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Making Experiential Learning Successful

Making Experiential Learning Successful

Making experiential learning successful has four discrete stages or steps. These are:

Step 1 – Build Rapport

While this is a matter of individual style and preference, what works for us is:

A) Acknowledge participants and thank them for their time

B) Introduce yourself with the good stuff and then admit to a big mistake (“So in my career I have been highly successful … But in 1998 I lost 95% of my life savings in one hit. What did I learn more from 15 years at the top or one year of failure?”)

C) Ask a universal experience question and get participants to comply … (Holding up your own hand “How many of you have made a big mistake in your life and learned something”. Ensure they comply by holding up theirs. “Thank you for your honesty. It’s what we call Experiential Learning … Learning by doing. Who would rather make a mistake in here that they could learn from rather than out there in the real world?”)

D) Ask plenty of questions, draw out answers and thank all respondents

Step 2 – Obtain Agreement on Key Rules

We state that we are going to play some games and ask participants “What do all games have” and draw out “rules” in addition to whatever else comes up. “Good, we have 3 quick rules for today” and flipchart (or pre-prepare):

  • Participation (The only failure is the failure to participate)
  • Responsibility (v lay blame, excuses, deny, justify etc.) “I am going to ask you to take responsibility for your own outcomes, behaviors, learning and your own safety” (We write up just the Responsibility V on the chart and draw out the strategies humans have for avoiding taking responsibility – mark up whatever comes)
  • Learn (see separate script)
  • After each chart ask if participants are willing to participate etc.
  • After all 3 charts are complete, ask again “So everyone is willing to Participate, Take responsibility and Learn (slight pause) … Anyone not”

You have now locked in those who would normally prefer to watch, those who seek to blame others etc. rather than look at their own behavior, those who think they know it all and those who think that they can sit on the fence by not saying anything.

Step 3 – Cover off the 4MAT styles … Why? What? How? and What if? people

The key group here is the “Why” people. They will not want to play until the why is answered.

Most of them will be satisfied by the frame-up in step 1. However to avoid any residual:

  • “Some of you may want to know why I do what I do. We have 2 pages of notes on experiential learning. They will tell you why we use color, music etc.” On longer programs let all participants read this for a few minutes, otherwise “we don’t have time to read this right now, is it okay that you know that it is there if you need it?”
  •  Get into a short game quickly to demonstrate to the other 3 styles. This will show them what you expect them to do, how to do it and what if they make a mistake, do something different etc.

Step 4 – Obtain Participant Buy-in

Flipchart participant benefits that are likely to be relevant to the training such as “Why Team”, “Why Improve Team Dynamics?” “Why Communicate Effectively?” “Why Work Successfully With Others” etc.

Be careful to draw out what is in it for them, not what is in it for the organization. You are looking to get their buy-in to the process. Make sure you draw out “FUN” and ask “Is it okay if we have some fun today too?”

During the Program

You can now bring them back to any one of these steps any time you need to. For example:

  • We use a simple strategy of tapping the flipchart any time a participant makes excuses etc. in a fairly light hearted way such as “Oh! So it’s my fault for setting you up is it?” Tap, tap, tap on the responsibility chart. “Is it okay with you all if I just tap the chart when anyone displays one of these?” Pointing to their list of responsibility avoiders
  • “I find that I have learned far more from the games I have stuffed up, than any of those where I succeeded!”
  • “Isn’t that one of the benefits you wanted from playing on team?”
  • Provide any additional “why’s” that are necessary along the way. Make sure you demonstrate games, tell people what to do and provide rules, where appropriate

Tips for Using Experiential Games

Understand what a Training Game is

A training game is a way of providing participants with a fun experience from which they can learn more about themselves and their interaction with their world. The game provides a safe environment to observe and participate. It is the natural way to learn. Young animals as well as children use games as a primary learning tool. As adults, learning by experience and experimentation is still every bit as relevant. A game has the power to concentrate real life issues into a compact activity devoid of the detail that often mask what is really going on.

Understand that Games are Metaphors

Well-designed training games are often powerful metaphors. That means, like stories, they can and do mean different things to different people. The task of the facilitator is to ensure that all participants get the message in the game that is relevant to each person and translate that message back to the workplace. In other words, the purpose of the game is to have participants see things differently and as a result positively change some element of their workplace behavior.

Facilitate what happens in the Game, not what you want to happen

You will be using the game in your training because you have a learning outcome in mind. In the majority of cases you will get this outcome. However, you will frequently get additional outcomes, and sometimes even very different ones, too. The key to successful games facilitation is to watch what happens very carefully and debrief the game according to the outcomes that happened not those that you thought would happen. Participants will hate you if you tell them what they should have done or should have experienced.

Allow the Game to work

The power of the games is that they will unfold differently every time and produce the learning outcome that the group needs. This can be spoilt by a facilitator trying to control the game too tightly. Relax, allow the game to work for itself, become the game tour guide not the game controller.

Have fun

Participants learn more easily and deeply when they are having fun. They will also be more forgiving of any mistakes you may make as facilitator if they are having fun. So keep your facilitation light, interesting and, above all, fun. If you have fun, so will they.

Draw out experiences

Games are very different from the normal “talk and chalk” learning at schools and lectures. The best learning is achieved by asking participants what happened in the game for them and what they learned from it. This makes the learning totally relevant to them. If you are in telling mode, they may well listen less and be less involved. Assist their learning by asking questions to draw out their own experiences in the game and how these are relevant to them.

Ask plenty of Questions

Whenever you feel like telling the group, or individuals, what happened or what they learned, stop, think and reframe what you were about to say as a question. It will draw people in, provided you make it safe for them.

Honor the experience in the room

Whatever a participants experience was, it was true for them. Use their experience to lead them to the learning. If they are making excuses for their behavior you may need to coach them carefully past this barrier.

Avoid making participants feel wrong

Few people enjoy failure and negative feelings can obstruct the learning process. Keep the game light and fun. Ensure that they feel like winners because they participated, had fun and learned something valuable.

Follow the Script

Individuals use one of three key representational systems to learn. Use their preferred system and the participant will learn easily. Roughly 45% of people prefer to see what they are learning; 40% prefer to “learn on the job” or do it for themselves; and only 15% prefer to hear what they are learning. Well-constructed game activities are designed to appeal to all three key systems. So when the script calls for written rules, verbal instruction and a demonstration, please use all three. As a general rule it is best to give verbal instruction first, demonstrate second and give the rules out last, otherwise some participants will be reading and miss the other methods.

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About John Radclyffe

John Radclyffe, Founder and Managing Director of WorldGAMES in Australia, is a rare breed of facilitator, trainer and consultant who has in-depth and hands-on experience in a broad range of skills; training, financial, marketing, new business development and business management among them.

View all posts by John Radclyffe →

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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