“How to” or “How not to”? That is the question.

Do you learn more from being told how to do something, or being told how NOT to do it?  There’s a nice question to ponder, about which my training professional readers could no doubt debate for hours.

This was not me.

I think most people intuitively go about helping others to learn by showing them how to do it.  It’s the way we learnt when we were toddlers – Mum showing you how to read and so on.  Imagine trying to show a child how to ride a bike, by demonstrating going too fast downhill, ramming on the brakes so hard you go flying over the handlebars, cycling the wrong way round the roundabout and so on.  A hazardous experience for the instructor, that’s for sure.

As someone who earns a living out of training people in effective behaviour, 95% of the time I attempt to model best practice, and have people observe and learn from what works (most usually by watching each other and sharing good experiences).

The trouble with this approach, it seems to me, is that the assumption is that I know what the best way is.  If I am explaining how to push for a better price when they negotiate, the unspoken agreement between me and the learner is that I am modelling good practice.  That’s quite a big assumption, and it puts me unwittingly in the role of ‘expert’ (not a role I take to that comfortably, generally speaking).

I wonder whether doing it the other way –  pointing out what doesn’t work – might be more effective and indeed appropriate?  Using this approach the learner can work out for themselves what might be the right way to do it.  This requires them to think harder, be more active in the learning, whilst at the same time reducing the pressure on me to deliver.  That sounds like a few good reasons to do it more often.

Which leads me neatly into the latest in a bunch of “How not to” videos I filmed recently with my old nutter friend Spencer Holmes.  It’s on the old chestnut of the annual appraisal, and we use the How not To approach again to get people to work out how to do it right.  It’s completely improvised and filmed in one unedited take, so we must be drawing on some deep personal experiences to pull out so many errors!   We reckon there are 23 major gaffes perpetrated by the Dysfunctional Appraiser, many of which you may have been personally exposed to at times over the years.  If you want to know what we think they are, let me know via the Comment box.

© bikingboy – Fotolia.com

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at www.hownot2.com
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9 Responses to “How to” or “How not to”? That is the question.

  1. Dave Loewy says:

    Hi Mike. Dave Loewy of Engaging Wisdom pitching in with my twopennorth! Our own common-sense, supported by neuroscience, is that our brains operate best when we aren’t stressed, and laughter is a great way to quickly reduce stress. So, laughing at the gaffes is a great way to encourage learners to think well. Evidence also shows that perceived status has a powerful impact on how the brain is operating. As trainers, when we threaten the learners’ status, by being the “expert”, then we reduce the learners’ mental function by making them feel inadequate. However, when we show people making mistakes, it raises the learners’ perception of their status, since they recognise the mistake and believe that they would not have done it. They feel higher status and enjoy positive neurotransmitters from this and from laughing, and therefore can think better. David Rock’s SCARF model is a great model to use to look at training approches from a neuroscience viewpoint. Please contact me if you’d like to know more.
    Finally, I think Christina makes a great point: Isn’t it about what works best for the learners? With many different learning styles and preferences, then getting learners into small, social communities to discuss and build on the points in the video – whether it’s how to or how not to – is what makes the training effective.


  2. christinapd says:

    Hi Michael. Christina here from People Discovery. As you know I used one of your other similar “how not to” video’s with a group of 22 MBA students on Thursday I have to say it went down a storm. Everyone laughed at the right time and recognised of course the “gaffes” (They actually came up with a flipchart full of post it notes about what went wrong, although there would be some duplicates).

    I think in answer to your question about “how to” or “how not to”. I once commissioned a video for an organisation about “how to” It was of course a mock up of an actual review in that company. It wasn’t universally popular, because a) I think it may have made people feel a little inadequate and b) it was a little boring. The problem is, the humour of “how not to” engages, and people can always laugh at another’s gaffe. I do think though they will go away and think about their own “gaffes” once they realise everyone would laugh at them if they only knew what they were really like in an appraisal.

    Having said all of that I do think some highlights or flashbacks about “how to” on certain pieces would be good to help people see “good” in action. Perhaps at the end of the “how not to”?

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks again, great stuff



  3. Karen Bail says:

    Hi Michael. Karen Bail here from the Centre for Career Development at ANU. As you know, we are going to use one of your “how not to” videos on our new performance management online learning module. It is perfect for us as it is short (5 mins) and punchy, with lots of obvious gaffes. Your new video, whilst entertaining, it a bit too long for us to use. And I am still very keen for a video of good practice as we would love to show the “how to” as well. All the best.


  4. Great to see you and Spencer again. Excellent videos. Wishing you the best as always. You are certainly one of the best trainers that I have had the honour and pleasure of working with.


  5. Ellen Collins says:

    Hi There. This is Ellen Collins from Goodfoot Training. Thanks for including me
    How Not To approach has not worked in the past for my groups as audience tend to revert to passive style and just have a laugh at the antics on screen.I prefer to focus on what to do well.

    Good Luck


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