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ATD Blog

5 Tips for Training the Untrainable

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Your materials are prepped. You’ve practiced the content inside and out. You’re ready to deliver a best-in-class training program. No matter how prepared we may feel, our profession is guaranteed to present us with the unexpected. So how do we pivot when faced with learners who don’t see value in the program, who don’t buy in to this timely investment? How do we train the untrainable?

Here are five tips to address training the untrainable and achieving those performance results we strive for.

1. Maintain Composure

Embrace the following mantra: “It’s not about me.” Rinse and repeat as necessary. As trainers, we’re used to maintaining our composure in unexpected events, but it’s more essential than ever when training the untrainable. If we practice assuming good intentions on the part of learners, we establish a mindset that allows us room to forgive the behavior presented in the moment and focus on bringing the learner along with us, despite any obvious (or even hidden) resistance.

2. Categorize the Untrainable

Let’s be clear, we aren’t talking about generalizing or limiting our learners. We’re talking about leveraging what we know from Benjamin Bloom’s categories of learning and assessing which category is making our learners untrainable. Thinking about where the resistance begins can give us a place to start. Then, we can properly assess whether it’s a knowledge issue, a skill issue, or if we need to put on our suit of armor to affect that attitude change.

3. Build Empathetic Connections

Allowing our interactions with learners to begin from an empathetic place allows us to relate to our learners as humans and fellow professionals as opposed to resistant learners. What we know is that they may in fact be prisoners or vacationers in our training events; but finding that out as quickly as possible and thinking of how we can bring them along in a way that suits them can build a substantial connection that allows for learning to happen.

4. Accept the Challenge

Some people (myself included) love a challenge; some would rather not be faced with them. As trainers, we must accept the challenge of training the untrainable with confidence—confidence that our toolboxes are equipped with the skills and knowledge (and a little empathy—see the previous tip) to look at that untrainable learner as a challenge that can in fact be overcome.

5. Break Down the Barrier

Establishing buy-in by calling on what we know about adult learning theory means that we need to make time for setting expectations at the beginning of the learning event in a way that is less pedagogical and more about facilitating the input to set the parameters of the learning. This goes hand in hand with having people prioritize their own learning with goal setting, identifying their WIIFM (“what’s in it for me”), and assessing their learning by asking questions like, “How will you apply this concept back on the job?”


We know adult learners are self-directed and value relevance. To overcome resistance from our participants, we need to help them establish the criticality of the skills and knowledge we are arming them with. Strive to transition every learner into a natural explorer.

To learn more, take a course with Carrie. She facilitates:

About the Author

Carrie Addington is the senior manager of learning experience and facilitator development at ATD and facilitates a variety of ATD Education programs. She is a talent development leader, facilitator, and people development coach with more than 12 years of experience in facilitating large-scale training and developing outcome-based learning experiences that aim to inform, involve, inspire, and impact. Carrie is passionate about using her love of language and the arts to work with individuals on establishing deeper connections with their daily work. Carrie has worked with a wide variety of business segments, including retail, beauty, education, and nonprofits, and has worked with C-level executives, directors, managers, and high potentials.

Carrie has delivered on topics ranging from energetic accountability, leadership, and great feedback to cross-generational communication, resolving conflict, and facilitation skills. She is a part of the coaching network with the prominent, global executive leadership and management company, the Mind Gym, and is a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. As a certified ATD Master Trainer and ATD Master Instructional Designer, Carrie is knowledgeable about both the development and delivery of outcome-based learning programs.

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