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Messing Up: Using Humility to Become a Better Trainer

Messing Up: Using Humility to Become a Better Trainer

By Sarah Axelson, MSW | June 20, 2018
Director of Training, ETR

It’s 10:30 on a Thursday night, and I’m somewhere over the Midwest, flying home. I’ve spent the last few days training a group of professionals who, for the most part, I haven’t worked with before. The training as a whole was fantastic. Well-planned, intentional, engaging, and the list goes on. I couldn’t be more proud of our team for putting it together. 

What I wasn’t proud of was my own section, or more specifically, one activity within the day-long session that I delivered. I did a guided reflection and shared a sample response to a challenging, values-based statement from an imaginary participant, using a particular model. It didn’t land well.

The participants questioned the way some of the steps in the model were framed. They didn’t feel like it reflected their reality. And they associated some troublesome language in the sample response to me rather than to the imaginary participant, as was intended.

It was awful. A group that didn’t know me thought I held a view that I firmly and passionately do not. Ironically enough, part of the training was on navigating vulnerability as a trainer. And that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now—vulnerable. I feel like a failure.

Thankfully, the participants voiced their concerns. Because of that, we were able to correct the misinformation and “right the ship” in the training, through a series of very intentional steps. It actually ended up improving the training, since I was able to model the very thing that I was talking to participants about. Even so, I’m still thinking about it on the plane ride home.

This feeling of lingering disappointment is all too familiar to other trainers. We give a training and get back 49 glowing evaluations. But the one that is just so-so makes us forget every other positive comment. Or we deliver seven hours of fantastic content, but can’t think about anything other than the one hour that wasn’t quite right. It’s irrational and unhealthy. We all know that. And it’s a really hard thing to change.

My brain keeps replaying the activity from this particular training in my head–where was the turning point? What if I hadn’t taken out that earlier step because I was pressed for time? Did I miss a shift in the room that I should have reacted to earlier? How did I mess that up?

One of the key messages I was trying to share in my activity is that you have to be willing to go to the vulnerable places with people. That’s where the deep learning happens. So now, here I am, trying to get to that deeper place. It’s led me to think about the bigger picture. What do you do when a training doesn’t go the way you planned? What do you do when you feel like you missed the mark? Or worse, when you feel like you failed your learners?

Be Humble

One of the most important things you can do in the moment is be humble. Acknowledge the feedback you’re getting, verbal or non-verbal, that something isn’t working. Give space for participants to share their thoughts and concerns. In my session, this looked like a critique of some parts of the model that I shared. The participants also shared recommendations to change some language in the guided reflection.

All of the feedback our learners shared was valid, appropriate, beautifully gracious, and respectful. I told them how much I appreciated that, both as they shared it, and the next day. And even if their feedback hadn’t been quite so kind, I would have still needed to leave space for them to share it. Part of being humble is accepting where you, or your material, fell short.

Acknowledge the Disappointment

There’s a group norm that some trainers know and use called “ouch” (or sometimes, “oops, ouch, sorry”). The intention of the norm is to give participants a safe way to say that something hurt or offended them. In this case, I had to use it myself, and call my own ouch. I internalized participants’ feedback as falling short. It hurt.

It doesn’t matter how or where you call your ouch. Most trainers probably wait until they are alone. But acknowledging the disappointment you feel, particularly if you make the failure personal or internalize the critique, is important. This can be hard precisely because it makes us vulnerable. Trainers tend to like feeling knowledgeable, confident and credible. We are comfortable in control. A training or activity that doesn’t go as planned disrupts those feelings. It can leave us feeling shaken and questioning ourselves. Ouch.

Take Care of Yourself

When we find ourselves feeling that way, the best thing we can do is engage in self-care. That looks different for everyone. For some it may mean quiet time alone to reflect. For others, it may mean a glass of wine or a walk outside. Some people may want to talk it out with other trainers. They are “our people” and for the most part, we’ve all been there.

It doesn’t matter how you do it; it just matters that you do it. After my session, I took some time to talk to my partner on FaceTime and let out my feelings about my day. Once I collected myself, I joined our team for dinner (and wine). My self-care isn’t complete yet, and I think that’s okay.

Find the Learning

I’m working on moving through these feelings and finding the learning in this situation. I don’t mean just the learning about the activity or the training (change this word, move this piece before the other, etc.). I mean the bigger learning—how we take what happened and use it to grow as trainers.

Today, I’m processing some thoughts about how I hold my “trainer” identity. I’m thinking through vulnerability as trainer. I’m also thinking about how we show courageous compassion to people whose views are drastically different than our own. And as you can see, I’m thinking about how to look at things differently when training doesn’t go right.

These thoughts haven’t landed yet. There might be some more turbulence before they do. And I think that’s okay. I know the landing strip is out there and I’ll get to it eventually. And, if these last few days have reinforced anything for me, it’s this. Sometimes you have to fail before you can fly.

Sarah Axelson, MSW, is the Director of Training at ETR. She can be reached at


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