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7 Superb Psychological Tactics for EHS Training

By Maurizio Delcaro
Published: February 6, 2019
Key Takeaways

Safety training is more than just telling workers about facts and procedures; it's also about understanding their perspective.

Source: Dave Bredeson /

Like all training, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) training is a type of public speaking. And there’s a lot of psychology at play in the realm of public speaking. Employing some tactics that use simple psychological concepts can help trainers improve the effectiveness of their training. It can make a good trainer great, and a great trainer outstanding. Heck, even I may someday break the barrier of mediocrity if I use some of these tactics!

1. Be the First to the Battle

Arrive early. There’s no such thing as too early! Have everything completely set up before the first learner arrives. This establishes dominance – in a good way.

This is particularly effective when a learner with a Type A personality arrives half an hour before everyone else, like some sort of predator setting up an ambush. Are they there early because they’re so eager to learn or are they trying to show you who’s the top dog? Well, it won’t matter when you’re the first one there! As the U.S. Civil War general Stonewall Jackson used to say, “Get there the fastest with the mostest.” That’s right, be like ole Stoney and stone ‘em cold (don’t worry, you’ll be warming them up soon enough)!


Of course, we all know that we’re supposed to be punctual, but have you ever thought of using that extra lead time to recruit some allies? “Allies for what?” you may ask. Keep reading – the answer is only a few paragraphs away.

2. Recruit Allies

Establish a dialogue with those who show up before everybody else. Greet, smile, engage. Why should you do this? Because you’re not anti-social. And, it’s a good warm-up, especially early in the morning when you may not have spoken to anybody yet. It will also provide you with some extra firepower during the opening stages of your training offensive. You’ll see.

Do not forego an attempt to engage early arrivals. You’ll only have a brief window of opportunity to establish a dialogue with these chosen few. Eventually, a bunch of folks will arrive all at once and you won’t be able to effectively engage them in the same way.

When engaging your trainees, be yourself. Your approach should not be scripted or rehearsed; this is a barrier and Type A’s may see you as an adversary. Not good – remember, you’re looking for allies. Just make small talk and be friendly and happy, though don’t push it or be too forward; some may perceive this as awkwardness. But you have to let them know you’re there. And if you can successfully engage them, especially if you make them smile and like you, then you’ll be able to reap the rewards that allies bring to the cause.

3. Leverage the Association

These folks weren’t just the very first ones in the room; they were the first in a room that was ready to roll – ready to roll with your program. Why? Because you arrived so early that the room was completely set up and you achieved righteous dominance. Compared to those who will arrive 40 minutes later all in one bunch like a herd of sheep, these allies were there from the beginning, like longtime pals. Ah, associative dominance.

Though they may not know it, these allies will be more likely to promptly and positively respond to your approaches during the opening salvos of your delivery than those whom you’ve not engaged previously. And they’ll tend to exhibit more positive body language, too. The importance of this can’t be overstated. When others observe this – and they will – it will help lower their guards, too. Psychology is a heck of a thing.

Calling on your allies is most effective when done early on, for example after the ground rules and outline. When you want to show that you value participation, what better way to encourage it than to trigger it from the very beginning by going to a few of the folks who feel fairly comfortable with you addressing them? That’s why establishing a dialogue with a few early arrivals is so beneficial: it helps with training by breaking some of the psychological barriers that exist in a formal learning environment. Observers will see that you’re at ease with others and that people are not hesitant to interact with you.

But try not to go to any single person more than once; many in the group will get wise to this tactic real quick. As Napoleon said, “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” You’ll only call on your allies a few times, so it’s not much backup, but its effectiveness is far greater than the short duration of the effort would suggest.

Calling on these allies is just one of many ways to leverage the principles of group and organizational psychology, but it’s simple and can be done with little planning. I know some public speaking professionals who are geniuses at using group psychology in advanced and incredible ways, but this is a tactic that even a relatively inexperienced EHS trainer can attempt.


4. Motivate!

It’s not enough to have great content. We’ve all known subject-matter experts who aren’t very good at communicating. It would be best if others don’t have that impression of you when the course is done!

As a trainer, you can’t forget that many people have had negative learning experiences. Convince learners that they won’t fail, there are no wrong answers, we’re all here to learn – we’ve heard it all before. Well, there are some effective and practical ways to minimize negativity, maximize positivity, and motivate learners that you can employ at your next training venue.

Most people like to be propped. Acknowledge the relevant skills, knowledge, and experiences of those in attendance. You may not know them personally, but if you know their job titles, then you should have an idea of what they’re good at. In your own words, communicate that, while you may be the so-called subject-matter expert, your knowledge is minimal compared to their collective experiences. Unless you’re Da Vinci, this really should be the case! Let them know that the course is what it is because of the participation of everyone who’s ever attended—again, this should be the case for any continuously improved curriculum.

If you keep positive comments on-point, reflective of actual vocational talents, and intended to truly benefit the training, then your props shouldn’t come across as disingenuous baloney.

Encourage participation, but not just in a general sense. Be clear on how you would like them to participate. As with feedback, requests that are specific are much more likely to elicit meaningful responses than vague ones. Encouraging learners to assist you in resolving others’ questions and concerns is an effective (and specific) way to encourage their participation. Especially once you have ascertained their technical proficiencies, you’ll be able to further detail how some of them will be well-suited to helping others in particular topics.

