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Instructor Reveals Awkward Moments and Tricks for Overcoming Them (Interview)

Steve Singkofer, an IT Training Specialist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is currently working with four other trainers on the Mosaic Project, training much of the University staff on five new enterprise-level software packages. Prior to his stint at UA, he worked for several years as a trainer and implementer for a healthcare software provider, traveling around the country providing valuable training to hospital staff. He can be contacted at stevenjs@email.arizona.edu.

Steve first became a trainer – and first discovered his love for training – in 1991 while in the US Navy. The first workshop he taught was a disaster, and he almost passed out when he became extremely nervous and started hyperventilating.

Things have gotten much better since then.

Q. Could you tell us about a training project that you were involved with—one that you’re particularly proud of?

I am currently working for the University of Arizona on the Mosaic Project. This multi-year project is bringing five new enterprise-level software packages to the University, replacing decades-old systems for Student, Employee, Financials, and Research. The fifth package – enterprise-level reporting – is where I come in.

The University is using Oracle Business Intelligence – which we are calling UAccess Analytics – to provide a reporting platform for the entire campus. The reporting needs encompass and combine information from all of the other four systems.

I attended a three-day workshop on how the new system worked, then put together a rough training program of my own, which started one month later. During the next several months, I was able to rework and refine the information I was providing to campus.

Since then, I’ve expanded my repertoire of workshops to include several versions of basic reporting workshops: an advanced reporting workshop, several short “brownbag” workshops, and a practicum. In the practicum, I work directly with small teams or departments on campus to get them started in building their own reports and dashboards.

It’s very satisfying to see the people I’ve trained actually putting their new knowledge to work.

Q. From the learner’s point of view, what does one of your workshops look like?

All of my longer workshops (3½ hours) are hands-on-the-computer, instructor-led workshops. I follow standard pedagogical practices with adult learners. One of the keys to my particular workshops is tying the necessarily generic instruction to the learner’s particular specific situation from the beginning without getting so specific that other learners are turned off. With learners coming from across campus and with many different levels of knowledge, experience, expectations, and situations, it’s important that I am able to connect with each person on some level. One level that works for me is humor.

Let’s face it, some training can be mind-numbingly boring. Reporting training is one of those potential pits. However, with a touch of wit, a bit of humor, and proper pacing, even something as potentially dull as reporting can be made fun and exciting. Enthusiasm for the topic is important, too, even if you’re not “feeling it” at that particular moment. On some levels, I believe that all trainers are frustrated comedians or frustrated actors, and we all learn how to project that enthusiasm and excitement into our topics. Of course, it helps when you actually find your own topic interesting.

It’s also important to be very flexible and quick on your feet. Occasionally, someone throws a new question or scenario into the mix. However, having done this sort of training for a number of years, and having taught these particular workshops for a couple of years, I hear the same questions again and again. In situations like that, I feel it’s important to make the learner believe they’re the first one to ask that particular question while still conveying a high level of confidence in answering the question. Again, the frustrated actor or comedian comes out.

Q. Can you retell an awkward moment that you had to deal with in your workshop? How did you handle it?

Oh, lord.

We all have those awkward moments, and I’ve certainly had my share.

I’ve said stupid things, and I’ve said inappropriate things, and I’ve given completely incorrect information. You don’t make it through 20 years of training without having done all of those things and more. And I continue to do them as I continue to train new things to new people.

But you wanted examples.

Occasionally, I have to deal with Deans or Associate Deans or, very occasionally, senior Faculty. They can be very nice people, and can be very accommodating, and very willing to learn. Sometimes, however, their purposes in coming to my workshop and the goals of the workshop don’t match up.

For example, an assistant dean might be under some amount of pressure to provide a specific report to the dean. Tomorrow. That assistant dean’s objective, when they walk into my workshop, is to simply get that report built. And they want me to stop the entire workshop, ignore the other 11 people who are attending, and work on their report. Naturally, I can’t do that.

I am not the most diplomatic person in the world, but in a situation like the one I’ve described, diplomacy has to come to the fore. I have had to pause a workshop, ask the participants to take a short break, and explain to the individual in a one-on-one setting that there are other opportunities for them to get their specific needs met, but the middle of a workshop isn’t that place or time. Most often, the person understands, relaxes, and completes the workshop. Along the way, they will most likely learn several concepts that apply directly to their situation, and they are then able to return to their office and complete the specific task they had looming over them.

Once or twice, however, I’ve had that one individual who just wasn’t willing to recognize that the others in the workshop also had their own expectations of the workshop, and that we all had to compromise to reach our goal of completing the various tasks and covering the various concepts that are part of the workshop. I have had to take a short break, as above, explain the situation to the individual, then watch as that individual grabbed their personal items and walked out of the workshop. What they then end up doing is having their IT person – who attended my workshop six months prior – build the report for them.

Of the 2,000-plus people I’ve trained here at the University of Arizona, I can tell you truthfully that I’ve only had three people walk out of my workshops. One left because he already knew the information I was presenting. Two people in 30 months have left because they weren’t happy with my decision to NOT interrupt my workshop for their benefit.

Those are examples of others creating an awkward moment.

I’ve also created my own awkwardness.

The people I work with and train most often are University staff. They are highly trained, often well-educated, and truly dedicated people. But there is a gulf between staff and faculty. It’s similar to the gulf between nurses and doctors, or white-collar and blue-collar employees. It’s a bit of an “us-and-them” situation.

Because I do work most often with staff, that “us-and-them” attitude can creep into my vocabulary, or into whatever situation I might be explaining in a workshop. I may make a comment along the lines of “You know how faculty can be.” The staff people chuckle and nod knowingly at each other. However, when a faculty member happens to be in the workshop, and I’m not aware of their position, that makes things a bit tough for me. Usually, those faculty members also “know how faculty can be,” however, and they are able to identify themselves as faculty and chuckle right along with the rest of us.

On the very occasional basis when something like that happens, I turn to comedy again. But the rest of my comments will be about myself, and about my own foibles or strange thought processes or whatever else is needed to ease that bit of tension I’ve created.

So, if things do get awkward, and if that awkwardness is of my own doing, all I can do is shrug my shoulders, offer a public apology to the ‘wronged person’ in the workshop, and continue. My personal idiocy doesn’t detract from my professional knowledge of the subject matter at hand, and that’s important.

Q. If you were to codify your approach to such “nightmare situations” into a handful of bullet points, what might they be?

Hmmm. Interesting question.

1. Acknowledge that you are in the situation. 2. Begin to defuse that situation immediately, using appropriate means. Apologize, make amends, explain as necessary. I try to use laughter to relieve any tense situations, directing the laughter at myself. Whatever works. 3. Continue with the workshop. There’s no point in dwelling on the situation, once it’s been defused. 4. Defuse again at the end of the workshop, if necessary, and provide additional assistance, answers, apologies, or information. 5. Examine what happened. Once the workshop is over, take a few moments to figure out what happened, when, and why, and try to avoid those situations again in the future. They’re going to happen again, regardless, but you can do your best to avoid them.

So, that boiled down neatly into A/B/C/D/E. I didn’t start out with that in mind, but once I got the A and B, I thought I’d keep going. :)

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