The Role of the Trainer

Approaches to training are wide-ranging and diverse. We do not intend to take all the different possibilities into account in analysing the approach to training, but instead aim to present our experience and explain how we understand the role of the trainer in the training that we organise.

Training  organised  by  CNA  is  led  by  teams  of  four  trainers,  though  sometimes,  due  to various circumstances, their number may be three or five. Members of the team are responsible for designing the training, preparing and conducting the workshops, selecting the participants, monitoring the work of the group and as well as their own, documenting the training, and taking care of various administrative tasks. We sometimes hire an additional person for some of the logistical and administrative tasks. The reason we point this out is that it seems this approach is not all that common. To our knowledge, other training organisations usually separate logistical, administrative and training tasks and assign them to different people.

The following is specific to our way of working: 1) the team has a horizontal structure, i.e. all decisions are made by consensus, and 2) there is always a team of trainers, never a single person in this role. Apart from the amount of work that would be overwhelming for a single person, the reason we always use a team is the diversity of experience this brings in terms of different personal approaches and styles of work, and most of all, the need to support each other through honest, constructive criticism.

What is the Trainer’s Job?

Teamwork should probably be the first item on the terms of reference for working as a trainer. A coordinated team and the atmosphere they build through their communication and cooperation greatly influences the harmony and work of the group as a whole. Harmony and coordination in this case is by no means intended to be uniformity or groupthink, but entails intensive and open communication, owning up to your strengths and weaknesses, pointing out problems in a timely manner, transparency in what you expect from colleagues, openness to mutual differences and potential disagreements, and much more besides. Essentially, it means caring about people. A poor working atmosphere among the team, when mutual support is lacking and conflicts are not approached constructively, is automatically transferred to the whole group and the joint work of the training. It is practically impossible to work on building trust and developing dialogue in such an atmosphere, which inevitably robs the training of meaningfulness.

The most obvious part of the job is conducting exercises and workshops. It requires the ability to give precise instructions for exercises in simple language, to facilitate discussions and moderate processes. This in turn entails a host of other tasks: keeping track of who wants to speak and respecting the order of participation in the discussion, monitoring the level of energy and engagement in the group, adapting the programme to the situation in the group and the team, making room for and subtly encouraging the more reserved participants to actively engage in the work, guiding the conversation to keep it on-topic, as well as opening space for issues that interest the group, not imposing your own opinions and making sure others don’t either, tracking the communication flows and atmosphere in the group and the training team, supporting and encouraging participants who for whatever reason are struggling with the process, and subtly guiding the process of acquiring knowledge through questions and insights and by offering personal experiences. In brief, having an overview of the processes in the group, the processes in the team, keeping track of what has been covered and what is still left to cover, and balancing all these aspects. The whole team is responsible for the course of the workshop. If the workshop consists of a series of exercises, one person will usually be responsible for conducting the exercise, so that the participants will know who to address when they want to contribute. This does not mean that the rest of the team can take a nap. If they have not been given a task beforehand, they should at least monitor the processes and participate actively.

In addition to the training team, the participants also bear responsibility for the course of the workshop and the processes under way. The team sets up the working framework, but the participants are the ones who fill it with meaningful content. The most successful training courses are the ones where the team manages to transfer as much responsibility to the participants as possible: so they open up questions, decide collectively on something that is important for the whole group, present their proposals and observations, react without prodding if they are bothered by something instead of waiting for the training team to react, come up with their own initiatives and organise them, so that they are active and absolutely present. The easiest approach to training may be to have the training team control everything, but it isn’t clear how this approach can lead to meaningful training, because one of the main goals is to empower people to act, and this will be difficult unless they are given responsibility and an opportunity to practise.

Part of the work of the trainer that may be invisible but crucial is the thorough preparation of training and workshops. That is why we have devoted the whole of the next section to this topic.

The training team is also responsible for taking notes and collecting materials from the workshop. The notes, all the written materials from the workshops (wall newspapers, etc.) and workshop descriptions prepared beforehand are collated as training documentation. It is primarily useful to participants as a structured reminder; some even use it as a guide for initial attempts at creating and conducting workshops or dialogues, but it is also used internally by CNA. Even when the ultimate goal is not documentation, it is still important to take notes, and especially to write down important issues that remain unexplored, as well as personal questions, dilemmas and reminders. The training is far too rich in terms of content and process for us to be able to count on remembering all of it.

Another characteristic of our approach is that the training team actively participates in the workshops,  on  an equal  footing with  the  other  participants, and  that  they  always  participate in introduction exercises and in most discussions and exchanges of personal life experience. This bridges the gap between the training team and the participants, and goes towards creating one big team. But it is not the only reason we do it. We believe that with our insights and experience we can contribute to developing dialogue. The topics concern us personally, so it is important that we participate in dealing with them. Moreover, we are not cold professionals setting the group a task and then stepping back to watch the process unfold, instead we step into the fray ourselves in order to work together towards finding ways to deal with different problems in society, because we are part of that society too. We are part of the problem and part of the solution. However, it is very important that we take care not to dominate, not to take up more space than others, not to make our opinion out to be the most important. In the role of trainer, we must create space for other people’s voices and for dialogue, so it is sometimes more important to keep quiet and let others use that space for expression. After all, we have more opportunities for that.

