Five classic signs your training lacks empathy

Stepping into someone else’s shoes to see things from their perspective can have maximum impact in both personal and professional situations. We have discussed empathetic learning design, and how to teach empathy, but how do you know if your learning initiatives need an empathy makeover? Below are some signs your training lacks empathy. If you’re noticing these, you may be in need of an empathetic learning approach to take your organization to the next level.

1. Your actual learner population isn’t reflected in the course visuals. 

If your staff comprises more than one gender, culture, or background, yet all of the visuals represent a single category, you may need to change things up. Corporate training frequently makes heavy use of stock photos, which isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s when those images lack diversity that the whole program can come across as generic and not applicable to individual learners. Your course visuals should represent the learner population in all its diversity. If they don’t, learners will have a harder time picturing themselves in the scenarios, and may even feel excluded and undervalued. 

Ideas for representing your learners in course visuals

There are a few ways to take a more inclusive approach with your visuals. First, if you’re going to use stock photos, choose images that represent the learner population. Sites like iStock and Shutterstock have come a long way in offering photos of people in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Even royalty-free stock photo sites offer cultural diversity that has come a long way over the past few years. Alternatively, consider using photos of actual employees in your company. Although it’ll require more effort to shoot or collect photos, the payoff of learners seeing themselves represented will make the work worthwhile.

Another work-around is to avoid using photorealistic visuals at all. There are many other visual art styles that can be effective without looking cartoonish. Sometimes it can be an effective design technique to help learners step away from interpersonal situations by representing them in an entirely different way. Even colors, animals, and textures can add visual interest while side-stepping the need for photos of people. Alternate images can also help learners through situations that have no clear answer by eliminating the bias that many images with humans can represent.

2. Difficult interpersonal situations are treated as having clear-cut answers.

When conducting training that involves challenging situations between people or teams, evaluate whether clear-cut answers are truly representative of the real-world situation. In most cases, navigating situations that require emotional intelligence can’t be boiled down to right vs. wrong. The gray area is what leads learners into thoughtful conversations, discussions of ideas, feelings, and perspectives. If you remove the gray area and limit learners to a right or wrong answer, you will have missed the opportunity to develop empathy. 

How to embrace the gray in learning simulations

It is possible to design training that encourages exploration of topics without a hard right or wrong answer. Traditionally these types of initiatives took place in classroom workshops, or may have required a high-end gamified scenario. New learning modalities adapted to the hybrid workforce are enabling companies to provide safe environments for teams to grapple with complex problems. That need is exactly what led to the development of our ExperienceBUILDER platform. In brief, we create space for learners to assess non-absolute questions by creating multiple scoring parameters for each decision. The real magic happens as teams interact to solve these problems together, competing against other teams using metrics that reflect real-world constraints.

3. You aren’t using accessible design principles.

Organizations need to understand accessible design principles, not only for their customers’ needs but also for their employees. Just like your customers, learners also need to have content that is accessible. If you’re avoiding these design principles for your learners, you could be completely excluding certain individuals or making it harder for them to learn. 

Having empathy toward learners means ensuring that everyone is equally included, regardless of any disabilities. Imagine if you were color blind, and your training was designed in colors that make it impossible for you to see. Chances are you would feel discouraged and would struggle to fully immerse yourself in the learning. Meeting learners where they are increases buy-in, leading to higher adoption and enhanced learning rates.

How to design online training with accessibility in mind

This is a huge topic of ongoing importance for all of us, and too much to address here in a brief blog post. There are many resources online that can help you navigate the basics of accessible design. Two we recommend are Sheryl Burgstahler’s 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course and 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content from Iowa State. To continue to exercise empathy in this area, evaluate the needs of the people in your learning audience. Are there specific concerns or needs that require more than the most basic accommodations? To get started exploring this area of the workforce, talk with your partners in HR.

4. People aren’t given adequate support to grapple with complex problems and implement changes back on the job

If you’ve launched a training program and expect to see results on day one, you may want to reevaluate your expectations. In order to help learners make improvements and implement desired change back into their jobs, you must give them grace, encouragement, and provide ongoing support. Learners will then feel comfortable implementing what they have learned where they see fit and when they feel it is right.

Build post-event support right into the training

What this looks like will really depend on the topic of the training itself. For example, many leadership development initiatives are now paired with ongoing coaching and mentorship programs. In other cases, a follow-up training event is appropriate. Considering what learners need after they’ve completed the initial program will go a long way toward adoption and overall impact.

5. You’ve assumed you understand what people need but have missed the mark

This is oftentimes one of the greatest challenges facing a leader. You may feel as though you know what people need, how they feel, or what will help them, but in reality you don’t see the whole picture. Lack of empathy and emotional intelligence can lead to missing the mark in all sorts of scenarios, and it’s particularly important for us to be aware of as learning leaders. We’ve all dealt with the classic challenge of being asked to build training for something that is actually a process or management problem; assuming you know exactly what learners need in a complex situation is the other side of the same coin.

How to overcome bias when assessing training need

There are many ways to get to the root of a need or problem when designing training; what they all boil down to is getting outside of your own perspective (i.e., showing empathy for the learner’s perspective). An empathy map is one helpful tool for working through the questions from the perspective of the learner. We also use a process called the Voice of the Business to bring in disparate perspectives. You may know what the organization needs as a whole, but your learners quite possibly know what is needed at their level better than you. Take the time to ask questions, offer anonymous questionnaires, and practice active listening. 

It’s important to develop empathetic learning practices, and also to help your learners develop empathy as a key skill for emotional intelligence. Nobody overtly tries to create training that lacks empathy, which is why it’s so important to look out for the signs. If you’re guilty of any of the above-mentioned items and unsure of the way forward, reach out to us. We can create a plan customized for your business needs that will help to incorporate empathy into the organization. 

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