Learning is a fragile thing.
It is a biological process that happens in the brain. Provide the wrong stimulus and the brain responds by shutting down the learning process and instead protecting the human body.
In order for people to learn something, their basic needs have to be met first. They must feel like the learning environment is safe and that they won’t be threatened or embarrassed. If not, they cannot learn.
When Learning Can’t Occur
In the 1990s I worked for Keep America Beautiful and Keep Texas Beautiful, both nonprofit associations. We dealt with environmental issues on a daily basis.
Often our audiences were citizens of local municipalities. Announce that you’re going to put a landfill or waste management plant near someone’s neighborhood and you can watch the fireworks fly.
We frequently were called in to help facilitate friendly conversations about these environmental issues. We had to be trained on how to navigate the minefields that audiences bring with them when they have low trust (didn’t trust governmental officials) and high emotions (my kids are at risk of health hazards.)
This is currently the situation brewing with ASAE’s announcement of the 2012 opening general session speakers of James Carville and Karl Rove. ASAE’s goal is to educate members on political advocacy and the current political landscape.
Some members are thrilled. Some are ambivalent. Some members don’t trust these politicos. Those that don’t trust them feel that one or both of these men have discounted and harmed them in some way mentally and emotionally.
These two speakers are already alienating part of the membership. Some of the members are offended that ASAE would actually pay these two men to speak. While ASAE’s goal to educate is admirable, the goal will not be achieved for all because it is a low trust, high emotion environment.
Creating An Emotional Ambush
Our brains are hardwired to protect us from predators. Our evolutionary brain’s primary goal is to keep us alive and help us survive.
Years ago, our brains were trained to respond quickly to harmful situations. If we encountered a lion in the jungle, our amygdala flooded our bodies with adrenalin and cortisol. We responded with a fight or flight reaction so that we could live. We didn’t have time to analyze and evaluate the situation. It was important to react quickly to protect ourselves.
When we encounter a new situation, our amygdala scans the environment to ensure that it’s safe. If we feel that the situation will be unfair or that we will be threatened, we default to an emotional amygdala ambush. We move into a fight or flight syndrome. And all learning comes to a halt.
Our logical brain defaults to our amygdala in every situation. The amygdala acts as a traffic cop letting us know if the circumstances are safe and fair.
Hiring The Wrong Speaker Can Halt Learning In Its Place
The best emotional state for learning is curiosity, motivation and excitement.
If you secure a speaker that intentionally or even unintentionally alienates part of the audience, learning stops dead in its tracks for some. The amygdala goes into action and takes over the body.
Your challenge is to find speakers that promote hope, affirmation, excitement and even surprise so that the audience’s brains don’t default to an emotional highjack. Then they are open and even curious about what the presenters have to share. Then they can learn.
What recommendations do you have for hiring the right speaker that puts the majority of your audience in the right emotional state? Do you think a controversial speaker will ever benefit your audience’s preconceived perceptions?