At the end of the day, after the workshops, the training team does an evening evaluation. Its purpose is for the team members to exchange observations, evaluate the workshop against predetermined objectives, discuss which important questions were opened up and which were not. And if they were not – was it due to discomfort or fear within the group or was it simply for lack of time, and which questions do we need to make sure we get back to? This is when we exchange our observations about the group, about who perhaps needs more support, whether there are any specific issues or difficulties, we discuss the work of the team and other issues of importance, what was useful, what could have been done differently to be more effective, how we feel about the day, how satisfied we are with our mutual support, what kind of support we would need in the future, etc. In brief, we discuss four interconnected aspects: the content of the workshop (topic), the group of participants, cooperation within the training team and any personal difficulties.

After evaluating the day just gone, the team reviews the day ahead (or several days ahead). Even if the workshops for the next day have been prepared beforehand, it is still important to go through the plan and see how it fits the situation in the group and the team, how well it connects to what was done earlier, whether any adjustments are needed, whether any new priorities have cropped up that require setting up the workshop differently, if there are any issues that require special care.

No matter how tired the members of the team are, they should not skip the evening evaluation and planning the next day. On the other hand, even if you are feeling enthusiastic and quite up to it, it is important that the evaluations are time limited in order to preserve your own energy and that of your colleagues. Because it is almost certain that you will be tired the next evening. In case of particular difficulties or personal conflicts, they should be given priority on the evening evaluation agenda. You may have done the best possible planning for the workshop, but if the working atmosphere isn’t right, all that careful planning will have been in vain.

At the end of the training, the training team should conduct, in addition to the evaluation conducted together with the participants, an internal training evaluation. The set-up is similar but the internal evaluation takes into consideration the entire training and its objectives; major observations are exchanged, we discuss how satisfied we are with how we dealt with any difficulties, whether we could have acted differently, what was particularly useful, etc. An important part of the evaluation is noting lessons for the future.

When the training team finishes the evening evaluation and planning for the next day, the evening’s socialising will probably be under way. Your job description does not require that you join in. However, even if you are very tired, it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to talk to people in an informal setting, for your own sake and theirs, and for the sake of the training itself. Human contact is indispensable: it is where the best ideas, plans and joint actions originate.

Beginners may often feel that the role of trainer brings with it too much work and too much responsibility. But take it slowly, and don’t impose expectations on yourself that are too high. As our colleague Goran Božičević once said (and as we keep repeating), no one will expect you to drive a tractor with a trailer full of children up a meandering mountain road in the snow. You are not alone: you have a team that will share all the ups and downs with you, and the participants may also prove to be a source of support. If the team lacks more experienced members, this may indeed present too much of a challenge and should be avoided. And if it cannot be avoided, then it is best to start with less demanding topics and workshops. And let me repeat: do not set your expectations of yourself too high.

There is no model for what a trainer is supposed to be like. People of diverse traits can be skilled trainers: quick, slower, milder, sharper, patient, impatient, witty, serious. And even skilled trainers are sometimes not to the liking of all the participants, because people have different affinities and sensibilities. This is another reason why it makes sense to have a team of trainers: when you have four different people, at least one will probably have a temperament to the liking of the sensitive participant.

It is very important that the members of the training team do not pretend to be something they are not. It is best to be as honest and as transparent as possible towards the participants, the team and with yourself. If you are doing an exercise for the first time and you are not sure how it will go, it may be useful to tell the participants, or if you have stage fright, or if something has distressed you. Most people will not hold this against you, and you will gain invaluable trust. Conversely, the trainer should never manipulate the participants, set themselves above others people or the situation. We do not set up any exercise or workshop just to see how the participants will react, to ridicule their reaction or to offend. Training is not a place for experimenting with people, as tempting as that may sometimes seem. Such games are contrary to the ethics and values of nonviolence which should be the bedrock of working with people. Serious damage can be caused otherwise.

To start off with, until you master all the above skills, it seems most important that you love the job, have a feeling for working with people, have enough flexibility for teamwork, that you do not fear making a mistake and that you are open to criticism and constant self-examination. In addition, it is extremely useful to be familiar with the different contexts people come from, the dominant national narratives, existing prejudices and taboos. And to treat people with dignity.

Composition of the Training Team

For our Balkan context, it is very important that the members of the training team are of different nationalities, i.e. that they belong to different ethnic groups. It is not important that they themselves fully subscribe to these identities or treat them as important. Most people will automatically categorise them into an ethnic group, at least initially, until they have a chance to hear them and get to know them. A mixed training team helps to build trust, which is one of the first objectives of the training.

It is equally important that the team is gender balanced, with an equal number of women and men. Since we live in a patriarchal context, a predominance of men can pose a difficulty. This can be off-set by having women take a more active role in order to serve as a model for or to offer support to the more withdrawn women in the group.

It is also important that the team members feel good in each other’s company and that they are satisfied with their mutual communication. This does not mean that there has to be unconditional “loyalty” or that people should refrain from criticism, but simply that they trust each other enough for open and intensive cooperation. We have the privilege of choosing the people we work with and having them choose us. If you are unable to do this, it is crucial to have several days to plan the training and invest as much time as you can into getting to know each other’s approaches and building trust within the team.

Our teams usually include at least one person with somewhat less training experience who is given space to acquire additional experience and build their confidence in conducting workshops.