5. Keep the Momentum Going

When the bulk of the course content is underway and those in attendance seem content, motivated, and willing to participate, then the session has a good chance at being a great one. A trainer needs to keep the momentum going and not lose interest (and possibly also learner motivation). Easier said than done; this is as difficult a task as motivating learners in the first place.

A simple way to keep momentum going is to become a part of the group of motivated learners. And the best way to be part of a group is by not being on the other side of a physical barrier from that group.

Avoid creating physical barriers in the same way that you would avoid creating psychological ones. For example, don’t stand behind a table (or any other object) for very long unless the room is so small that you absolutely have to. Think of a table as a barrier, because it is one. The trained part of our brain knows that it’s a table and what it’s used for. The caveman survival part of our brain sees a barrier object consisting mostly of straight lines, which do not frequently appear in nature – a man-made barrier. And you’re not only not part of the group, but also the only being on the other side of the barrier, which makes you the “other” group by default. Now the few remaining caveman neurons in a learner’s brain can correctly assess this as an “us vs. them” scenario, and you have introduced a potential barrier to learning.

I wasn’t sure of this barrier thing when I was a younger EHS trainer. A Certified Speaking Professional (the other type of CSP) convinced me of how foolish I would be if I didn’t take it to heart. I played around with it a little in some training venues and learned that he was absolutely correct.

Another way to maximize momentum is to keep the content and ongoing discussion focused on what learners need to know and to avoid material that is merely nice to know. This was one of the pitfalls I stepped into a lot when I was new to formal training duties. A lot of valuable time can be gobbled up by addressing topics that aren’t essential, or by allowing learners to take the course off topic. When you realize that’s happening, get it back on track ASAP or folks will begin to tune out real soon.

6. Maintain Morale

Napoleon said, “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” The Emperor sure valued morale, and all EHS trainers should, too. Not leveraging the motivation you built up in a group of learners to maximum effect is unfortunate, but it’s not the end of the world. Heck, it happens a lot. However, there are some behaviors that EHS trainers must always try to avoid because they will destroy learner morale.

Never talk down to learners or speak with a condescending tone. There is no scenario where this is acceptable. Trying to bridge the psychological gap caused by this type of rude behavior is likely to be a bridge too far for most reasonable persons who observed it.

Also, never reprimand or otherwise embarrass a learner because something they said was incorrect or not on-point, even if you’re not trying to be rude. I advise the opposite: when a learner inadvertently blunders, cover for them! Immediately zero in on anything they uttered that was factually correct or was interesting because of a particular perspective. The goal is to immediately draw everyone’s attention away from the blunder. It minimizes their embarrassment and it’s the right thing to do.

When you provide some blunder cover, others will know exactly what you’re doing, especially those who are more well-informed. Unlike some of the psychological tactics utilized to maximize learning, this one is going to be completely obvious to folks, but that’s okay. This is one of the most reliably effective ways to build trust and prove that you are a professional in any group setting. A factual error is not nearly as psychologically powerful or memorable as behaving like a person with a heart. In time, folks will forget a blunder. But it’ll take longer for them to forget how you embarrassed the person, or ideally, how you mitigated their embarrassment.

Body language can also negatively affect morale. For example, don’t cross your arms when conversing; it’s a barrier symbol. Especially when a learner is speaking, it can convince others that you don’t approve of what that person is saying. Well, maybe you don’t, but you shouldn’t be expressing it with body language for all to see and interpret. If seated, avoid the know-it-all posture: leaning back and placing your hand behind your head. (Ever want to know who the know-it-all is during a meeting? Look for that body language. You’ll see.) And don’t be that person when learners are observing you. A book or two on body language is a super investment for any EHS trainer; observing body language is a great way to gauge learner interest and attitudes toward you during training, which will help you to change things up when necessary to maintain motivation and morale.

7. Halt!

All good things need to come to an end every once in a while. How long have you been reading? Hopefully not more than 10 minutes. Most of us begin to tune out after about 20 minutes of listening and only about half that when reading. There’s a reason why Safeopedia has guidelines for how long articles should drag on, and hopefully this one hasn’t made you sleepy. If so, think of those who’ll be in your next class. Or, maybe I’m trying to make you sleepy… It’s a psychological tactic, an experiment in perspective. Yeah, that’s it!

Ideally, a course should not go more than about 50 minutes without a break. Ever notice how college courses are 50 minutes in duration? Ever notice the longer ones break about every 50 minutes? Don’t torture learners by trying to go longer than an hour without a break, even if they are highly motivated. If they are truly highly motivated, then they won’t have a problem getting back into the topic after 10 minutes off.

Here’s an easy one to remember: the 90/20/8 Rule

  • 90: The average person can listen with understanding for only about 90 minutes
  • 20: But, they’ll only be able to listen with retention for 20 minutes
  • 8: Involve learners every eight minutes or lose them!


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Written by Maurizio Delcaro

Profile Picture of Maurizio Delcaro

Maurizio believes that a commitment to operational efficiency at all levels of management is the greatest factor in maximizing safety and productivity. His EHS and risk management experiences include transportation, construction, environmental remediation, and OSHA, and he moonlights as a part-time university instructor. Maurizio is credentialed as a CSP, CET, OHST, and CHST with the Board of Certified Safety Professionals and CEHT with the National Environmental Health Association.

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