From the Road

From the Road: P is for Practice

Steve WillisSteve Willis is a Master Trainer and Vice President of Professional Services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

My sons hate practice—piano, soccer, math—you name it. If it’s the least bit related to practice, they hate it on principle. They even started hating other words that sound like or rhyme with practice. For example, last year we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. In preparation for the four-day trek, we decided to do a number of practice hikes. Now, my boys enjoy hiking—until I inserted the word “practice” in front of it. “We know how to hike. Why do we need to practice something we already know?!?!??” After many years, I’ve now come to expect this from teenage boys.

Fast forward to a recent executive development session I conducted. The mere mention of practice stirred the group into a frenzy: “We understand the concept—why do we need to practice?!??!” In that moment I caught a glimpse of my whiny boys’ future. And while I expect it from my teenagers, I was surprised to hear this from execs. It was like they forgot that development was the key component in executive development.

So why do we practice? To torture teenagers and executives? To experience the higher pitches of their vocal ranges? No. Why, then?

Ethna Reid, a master educator from the Exemplary Center for Reading Improvement, provides a definitive answer to this question, “If you want to know if you’re changing behavior you have to see it immediately.” Our goal is to change behavior, and for that to happen, practice is required. So here are a few tips to make practice more effective.

  1. Allot enough time to practice. So many trainers, when running short on time, skip and/or drastically cut practice time. If you can’t practice it, don’t train it.
  2. Practice until they get it correct. Participants who attempt a new skill and fall short should be praised for their effort. And they should also be coached and allowed the chance to do it correctly before moving on.
  3. Make it observable. If you can’t observe their practice, you have no idea the degree to which their behavior is changing, if at all. Have participants write it out, say it out loud, or otherwise demonstrate the skill so you can evaluate their progress and give feedback (both positive and negative). This doesn’t mean a person has to stand up and share in front of the whole class—practice is often best done in smaller groups. So when you are working in smaller groups, be careful to float from group to group so you can observe the participant group progress as a whole.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it sure helps.

Trainer QA

How do I handle participants who are quiet or who don't participate?

Justin Hale

David Nelson is a VitalSmarts Master Trainer.


Q How do I handle participants who are quiet or who don’t participate?


Healthy class participation can be a function of the students, the facilitator, or sometimes both! Since we can’t control the students (no matter how badly we’d love to), the solution starts with you.

Examine Your Motives
Making sure our motives are “right” is one of the first things we should do when dealing with a quiet class. Ask yourself:

  1. What is your desired outcome for the participants in the class?
  2. Do you want the class to participate for your own self-aggrandizement, to keep the class interesting, or because you believe it enhances learning?
  3. Do you want them to think you’re a great facilitator, tell others about the course, or simply enjoy their class experience?

Examine Your Methods
Here are a couple of specific mechanics you can use to invite healthier participation:

  • Point & assign: Point to a quieter table/group before asking the question, “I’d like to ask this table what they think about . . .”
  • Break it into small parts: If the class doesn’t seem to talk a lot as a large group, ask them to discuss the answer in their table group or with a neighbor. Often, if they are a quiet class, they are more likely to participate one-on-one rather than in a large group.
  • Work the crowd: Establishing a better relationship with participants during breaks and during group work can drastically change participation. Improving your individual relationship with class members can collective increase safety and change their perspective of you.
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