Relational training and how to get to ‘flow’

Photo of a big waterfall

Waterfall near Sapa, Vietnam

Does it matter what trainers teach?

Over the years I have run training programmes for a wide range of organisations and institutions. Based on my experiences, I’m not sure if it matters what trainers teach as long as the learners can see the relevance of the content, and the style of the training is ‘relational’. I am borrowing the term ‘relational’ from coaching authority Erik de Haan, who says that the quality of the relationship between the coach and the coachee is key to the success of the coaching relationship. For me, the success of a training programme depends of the level of trust I am able to build within the group of learners, and between the group and myself.

Does it matter which methodology trainers follow?

De Haan believes that lessons from psychotherapy can be applied to coaching. When I was trying to decide which coaching methodology to practice, I was immensely reassured to read in de Haan’s book Relational Coaching that “according to the vast mount of experimental data now at our disposal” there is no difference between one psychotherapeutic approach and another. To be effective, de Haan says, coaches need to commit to one coaching approach, and focus on building a working alliance with the person they are coaching.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

The same principles apply when I am co-training. I believe the relationship between the trainers and the learners is key to the success of a programme or workshop. ‘Relational’ training helps learners to travel further towards their learning goals, and makes the learning stick. Years ago I went on a course about how to design and deliver participative training for adults. I still have a handout called ‘How to build a co-training relationship’. It contains a list of key questions that co-trainers need to ask each other before they step out in front of a group of adults. Using these questions has helped me to build a number of open, trusting and creative co-training relationships that are at the very heart of what I do.

Relational training and ‘flow’

Co-training, and being relational, is how I think trainers can help learning groups get into a state of ‘flow’. The main characteristics of ‘flow’ as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding.[1]

These are the key elements of all my most memorable co-training experiences. There comes a moment in a training programme where the group is totally engaged and involved in what is happening in the present time. At this moment I instinctively know what to say, or whether to stay silent. I feel I have the ‘agency’ to help participants to make sense of what they are experiencing, and to translate what they are seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling into something that has meaning and relevance for them.

For me, this is the most powerful and beneficial learning experience one can have because it is long lasting and transformational. People who have experienced ‘flow’ tend stay connected, and continue to learn and grow together long after the programme is over.

Getting to ‘flow’

How can you help a group to reach a state of ‘flow’? I believe you have to be totally committed to co-training and to working collaboratively. You have to do everything you can to build a working alliance with the participants. I also think you get to flow by demonstrating a combination of opposite behaviours:

  • Good planning and being able to depart from the agreed schedule
  • Starting where the group are at and encouraging them to push open some mental doors and windows
  • Sharing your own experience of the training content and holding your knowledge lightly
  • Demonstrating respect for the group, and for your co-trainer, and being able to laugh at yourselves and with the group.

Is relational training a kind of placebo?

Not at all. The point about relational training is that adults will always choose what they want to learn. When you build a working alliance with learners, you encourage and support learners to make meaning for themselves. And for me, this is the most effective way to learn.

[1] From the Handbook of Positive Psychology, C R Snyder, Erik Wright, Oxford University Press, 2001


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