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Why Is It Important to Know What Learners are Thinking and Feeling?

By Denise Renton, ILG Contributor

Using Empathy to Create Impactful Learning

At the end of 2020, a colleague and I were recapping the year’s experiences and the abrupt shift that had to occur in learning for many companies. In particular, we’d both noticed how often the word “empathy” had come up in client conversations, and in industry articles, blogs, and podcasts. Empathy seemed to be the focus of leadership, human resources, and teams. While this should be no surprise given the turmoil many people were going through in their personal and work lives, it’s also admirable that among all the issues companies had to address due to the pandemic, there was acknowledgement that empathy was integral to forward progress.

As a performance consultant, being empathetic to learners is a given. It’s one of the traits in our toolbox that guides our decisions on what learners need to perform optimally. However, when I really started to think about it in the context of the type of empathy required to get through 2020, and probably 2021 as well, I realized we may not go far enough. Or we need to be reminded to keep empathy for the learner top-of-mind.

Why empathy?

Empathy is a phase in design thinking and an important consideration in learner experience (LX) design, user experience (UX) design, and learner analysis. But what does it mean to be empathetic in learning? Empathy is more than what learning and development (L&D) people and business leaders believe learners need. It’s more than working with a subject matter expert to get the content of a learning solution right.

Empathy goes beyond incorporating best practices, like ensuring learning in the workflow, and identifying the best delivery methods to get to knowledge and skill requirements. It goes beyond bridging the gap from current to future state. It goes beyond the cells in Gilbert’s model. For empathy, we have to get inside the head of the learner; we have to shift our perspective to that of the learner’s; we have to step outside the frame of reference that we, L&D, the business, and the company believe is best, and get inside the learner’s frame of reference. And then we have to act on what we discover.

A great tool for getting to empathy is the empathy map created by Dave Gray. If you search empathy map in images, you’ll find many versions tweaked for marketing, web design, learning, and more. A great one to reference is Dave Gray’s revised version. The map asks us to interview actual target audience members to find out not only about pain points, gaps, and goals but also what they’re doing, seeing, saying, hearing, and most importantly, what they’re thinking and feeling.

Often, we know what’s going on outside of the learner’s head — in his/her role, in the environment, at the company — but not what’s going on inside the learner’s head. What does she really think? What does he really feel? This is a huge reminder to always include target audience members in the instructional design process. After all, what’s being created is ultimately for them.

Empathy in Learning

In the whirlwind that was 2020, two medtech/life sciences client projects in particular stand out for me as examples of ensuring empathy in learning.

  • New hire onboarding: By interviewing new hires who, by necessity, had to attend a virtual version of the previously in-person onboarding workshop, we were able to learn first-hand how the experience made them feel. While new hires were understanding about the sudden switch to virtual, we also learned that they felt adrift and unconnected, confused about next steps in their learning, and disengaged from the mission of the company. This allowed us to design a blended solution that included a learning journey map to guide them; several interactive Zoom sessions that focused on not only content, but also getting comfortable with the Zoom technology and engaging with each other in meaningful ways; follow-up activities designed to continue fostering connections with others; and a final virtual reconnection with their original new hire group.
  • Virtual facilitation: While scrambling to address the needs of learners, this client also recognized the needs of facilitators who were used to delivering in person with little experience delivering virtually. Interviewing facilitators as learners, we discovered their fears about what could go wrong virtually, concern about lack of knowledge of virtual meeting technology, feelings of inadequacy about keeping learners engaged, disconnection from online learners, and disbelief that virtual facilitation could be as effective as in-person. By designing a blended solution of video, e-learning, workshop, and performance support that addressed head-on how facilitators felt and what they were thinking, the client ensured facilitators were comfortable with virtual facilitation, recognized its merits, and were even looking forward to engaging with learners in a new way.

Last year, we needed empathy, and so far, 2021 is no different. Acknowledging the thoughts and feelings of learners and ensuring our learning solutions address them will go a long way to making life a little better, learning more impactful, and companies more attuned to employees’ needs to ensure engagement and satisfaction that is integral to continued growth.

Denise Renton is a freelance instructional designer and performance consultant. She has more  than 30 years’ experience in the training and performance improvement industry. Denise was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2012 to 2021.

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