Back to School: Knowing How People Learn Makes You A Better Communicator
Back to school. It conjures up feelings and memories for everyone – many of them less than thrilling. When I suggest that you conjure up your worst school memory, chances are it has something to do with feeling “stupid” in class. That time the teacher pointed out that you were twelve different kinds of an idiot for not “getting” her point.
Notice how it doesn’t get any better if I ask you to conjure up a bad time while learning something at work? The time that boss or colleague made you feel like a dolt because you just couldn’t get the concept or the process?
Now I want you to think of the last time you were explaining a concept or teaching a process to someone as a part of your work life – and that person just “didn’t get it”. Didn’t it seem obvious to you? Wasn’t that person ridiculous for not understanding your clear and expert demonstration and/or explanation?
Why does this happen? Why do we believe that we teach perfectly and yet sometimes people don’t understand what we are teaching? Why do we believe that we learn perfectly, and yet some teachers leave us feeling like idiots?
The answer is simple: because different people have different learning styles. And if you want to communicate information as well as you can to the people you meet in business and in life, you need to learn about the different ways in which people learn.
There are many learning theory gurus in the world of Education. The one that I find the most useful in my work is Bernice McCarthy whose 4-Mat System of Learning is easily adaptable to communicating in business and life. I have been using her shorthand system for years, with great success in my business as a litigation consultant. I use it when teaching attorneys a new concept, when working with witnesses, when “selling” a new lawyer on my business, when creating a presentation at a national conference – I am even known to use it with friends and family members.
McCarthy divides the world into four different learning styles (1, 2, 3 and 4). It doesn’t matter what makes up the person’s culture, age, religion, socio-economic status, level of education, or life experience. This is very helpful because it allows you to put aside your own prejudices about the person in front of you and listen for the clues that will tell you how this person will learn best what you have to teach. Why is this important? You, too, fall into one of the four categories – which means about three-fourths of the time you are going to have to adjust the way you teach, since you are probably used to teaching to the “perfect” learner – yourself!
Let me give you an example of how I use this system in my work as a litigation consultant. I am working with a witness who I am meeting for the first time. An attorney and I are in a session to prepare this witness to give testimony in court. I ask the witness one question, “What concerns do you have about testifying in court?” I will get one of four answers:
1. “I am afraid that no one will believe me. That they’ll think I’m lying when I’m telling the truth.”
2. “I am really nervous that the footnote in the contract on the bottom of page 45 is confusing.”
3. “How is this going to work? Where do I sit? How long is this going to take?”
4. “I’m not really worried. I’m just going to say whatever comes to me off the top of my head. I find things work out best if I just ‘wing it’, you know?”
Each of the answers puts the witness into his or her learning category. Let me break it down for you into the 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The first group of folks I call “Emotional”. They are often fearful of new experience. They often need to know “why” they are being asked to learn something new – what it has to do with them. Once they are on board, they learn more quickly than anyone else. They do not respond well to being told “just do this and you’ll be fine.” Slow down. Be patient. Take your time. If you rush teaching, not only will no learning take place, you are establishing that they will never be able to learn – especially not from you.
The second group of folks are “Fact Based”. They believe that the answers to everything in life are in the details. They will often ask you to “just show me what you want me to do.” They aren’t lazy. They aren’t going to do it exactly the way that you do it – but they really benefit from demonstration. Teach them first through detail – they aren’t going to learn from you if they don’t believe you “know your stuff”.
The third group of folks are “How Does It Work?”. They learn best through doing. They love agendas. When they say, “How long is this going to take?” and you think, “That’s an insulting question!” think again. They just need to know how the next minutes or hours of their life are supposed to unfold. If you teach them what you want them to learn as a “system” they will embrace it.
The fourth group of folks are “Rule Breakers.” They don’t like it if things have been done this way a million times over a million years – they need it to be brand new in order to respect it. I find it best to emphasize the uniqueness of the situation: “I have never had a case exactly like this before! This is going to be really interesting for us to figure out together just how to put your testimony together!” It doesn’t matter that the situation and case are far from unique – I know that this is how this kind of learner best gets information.
Good luck in your journey back to school – it will really pay off as you learn how to communicate and teach “perfectly” to the learning style of everyone you meet.