You may have noticed that the most enthusiastic learners like to ask a lot of questions. That’s because they are proactively striving to make connections between what they’re learning and how it fits into their existing patterns and paradigms. And that’s key to effective learning.

So how can we encourage that kind of curiosity in corporate training and development programs?

Successful study programs encourage discussion, challenges, and even debate. There is a long-standing practice of discussion and friendly debate in several Buddhist traditions, where students question and challenge ideas, just as students of arts or science might discuss different theories and hypotheses.

Friendly questioning or challenging is not intended to demean or belittle the teachings or teacher; but rather, to extract the greatest possible learning value from them. Students normally question for deeper understanding, so it is important not to become frustrated with their questions. If something is intellectually unfathomable to the learner but open to behavioral testing, you may suggest that the learner try an experiment. Encourage learners to ask themselves “Can I put this into practice?”

If the answer is “yes”, encourage the questioner to try it on a sustained basis, or for however long it takes to experience the effects, and see what happens.

In my spiritual practice, for example, there are ideas that many find intellectually challenging. One of my early teachers suggested that rather than rejecting these ideas or views outright, we should try to contemplate the consequences and benefits of holding the view, meditate as though we firmly believe it, and then head out into the world with this new outlook firmly planted in our mind.

In other words, we experiment and see what happens. The same is true for what we might do if we are training as an athlete, or testing a scientific hypothesis.

As a manager or coach, you may also need to engage in this kind of experiment yourself. If you are working with employees to maximize professional performance, your efforts will be most effective if you can develop a mindset that allows you to believe in each person’s potential. This means assuming each employee can achieve substantially higher levels of performance with the right attention and encouragement. Developing this new mindset sounds simple, but can be very challenging.

I have challenged my own mindset by conducting behavioural experiments of my own. In one case I tested the view that everybody I meet is a friend – or a potential friend. Everybody. The auto mechanic. The cashier at the supermarket. All of the people in front of me in the line at the supermarket. The guy down the hall at the office. My brothers. The guys digging up my street. My sister. My sons. My girlfriend. My father.

I began to see the benefit, and my interest in – and motivation for the teachings – grew. I still cannot fully fathom how it works, but it does, and I no longer dismiss it out of hand.

I opened up to the possibility that there may be another way of looking at experience, and that there may be instances where what is “true” is not necessarily provable through logic or scientific observation. Encouraging curiosity through experimentation can be a very effective way to help learners answer their own questions and overcome resistance to ideas that appear unintuitive or difficult to understand.

To quote Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, “sometimes you actually do have to make stuff up that might be true, so that you can organize a research plan to find out whether or not it is… this is the creativity of discovery…”

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