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Information vs. Assimilation

"Are there any questions?" The workshop presenter paused for a few seconds of silence before stating, "Great, then let's move on."

He was at least three slides into the next section before I realized I wasn't listening because I was still processing the question I wanted to ask. At this point, I was completely lost. I felt like I was drowning in information.

He was a really enthusiastic presenter. His energy was infectious, which was great. But there were so many different ideas that I couldn't assimilate what to do with the information.

I liked the concepts but I didn't know where or how to start. So I didn't act on any of it. I just stayed in my cozy status quo because I couldn't see any other pathway forward.

This is a common problem that's been exacerbated by the ease with which we can access information, thanks to technological advancements. And fed by our misguided societal beliefs that more is always better.

When it comes to teaching or training, offering more information isn't an advantage. If anything, it blocks true learning. That's because our brains shutdown when we start to feel overwhelmed. Unable to absorb, let alone assimilate information, it's like speaking to a bunch of human-sized deflector shields.

Nothing really penetrates in. Hence, not having any questions. This gives presenters and trainers a false positive. The lack of questions isn't a good thing, it's actually a sign that people are not understanding what's being shared on a deeper level.

Instead, everyone is following their school-aged habit of appeasing the teacher. After all, our education system reinforced this notion. If you nod, act like you get it and happen to choose the right answer on the test, you'll pass. Yippee for an A!

Except in these instances, the A really stands for Almost. As in, you Almost learned it but you didn't because nothing has actually changed as a result. True learning means to change one's behavior.

The onus to correct this type of debacle is on the person sharing knowledge. But this isn't an easy fix.

I remember when I first started presenting about the Neuroscience of Conversation. Each slide was jam packed with information participants just "had to understand." I was desperate to show the interconnections between brain function, and stimuli so others understood how conversations can turn from feeling good to heated arguments on a dime.

"It was great. I think we got it. I don't think our people need anymore information on this topic." A conference organizer responded when I followed up on a talk I gave. This was one of the first clues I received that I was missing the mark.

And it stung because I personally witnessed the same person blatantly engage in behaviors that shut people down after he had supposedly learned what not to do! He might have been able to speak the lingo of Conversational Intelligence but he didn't embody it.

A part of me was quick to assign blame, "Wow, you really, actually DON'T get it" I thought in my head.

But externalizing blame was a cop out for owning responsibility. I focused too much on delivering information and not enough on creating space for deeper assimilation. I perpetuated the false narrative that learning is regurgitating information by focusing too heavily on quantity.

I have since learned that less is more. That I can best serve others by introducing a concept, than inviting reflection, conversation, and an exploration of what it means to apply the ideas shared. In this way, I'm nudging people to do the work of assimilating information so true learning can occur.

In order to be able to craft a learning experience like this, the trainer needs to be able to do a few different things simultaneously.

Unlike children, adults need to see the importance and relevance of what they are learning in order to engage with the material. If the information doesn't relate to a need or an interest, they are going to tune it out. You'll sound like the teacher in Snoopy "Wah wah woh wah."

Trainers need to first connect their topic with the needs and interests of their audience so that they actually engage with the material.

Just like you can't build an addition on a house that has no foundation, you have to meet people where they are at. You can't teach someone how to do division if they don't understand addition and subtraction. Similarly, you have to build on what they already know, which sometimes means rewriting limiting beliefs.

Providers of professional development need to connect their topic with the knowledge and information their audience already possess.

I'm a big fan of using frameworks. They offer a simple entry into complicated ideas, which serve as powerful building blocks for learning new concepts. A good framework is like a solid house foundation, you can keep coming back to it as you get further into the weeds.

Presenters need to develop their audiences core competencies around the subject matter they are working with in order for them to be able to turn ideas into action.

None of us can force anyone to do the work of true learning. But it is the wholehearted leaders responsibility to ensure we are creating conditions for people to learn and thrive. Oftentimes this means, reducing the sheer amount of information shared in order to prioritize assimilation. In the long-run, this saves time, money and energy.

The quicker people embody true learning the sooner they are able to put valuable new ideas into action and reap the benefits. Otherwise we run the risk of professional development efforts that are all talk and no action!

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