Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the Broadway hit Hamilton, was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by Terry Gross recently, and he said, “The theater should always be a safe space. … I think one of the things that makes theater special is, first of all, it’s one of the last places you put your phone away, and second of all it’s one of the last places where we all have a common experience together.”
This is also true in our classrooms. It is one of the last places people put their phones away (unless we are using them during the training), and one of the last places where we have a common experience together. Just like in the theater, our classrooms are filled with people of diverse races, religious backgrounds and generations.
As trainers, facilitators and educators, our job is pretty cool. Why? If we do our job well we give people a safe place to come together for this common experience – to learn, grow, and support each other in becoming the best version of ourselves.
A few years ago, I was delivering a two-day presentation skills training for a research and development group at a pharmaceutical company. There was one woman – Beth – who was visibly nervous, and when she didn’t come back from our first break I was worried. As I was looking for her in the hallway, she came out of the bathroom and shared that she thought she was going to get sick from nerves. We found a quiet place to sit down and she told me her story.
Beth said that she had been extremely shy all of her life and avoided speaking in front of groups. She had avoided every work presentation that came her way, even though she knew it hurt her chances of moving up in the company. She was happy to have other people present and even take credit for her work if she could avoid presenting. I asked her why she had decided to take our class, and she said she was getting married in three months and her parents were throwing a large Greek Orthodox wedding with 300 guests. She said, “I cannot walk down the aisle with all those eyes on me and speak my vows in front of all of these people. I’m terrified. When I saw that this class was being offered I thought this is my chance. Can you help me?”
This is why it is very important that we, as trainers, create a safe place in our workshops where people can participate and maintain dignity. We need to create an environment which allows participants to try new things and not feel like they are going to be “voted off the island.” We were able to create that space for Beth as the group came to together to support her – and each other. This group intentionally became a safe place to learn, laugh, and at times “fail forward.” In short we became a community.
I saw Beth blossom over the next two days as she presented multiple times both formally and informally. She began participating in more group discussions, and her body language started relaxing and projecting more authority. It was awesome to watch.
Three months after the presentation skills class, I received a thank-you note with a picture of Beth beaming next to her husband at their wedding. On the back of the picture she wrote, “Thanks to you and our class for believing I could do it. I’ve never felt happier.”
She rocked it. Yep, our job’s pretty cool.
Amy Glass Krimsky is executive vice president of BRODY Professional Development. She is co-author of Leadership Presence: The Influential Intangible (Career Skills Press 2014). Email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.