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ATD Blog

Training During Challenging Times

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Meeting learners where they are is an industry best practice. Often, that means meeting them at their skill or knowledge levels. In today’s world, it also means meeting them where they are emotionally, which is challenging—we’re in a state of collective trauma. While we continue to battle COVID-19, we are confronted with continued incidents of racism and intolerance, combined with a war in Ukraine, acts of mass violence, and uncertainty about the stability of our constitutional rights. People are reeling; it’s hard to be a human these days.

The impact of such crises often reaches our learning events, affecting participants and facilitators alike. Even when our topic is completely unrelated to current events, we carry our concerns and pain into the learning environment. And, as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reminds us, if our basic need for safety is unmet, we are incapable of higher order thinking or growth.

What is a learning professional to do? How do we reach our learners, especially if we are gathered to transmit content rather than to process feelings? How do we appear strong and confident when we are struggling ourselves? Versions of these questions might be appropriate to ask your learners as well.


Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Before you can show up fully for others as a trainer, you might need to check in with yourself: How are you holding up? How can you practice some self-care to support your learners?
  • Consider adopting a new perspective while you are with learners. For example, you can think about your upcoming training session as a rare opportunity in our chaotic, external environment to have some control over events and outcomes. It can be a valued time for human connection, even if only related to the topic at hand.
  • Set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of your programs for small-group brainstorming about the question, “What do I need from myself and others to be fully present today?”
  • If you can’t spare the time to give learners space to talk about their emotional state as they enter your training event, you can, at least, acknowledge where they are. I’ve created a slide with images of some headlines that I share at the beginning of my programs. I say something to the effect of, “I understand that it can be hard to set aside what’s happening around us to be present for this course. I wish we could spend some time talking about how this is affecting you and might affect your learning, but I request that we set these things aside to be present for one another and our growth today.” Some people have asked if bringing this up creates anxiety. If anyone already feels anxious, they will feel heard. If anyone present does not already feel anxious, this acknowledgment is not likely to rile them.
  • Alternatively, address this broader context before convening the group. When people enroll, send a message thanking them for committing to their continued development even in the midst of challenging times.
  • For asynchronous learning, you could add a private reflection question at the beginning of your program, such as, “What concerns are you setting aside in order to complete this program?”
  • Clinical psychologist Sunitha Chandy suggests starting with vulnerability when asking people how they feel (for example, “I’m suffering with X. How’s it going for you?”). Otherwise, people will want to match your positivity. It’s okay to be human and say you’re struggling too. And, because you are human, you don’t need to position yourself as having any answers; simply creating space for these conversations and listening actively is enough.
  • Be empathetic and understand if participants need support during your training. This includes allowing them to take a break if they need one, accommodating missed sessions (or portions of sessions) with make-up opportunities, and only suggesting intersession assignments, rather than requiring them, when possible.
  • If you are delivering a class on leadership, team building, or communication, use your discussions of how they are feeling as a teachable moment with debriefing questions: How can leaders provide this space for their team members? What communication do employees need during uncertain times? How might choosing not to engage at this level with your employees affect the team?
  • Be aware that when having conversations like these, the spectrum of responses will be vast and varied, and you’ll want to have norms in place to help people feel respected and protected.
  • While you may be unable to assist learners going through trauma, their organizations most likely do have resources available to help. Be aware of these employee assistance opportunities in case the need for them arises.
About the Author

Sophie Oberstein has been a learning and organization development professional for more than 25 years at public and private organizations, including Weight Watchers (now WW), Columbia University Medical Center, Redwood City, and Citibank. Oberstein is an adjunct professor for New York University’s learning design certificate program. Her latest book, Troubleshooting for Trainers (ATD Press), describes 45 challenges in instructional design and how to overcome them.

You can reach her on LinkedIn at or via her website at

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