Tip #80: Handling a topic that scares some of the participants

The Challenge: The topic to be covered generates fear among some of the participants

Possible Approaches: Although it seems rather dramatic to say that a topic might scare or frighten participants, there are topics that tend to create anxiety for people. For example, childbirth, CPR, computer skills, test taking, statistics, giving stand up presentations, communicating assertively, or giving performance feedback, etc. You can feel free to add other topics that you have first hand experience dealing with participant terrors.

Recognize past transfer that might have a chilling effect on the participants. Try to disconnect the past negative transfer and use positive transfer experiences that are similar. For example, if teaching computer skills, ask if anyone has ever used a typewriter or a microwave. If so, they already have basic data entry and programming skills.

Avoid using jargon that can increase the participants’ sense of unease with the unfamiliar. Use terms that are simple to understand and already within the participants’ vocabulary.

Indicate that a building block approach will be used that ensures basic steps are learned before moving on. Explain the task analysis that identified the sequence of steps and the commitment to ensure each participant’s successful learning. For example, you will have an opportunity to practice your presentation skills within your small group before we do anything in front of the entire class.

Offer the use of team/mentors, as well as opportunities for individual assistance during breaks and after class.

It may be necessary to promise the participants that they can “pass” on any exercise or activity with which they feel uncomfortable. Role playing is an activity, for example, that many participants approach with trepidation. However, you may be able to help them get their toes wet if you simply ask them to “help out” someone else in a role play. Once they find the experience is not quite so terrifying, they may be willing to do it on their own.

In all situations, however, it is important to dignify their concerns, show empathy and understanding, and do your best to design content and activities that allow the participants to build on small successes and develop confidence in addressing their fears.

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