HR Management & Compliance

Techniques for Handling Resistant Learners

In yesterday’s Advisor,’s Laura Arellano, CPLP, invited training professionals to “be their resistors” and to understand the brain of resistant learners. Today, Arellano provides insight on the roots of resistance and steps for dealing with it in your training.

Arellano shared her tips at the annual Association for Talent Development (ATD) Conference and Exposition held recently in Denver, Colorado.
Here are four basic points of resistance in less-than-enthusiastic learners:

  1. Priorities. Resistant learners think, “There are other things that are more important that demand my time.”
  2. Relevance. This is a common one. Often, trainees wonder, “How does this relate to my job?” Arellano provides this metaphor that puts such objectives in perspective: “[Training is] like brushing your teeth. You need to do it on a regular basis.”
  3. “Boooorrrring.” Lecture-based training is just plain difficult to sit down and listen to all day.
  4. Fear. Trainees can have fears of change, of job loss, of embarrassment. They may wonder, “Is my skill set not good enough? Will I have to change?”

Arellano’s four steps to dealing with resistant learners are:

  1. Associate to the resistor. Why is this association effective? “For one thing, they may be right. Maybe they don’t need to be here,” says Arellano. “It’s a little on-the-spot needs analysis. They may just not be ready to learn yet. It’s not about you the trainer, and it’s not about the content. It’s about the learner.” The consequences of ignoring this step of associating with your resistor can be drastic. In essence, says Arellano, you become the Hulk—you take the resistance personally, become toxic, and then you’re not helping matters.
  2. Reframe the Route of Resistance (RoR). For example, the RoR “I have more important things to do than to be here!” (this is the relevance point discussed earlier) really means, “My time is valuable, and this isn’t a productive use of it.” To reframe this RoR: “I want my time spent on my priorities.” When facing a resistant learner, Arellano tells trainers to ask themselves, “What is it that they’re really trying to say, and what’s the reframe?”
  3. (Part 1) Acknowledge the RoR. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this though, says Arellano. Don’t say “I know you don’t want to be here,” or “I know what you’re thinking, ugh more training….” Instead, say “I know we all want to spend our time wisely,” and “We all agree improving skills and knowledge increases productivity.”
    (Part 2) Assign an attribute. First, invoke a positive emotion: “You’ll be (relieved/happy/surprised/excited/amazed/interested/comforted/glad)….” Then elicit a learning state: “…to (hear/find out/learn/discover/realize)….” When you elicit this learning state, be sure to use words like curious, open, excited, confident, relaxed, or positive.
  4. Putting it all together. Arellano advises trainers to bring all the previous steps together to communicate something like this: “I know that your time is valuable and that you want to be confident that you’re spending it wisely, so you’ll be excited to hear that what we cover today can be applied immediately to increase your effectiveness.”

Resistant learners will always be a challenge, but with these steps, you may be able to keep them consciously engaged, quell their subconscious instinct to resist, and boost the success of your training sessions.