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People often show up for a leadership course with expectations about HOW the knowledge will be conveyed (often through a lecture, consistently with previous experiences) and WHAT the structure of that knowledge will be (somehow external and objective).

Participants in those classes —especially top executives— love to keep the conversation at the cognitive and objective level. Peter Vail talks about an active pressure that exists in organizations to deliver institutional learning that is cognitive and objective instead of “feelings learning.” He says:

“The institutional learning model tends to omit all the deeper modes of learning and knowing and the help we need with these, not because the philosophy of institutional learning denies the existence of the deeper modes so much as that it lacks methods for conducting learning at this level.”

But if we are intentional and courageous enough to overcome the active pressure Vail talks about and decide to embrace learning as both a cognitive and emotional enterprise, we need to engage courageously with the following paradoxes for the sake of raising the quality of learning:

  1. If I meet learners’ expectations of a purely cognitive experience, we do not serve them well, especially in classes like leadership development or team coaching where the premise and purpose of the work is intentionally transformational and centered on personal growth.
  2. If we disappoint their expectations (and teach a kind of knowledge that is cognitive/emotional in nature and process), we may generate anxiety and force participants to renegotiate the social contract with us as authority figures, a contract that has often served them well for a long time.

How do we surface emotional awareness with the purpose of increasing the available data and options for self-empowerment for our learners?

While my answer is personal and relies on my personal purpose as an educator, here are a few ideas I have on the subject:

  • I acknowledge and understand the reality of my students’ expectations for lecture-style learning and cognitive teaching.
  • I declare that it is my job to deal with the emotional upheavals of unlearning, and I do it openly.
  • I build a clear contract with my students at the beginning of class, possibly in pre-course sessions or meetings.
  • I am ready to accept where my students’ emotional reactions are coming from and am ready to work with the emotional field in the class.

What if we reinterpreted learning as emotional work? What can that deliver in your classes?