The Big Picture: Four Different Ways of Participating

©1999 Gerald M. Weinberg

External consultants are seldom sent to classes by their customers, but often pay for their ownprofessional development. As such,they’re eager to get full value for their time and tuition.

Moreover, external consultants often find themselves as instructors in classes, in which case, they’re also interested in making sure the class goes well.

But not all classes go well, and often it’s because the mix of participants isn’t ideal. Or, to look at it another way, it’s because the instructor doesn’t know how to handle certain kinds of participants.

Our Problem Solving Leadership workshops are designed for professional development – specifically, to develop leadership abilities in the participants. Because leadership means so many things to so many people, our participants arrive with different expectations, so one of the first things we must do is clarify why each participant is in the room.

Over the years, I’ve seen students who fall into four categories – Customers, Learners, Visitors, and Complainers.1
Each type of student requires a different approach from the instructor.

A Customer is someone who arrives with a particular problemto solve, for themselves or concerning some other person(s) or situation.If a student is a Customer, it’s possible to gain a relatively cleardescription of this problem. Here aresome examples of Customer problems brought to our PSL Workshop:

“I want to communicate better with my customers when they are trying to tell me
their requirements.”

“I want to do a better job facilitating meetings.”

“I can’t handle my boss when she criticizes my work.”

“My teammates often don’t listen to my ideas,so that they misunderstand them and reject them.”

“I’m putting together a new project team, and I want to do it without making the
same mistakes I made last time.”

The participant as Customer quite clearly wishes to do something about this problem and is seeking help from the class and the instructor. All the instructor has to do to satisfy the Customer is offer a high-quality class. Most instructors wish for a class composed entirely of Customers, but it’s never that easy.

A Learner is someone who comes in without a particular problem to solve, but just wanting to learn whatever the class has to offer.Typically, Learners may state their objectives in ways such as these:

“I heard this was a neat class, so I wanted to learn what you had to offer me.”

“I’m interested in teamwork and how to build teams.”

“My best friend at work took this class and wouldn’t tell me anything about it except that I should come and learn whatever I learn.I like that idea.”

“I’d like to improve my problem solving skills (without mentioning any particular situation).”

Learners are fun to have in class, because they gobble up everything the instructor has to offer. They never ask that hard question the Customers may ask: “What’s the relevance of what we just learned to so-and-so.”

Nevertheless, they can be a danger to the class because they may drift off in any direction just because it catches their fancy.If the instructor gets distracted by Learners, the Customers start getting angry because they’re not getting what they came for.

A Visitor is an uncommitted participant, often involved in the class under some kind of duress, implicit or explicit, and usually because of the concerns of some other person. Typical statements by Visitors might be:

“My boss told me I needed to learn whatever this class teaches.”

“My company bought three seats in this class, and someone cancelled one of them, so they sent me to fill the empty seat.”

“Everyone in our department has to go to this class.”

“I can’t get promoted unless I’ve taken this class.”

The Visitor has no agenda to participate in class discussions, and works on any exercises in the most minimal way. Attempts by the instructor to improve the Visitor’s participation are likely to be fruitless or to lead to “resistance” that can be disruptive to the whole class.

Trying to capture the interest of a Visitor can easily distract the instructor from paying attention to others in the class who are not Visitors.

Instructors need to treat Visitors respectfully, always being open to their contributions, should they decide to start making them. If Visitors do contribute, honor their contributions with complimentary (but not effusive) feedback.Until they volunteer to contribute, however, avoid soliciting their participation or trying to assign them tasks.

They have to make their own choice to transform themselves into Customers, or at least Learners.

A Complainer does have a particular problem (or list of problems), specific or vague, either concerning themselves or about some other person(s). The Complainer’s problems may resemble the problems brought by the Customer, but it’s not clear that the Complainer actually has any wish or hope that these problems be solved. Often, the instructor can distinguish the Complainer from the Customer by the whining, helpless tone in which the Complainer presents these problems – often repeatedly.

Complainers don’t really believe that their problems can be solved by this class, or possibly even solved at all. Therefore, they should be treated initially as Visitors, with empathy. If they display any hope that something can be done about their problems, that’s the time to get them engaged in the class. Often, this display of hope comes in the form of a tentative question that doesn’t refer directly to the Complainer, such as,

“Could this technique be applied to dealing with a boss who doesn’t appreciate your work?”

