The application of psychology in L&D

I remember years ago when studying for my psychology degree that people used to say to me – “I better be careful what I say around you now!”, or “I don’t want to be psycho-analysed by you, Sukh!” I mean I had a cursory understanding of psychology and the insights it provides to understanding the human condition, but sure I was going to analyse everyone I met with my huge understanding of psychology – and for what purpose I’m not even sure. Wait, does that mean people though I’d manipulate them? I can’t even manipulate my diary to meet people on time and yet people think I can wield the dark arts of psychology to manipulate them to perform my whims. I *wish* I had that kind of power.

Years down the line, and I think I’m in a better personal position to be able to understand how psychology can be used to help L&D be better. Last week, I wrote about how we need to be careful that we don’t just get into pop psychology as many L&Ders are prone to do. Today I want to share how I use insights from psychology to help me be a better L&D pro.

Learning is a nuanced process. Some think it’s as easy as sitting someone down, talking at them, them studying and then answering some questions. Even L&Ders think that’s how learning happens. And I’m not even talking about learning cycles, styles or personality theories and the implications to learning. There are some fundamentals from psychology that help us know how to enable learning to happen well.

Safety is an important factor when learning occurs. If we accept that learning is about accepting a vulnerability in ourselves and needing to learn skills to lessen that vulnerability, we have to also accept that the psychological safety of the individual is protected and encouraged. What I mean by that is the individual has to feel they’re with someone who can appreciate their position, and provide an environment where they are supported to learn well, share their insights, discuss and debate, and reflect on what they’re learning. That’s quite a big cognitive load and as L&Ders we need to be skilled at creating these safe environments for learning.

Respect for individuals runs much deeper than the cursory ‘I won’t be offensive as a facilitator/trainer’. People want to be respected for who they are and for what they contribute. At a conference a couple of years back a presenter asked the audience a question, and when they gave their answer, he told them they were wrong and gave them the answer he wanted to hear. That’s not respecting people for who they are at all, no matter how flippantly it was done or how much humour might have been intended. You can encourage people to contribute wholly and with compassion and empathy and allow themselves to fully explore a topic. That’s more than asking “tell me what you think”. It’s about hearing what someone has to say, engaging with their comment fully and entering into a dialogue one on one. Which is less about sticking to learning objectives and very much about appreciating people for who they are. People want to be acknowledged and validated for what they contribute. They’re bringing their identity with them in learning situations. What they learn can either help them be better or challenge them to learn more. It can impact on their identity and how they interact with others.

Encouragement is vital in learning. People want to know they are valued for what they contribute. It’s about development and being appreciated for offering something to the conversation. This isn’t about coddling, it’s about helping others feel appreciated. If they don’t, how can we expect people to maintain a positive state for learning? How can we expect them to be motivated to continue if we don’t encourage and help people on their development? As adults, we are far more nuanced at understanding genuine praise and appreciation than when we’re younger. It’s also that much more rare. We tend to only hear praise and appreciation from loved ones or from friends. The more opportunities we can present people with this in the learning environment gives them that much more natural reason to be in the state they need to learn.

The social element to learning is one of the most fundamental and basic aspects of learning environments. People are inherently social creatures. There are very few individuals who would willingly choose to not interact with other humans. Countless studies and research has shown time and again that people will naturally form groups, connections, and networks. The learning environment has to design this in to the process for adults. By the time we reach adulthood, we’re hard-wired to talk to others. We’ve learned the etiquette to do it, and probably need to learn a new way to communicate when it comes to development of learning. When you ask most people in a learning situation they’ll either respond with everything they’re thinking, or be struck by the question because they don’t get it asked often enough. That process of conversation and socialising is therefore vital. And is why so many people comment so often that one of the best things they find about learning events is that they have the opportunity to talk with others and learn about them and the work they do.

The other piece of being adults and learning as adults is that we have to have an avenue where we can debate things ourselves. There has to be a process of self-discovery, reflection, sharing of thoughts and insights, and of development of thinking. It’s part of the adult learning process. We need guidance for those things to happen well, though. Sure we can get on and discuss things when asked to, but we’re better at having purposeful discussion when given clarity on what to discuss. Many times I’ve had to stop delivering a piece of content and let the group reflect on what they’ve just heard.

The last thing I’ll mention is something we probably haven’t understood well enough with respect to learning environments, and that’s around active inclusion and diversity. There are many forums and places where prejudice, bias and judgement take place. I’ve seen and heard many L&Ders do exactly that with a group of people, believing they were being either insightful or amusing. It’s neither – they’re just being offensive, and people normally don’t know how to respond to such things. As L&Ders, it is vital we provide safety for people to be able to express themselves with respect to their identity and for that to be heard amongst others. That can be hard. We don’t always want to accept others. We don’t always want to tolerate difference, especially if it’s in front of us. We don’t always want to be challenged in our thinking, and certainly not amongst a group of people in front of whom you don’t know if you can be so vulnerable. But when we do, and when we create such safety that people can be themselves and conduct themselves in their best way, that’s when we cherish and appreciate difference actively.

There’s quite a lot above. It’s a long piece for sure. Take your time. Read it again maybe. And when you’re ready, comment and let’s get into it.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

3 thoughts on “The application of psychology in L&D”

  1. I am so glad you raised the issue of active inclusion and diversity in learning & development. One small but important aspect of this is about using people’s actual names. I have come across this on a number of occasions, but two contrasting situations particularly come to mind. The first was in Manchester, where at the start of the programme, I had invited people to introduce themselves and as we went around the group one person, originally from Vietnam introduced his name and then immediately said but you can call me ‘Frank’ or some other familiar Western name. I responded by saying that I would rather call him his real name, if he could bear with me whilst I learnt it and then everyone else in the rest of the group also responded positively and that’s why I don’t remember what he had said to call him, because it was never used after that date. On another occasion, something similar happened but the rest of the group stuck with calling him ‘David’ and as I was only with that group for that one session, I didn’t succeed in changing that. However, the individual concerned did approach me individually and asked me to make sure their ‘real’ name was on their certificate – which I gladly did.

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