HR Management & Compliance

Understanding the Resistant Learner

“Oh yeah? Make me!” Sound familiar? Resistant learners are a constant potential challenge during training, but they can be effectively handled with the right tools. First, you need to understand what’s going on in their brains, says’s Laura Arellano, CPLP.

Arellano, who shared her tips at the annual Association for Talent Development (ATD) Conference and Exposition held recently in Denver, Colorado, invited those in her session to “be your resistor.” Cross your arms, furrow your brow—these are all the nonverbal communications of a resistant learner. What are their thoughts, feelings, and concerns? Well, they might include:

  • “I’m a training prisoner, I’m here because I have to be!”
  • “This is stupid!”
  • “I already know this.”
  • “What can you teach me that I don’t already know?”
  • “This doesn’t apply to me.”
  • “Can you just print out the PowerPoint® and let me read it?”
  • “I’ve been burned by bad training before.”

As abrasive as some of these feelings might seem to trainers, they must understand that this isn’t just about an “attitude” or the learner him or herself—it’s about the learner’s brain.

A Little Neuro Education—Conscious vs. Subconscious

Arellano explains that the conscious mind is the “10% myth,” meaning the popular misconception that humans only use 10% of their brains. This conscious 10% is our immediate awareness and the thoughts and actions we perform intentionally.
The subconscious mind, says Arellano, is everything else. It’s outside of our immediate awareness and is spontaneous and automatic. A primary brain structure responsible for this automatic response is the amygdala, often referred to as the reptilian brain, as it’s millions of years old—even “older than humans,” says Arellano.
The amygdala is also responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response, and it’s this automatic, subconscious response that may be the cause of resistance on the part of learners who perceive training as a waste of their time.
However, the conscious mind controls the amygdala, and, in fact, “the job of the subconscious mind is to do what the conscious mind tells it to,” says Arellano. Have you ever seen flashing lights in the rearview mirror? You probably felt adrenaline at that moment, which is essentially your fight-or-flight response. “Why don’t you put the pedal to the metal and take off?” asks Arellano. “Because your conscious mind tells you to think about your strategy.”

The Elephant and the Rider

Arellano also uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider when discussing these two parts of the mind. The subconscious is the elephant, the “big beast,” while the conscious mind is the rider, that relatively small 10% of the overall package. The rider is in control, but when the elephant gets spooked, it takes over.
When it comes to resistant learners, we want to keep the rider in charge, says Arellano. How do we do that? We’ll discuss how in tomorrow’s Advisor.