“But this technique couldn’t be used on a project under heavy schedule pressure, could it?”

Understanding and recognizing the four types of participant is obviously helpful to you when your job is to instruct a class, but what good does it do if you’re a fellow student? And what if you’re not in a class, but just a plain vanilla contract professional working on the job?

As a consultant,I’m seriously interested in my education. When I attend a workshop, I want to get my money’s worth – because I’m paying my own tuition and I’m usually not getting paid for my time. (Sometimes I can get my client’s to pay me for attending a workshop, but that’s a subject for another column.)

Therefore, whenever I’m in a workshop, I watch my fellow students just as I would if I were the instructor. If they’re Customers, I watch to see that they’re shopping for the same learnings I am, because if they’re not, they may steer the workshop into areas that are not related to what I’m shopping for. If they do, I may suggest something to the instructor, such as, “I see that you and Val have a deep interest in this subject, but it’s not my main focus right now. Would you be willing to continue off line with those who are really interested?”

If some of my fellow students are Learners, I cautiously enjoy their excursions into the unknown, because I’m always partly a Learner myself. I do my best to protect them from overfocused Customers (including me), while at the same time keeping my own goals in sight. If necessary, I try to steer things gently, as by offering, “Thank you for that wonderful exploration. I was fascinated, and could probably spend all day exploring it. But I wonder if we couldn’t come back to the subject of …”

If the instructor has a Visitor or Complainer to cope with, I consider myself a junior partner of the instructor and try to help out, generally off line during breaks. This role comes naturally to me, since we usually lead our own workshops in pairs – one instructor “on stage” and one ready to handle Visitors or Complainers one-on-one outside of the classroom.

For example, in a recent workshop, one of the Visitors was using one of our breaks to try to recruit other students to his cause by convincing them that the workshop was a waste of time – which, of course, would make his boss look like a fool for making him attend. Once I recognized that he was a Visitor, it wasn’t very hard to turn the subject toward his problems with his boss, and away from deprecating the very professional job my co-instructor was doing. Eventually, he realized that he had a choice between spiting his boss by learning nothing, or spiting her by actually learning some things that made him a better professional.

And speaking of professionals, I don’t spend most of my time being a student or instructor, so what does all this have to do with my day-to-day work? If you’re a regular reader of this column, perhaps you know by now that I always have my own learning in mind when I negotiate an assignment. I firmly believe that when I stop learning, I’ll stop being a professional – so, I’m always a student.

Yes, I’m on the job to earn money by helping my client, but I’m also there to learn, so I’m always on the lookout for Customers, Learners, Visitors, and Complainers among my co-workers. I believe that any worthwhile high-tech assignment is too difficult to be accomplished without constant learning by all participants, so I’m always working to enhance the learning environment, for me and for the others.And, one more thing.

Like anybody else, I, too, am susceptible to these stereotyped behaviors:

  • becoming too focused on just the immediate job at hand (Customer);
  • drifting off the subjectinto interesting side tasks (Learner);
  • detaching myself from the importance of the assignment (Visitor);
  • feeling powerless and whining about everything and everybody (Complainer).

None of these roles enhancemy performance on the job, so I always try to watch myself, too – and bring myself back to a more professional and effective role.


1 At the suggestion of David Schmaltz, one of our PSL instructors, I adapted these categories from my teacher and colleague, Bill O’Hanlon. See, A Brief Guide to Brief Therapy byBrian Cade and William Hudson O’Hanlon ©1993 by Norton in NYC.

About Gerald M. Weinberg

For more than 50 years, Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg has worked on transforming software organizations. He is author or co-author of many articles and books, including The Psychology of Computer Programming. His books cover all phases of the software life-cycle. They include Exploring Requirements, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, The Handbook of Walkthroughs, Inspections, and Technical Reviews, and General Principles of System Design. His books on leadership include Becoming a Technical Leader, The Secrets of Consulting, More Secrets of Consulting, and the Quality Software Management four-volume series. His book, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, appeared in 2005. His first techno-thriller novel, The Aremac Project (Dorset House), will appear in 2007. Email Jerry or visit www.geraldmweinberg.com to read excerpts of the Shape Forum. Picture (c)2004 Steven M. Smith
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