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TBT: True Trainer Tales of Terror

Back in the old days before the Internet, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, "distance learning" meant broadcasting classrooms or workshops over a television network. In the early nineties, Nunavut Arctic College, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Atii Training and Kativik School Board decided to collaborate on an experimental management course, to be delivered over Television Northern Canada.

I was asked to present a session on "How to Manage Difficult Participants in a Meeting", but I didn't want to just TALK to a TV camera for half an hour about dealing with unhelpful meeting behaviours. Solution: I would bring a group of "learners" into the studio, and deliver the workshop to them. But each learner would be instructed to demonstrate a negative meeting behavior. One would constantly interrupt with personal anecdotes. One would pretend to get angry at another participant. One would simply not engage with the class at all. And in each case, I would demonstrate the right approach to deal with the problem.

Clever, eh? What could possibly go wrong with THAT?

The day arrived. As often happens, the flight to Iqaluit was delayed, and I arrived in town with just an hour to get to the studio and prep for the workshop. No time to confer with the producer, just time to say hi to my "classroom" full of learners, and then...the red light blinked on the camera, and we were live.

The first five minutes went fine. I explained the role of a chairperson, and talked about the need to agree on norms to ensure that meetings actually worked. My "classroom" smiled and nodded in agreement. And then I provided the line that was supposed to cue my first "Bad Participant", The Interrupter.

"Of course," I said, "Sometimes you have to deal with people whose behaviour can throw a meeting off track." And I paused, waiting for the scripted interruption.

And my classroom smiled and nodded in agreement. Including The Interrupter. And they waited for me to continue.

And so did participants gathered in classrooms and communities across the North.

And I stood there, slowly turning as red as that terrifying little light on top of the camera - with twenty five minutes of time to fill, live, and no script. Because, of course, the "Bad Participants" were going to provide my content.

It turned out that the group of "learners" who had been briefed at Arctic College on their roles had been unable to get to the studio on time, and a number of generous IBC staff had volunteered to sit in and play the role of participants. Except in all the confusion, no-one told them they were supposed to be Bad Participants.

One of Nature's great mercies is that humans cannot easily remember pain (good thing - otherwise we'd live in a world of one-baby families). Thus I can't really remember how I stumbled and improvised my way through the rest of the half hour. It must have been okay, because the participant evaluations from the communities were all very positive (except for one learner in Arviat who wondered "why the trainer's face got so red all of a sudden".) But learning certainly happened; mostly by me. The learning: always confirm EVERYTHING before EVERY workshop - ESPECIALLY the stuff you just KNOW is already taken care of.
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