opportunity to assist with that process over the following month.

Sacrifice to gain

With the enthusiastic support of the management team who had worked with me previously – and the more reluctant agreement from the CEO who ‘didn’t want to give the whinging any air time’, we took a direct and innovative approach.

My proposal was that we sacrifice the first part of the first day’s agenda – and allocate it purely to allowing people to have the conversation they were desperate to have.quality_training_discussion.jpg

By taking this approach:

  • The participants got their grievances ‘off their chest’
  • They felt that at least they were listened to even if nothing changed (often people don’t really expect things to change but they are highly resentful about not having a chance to express their feelings)
  • We could legitimately ask them to express those feelings and then ‘park them’ as we moved on to other subjects
  • We struck an appropriate balance – we will neither ignore your perspective not will we allow it to dominate the entire agenda

However, we still needed to manage this in a way that ‘lightened’ a pretty dark mood.

I had worked with some members of the group previously and that certainly helped as we had already developed a base level of trust and rapport.

Would you like to see the menu for today?quality_training_menu.jpg

We took the boring traditional looking agenda that the company had created and turned it into a menu. We spent some time and effort laying it out so that it had the genuine feel of a real menu that they would receive in high quality restaurant.

As the facilitator, I hired a waiter’s outfit and opened up the session playing the role of Maître d’. I welcomed them to the establishment and had a couple of people distribute the ‘menus’.

Right up front on the menu, listed as the entrée, was a discussion about the remuneration issue (for our US readers, entrée is the first course, not the main course, in Australia).

Would you like something to drink with that?

This put the issue right on the table – the elephant in the room was no longer being hidden uncomfortably in the corner. It was front and centre and participants realised they would have the opportunity to be heard.

Again in the role of Maître ‘d, I told the group that all good food should be accompanied by something equally good to drink and that my assistants would distribute some wine lists – with a twist.

Each group was given a blank sheet simply with the heading W(h)ine List. 


This caused a bit of laughter around the room and I was able to brief the group:

  • I know there is a lot of concern about recent changes
  • Those concerns need to be heard and discussed – even if they aren’t solved
  • We can’t afford to let those concerns get in the way of other topics that need to be discussed – if nothing positive came from the weekend retreat, they would go home in a worse situation than when they arrived
We agreed as a group that they would write down their concerns on the W(h)ine lists, that we have a discussion about them until it was time for the ‘next course’ and that we would then move on and enjoy the rest of the ‘meal’.

For nearly 1 ½ hours we had a series of small group conversations and robust large group discussions. I facilitated that process ensuring that the discussion focused on solutions as well as problems, that it didn’t become personal or aggressive and that everyone had an opportunity for input.

To a large extent, the ‘storm blew itself out’. The group reached a point at which everything that needed to be said had been said. Moving back into my Maître ‘d role, I told the group that main course would shortly be served and invited them to stretch their legs for fifteen minutes.

Time to mingle

As the group finished their morning tea break, I asked them to move back to the tables. However, they had to sit at a different table than the one they ‘consumed the previous course’ at. Continuing the theme I explained it was important to mingle with as many people as possible

My objective was to use as many strategies as possible to emphasise that we were now moving on.

Cleansing the palate


My final training strategy was to have my assistants distribute a small bowl of sorbet to ‘cleanse the palate’. I explained that it was important to cleanse the palate of the tastes from the previous course in order to fully enjoy the next one.

Again, this caused some laughter and the symbolic message was clear – we are moving on to other things now. Plus, people loved the sorbet!

A five star quality training experience

This approach took some extra effort. We took a few risks – at least in the clients mind. We sacrificed around 90 minutes of the agenda the client wanted to run with.

However, if we had just plowed on with the agenda ignoring the elephant in the room, I doubt we would have had a successful retreat.

People felt respected by having the opportunity to talk about what was important to them – and were then happy to reciprocate in other areas of the agenda.

Could this have been achieved without the ‘theatrics’? Possibly – but the participants wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much – and neither would we!

I believe adding some colour and fun when facilitating training helps the group relax and deal with difficult issues in a less confronting way. It also sends a strong message about the culture in the training room – it is OK to learn and have fun at the same time!

What do you do to deal with the baggage that people bring to the training room? What training tips work for you? I would love to hear about your ideas and training strategies.


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photo credit: Richard Holt® via photopin cc photo credit: Julien Lagarde via photopin cc photo credit: Yortw via photopin cc