Friday, October 24, 2008

Being unfazed

When I was a new Mom, one of the (countless) pieces of advice someone gave me was not to gasp when my son fell down. If I did that, it would give him the impression that something serious had just happened and he was more likely to be upset by it. The recommendation was that I should let him decide how much pain and/or distress he was in and then deal with that. I quickly learnt that a very reliable yardstick was the length of the pause between the first wail and the second: the longer it was, the greater the distress the lad was feeling.

As far as my child was concerned, I was solid ground. If I went to pieces, it must be catastrophic indeed! It was a tough one to master, because I am dramatic by nature (not to mention squeamish: I once passed clean out with my injured son in my arms, because his skull was clearly visible through a laceration on his forehead), but I did my level best.

Calvin's Mom obviously adopts the same approach - most Moms would be quite shaken to hear that their child had almost been eaten!
Many years later, I had cause to apply this principle when running introductory IT literacy programmes for terrified older users. Many of them were afraid to do anything for fear that the computer would 'blow up.'

On more than one occasion I said gently to a nervous silver haired newbie, "Let's put this into perspective. This computer cost (insert figure here). That's a lot of money to spend on something that's going to blow up at the push of the wrong button, don't you think? What do think the chances are that the manufacturing company would survive if they built machines that did that?" I knew that they were in no position to understand a more technical explanation of why it was unlikely that the machine would burst into flame, should they accidentally hit Backspace instead of Delete.

I also learned not to show any distress when a user did something monumental. Few of them did, but it did happen occasionally. Much as my kids had done, the terrified user would be watching my reactions to gauge the seriousness of the incident. I do exactly the same on aeroplanes. I hate flying and am engulfed by fear every time the plane hits an air pocket. I watch the staff's body language like a hawk (and I'm pretty good at body language), alert for any signs that they are paying even the slightest bit of attention to the movement of the plane. They are my litmus. I knew that I was the litmus for my learners, too.

So even when a learner jammed a floppy disk into the CD drive. Even when a learner accidentally accessed a porn site (and it was accidental - she was mortified). Even when a learner started formatting the hard drive. Even when a learner spilled coffee all over her keyboard. No matter what they did, it was always an equable, "Oh dear. That's not so good. Let's see how we can fix this."

Our learners need our reassurance that nothing is beyond redemption - especially if they're new to a field or concept.


Wendy said...

So very true. I have found that at least 90% of the resistance I encounter in class is a result of fear. Mostly fear of looking stupid. Then - fear of hurting the computer.

I start every class with -
"You ain't gonna hurt it. Mistakes can be fixed. Just some mistakes are fixed faster than others."

I've also made it a policy to be brutally honest about trouble-spots and things to watch out for. No point in hiding weaknesses of an application.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Wendy Couldn't agree more. When the company I was rolled out Office XP, I made no bones about telling them that the help facility in this version was very daunting to unconfident users (ugh. Such an unfriendly interface for the barely IT-literate - you should have seen the figures on our helpdesk!) I encouraged those who fitted that description to use the index in the print version of my course manual instead.