The Role of Ego in the Adult Training Room

13th January 2016


by Fiona Malcolm, Associate Consultant: Dip.C.Hyp. NLP, MA, DELTA, CELTYL, Trinity TESOL, BA Hons.


‘So, just how do you ‘trick’ people into liking you so much?’ asked a Project Manager after I’d delivered a TKT Course in Tripoli for Libyan Teachers to resounding applause at the certificate ceremony, with personal gifts and notes of thanks received. Genuinely perplexed, ‘What do you mean ‘trick’? I asked. ‘Well, it must be all that alternative stuff you do that gets them on side so much, unless you just hypnotise them?’. I chortled aloud and began one of many conversations to come regarding the role of ego and its management in the adult training environment.

Adults bring a lot of personal history with them into the learning environment. It’s not as simple as understanding whether they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. An acceptance and understanding that as adults their personal history from infancy to now has shaped them into the people sharing space in that moment, and with that comes defence mechanisms they have learned or established along the way, often based in fear – fear of losing ‘face’, making a mistake or feeling out of their depth.

The Adult Ego can move from being negative, self-centred, controlling and a desire to be in control of everything to the opposite swing of the pendulum where the Ego is weak, dependant and will not take responsibility or claim what it desires (Thesenga, 2001). To support this being expressed allows the Ego to feel safe and therefore the defence mechanisms can gentle or cease altogether. Negotiating clear and reliable boundaries within the learning environment supports ego differentiation, and being appropriately self-revealing creates an engaged and trusting relationship between the learners and the learner teacher dynamic. (Johnson, 1994)

It is helpful to be able to identify these ego-defence mechanisms, both in ourselves and in others, particularly in the classroom. We all need to save face sometimes. In teaching situations, it may be possible to tactfully address the issue in a way that is helpful and non-threatening. Change can happen smoothly if the adjustments suggested are small and achievable.

The Angry One: can be angry and belligerent or verbalises angry words or intent in a question.

Possible responses: “You seem really angry. Does anyone else feel this way?” Remain calm and polite, move physically closer to the person, maintain eye contact, and always allow him or her a way to gracefully retreat. If hostility surfaces, remain calm and in control, and try not to take it personally.

The Arguer: disagrees with everything you say.

Possible responses: “I appreciate your comments and I’d like to hear from others.” OR “It looks like we disagree. That’s not a problem for me.” Do remember that your tone and body language also convey meaning, so exhale, smile and maintain gentle eye contact.

The Assassin: trying to shoot you down or trip you up.

Possible responses: Admit that you do not know the answer and redirect the question to the group or to the individual who asked it. There is strength in admitting when you do not know something, there is weakness in defending your corner and attempting to bluff your way out of a question!

The Politician: loves to hear own commentary and opinions.

Possible responses: Again, “It’s time we moved on to the next subject” OR “I’d like to hear from others.” Be sure to acknowledge their expertise on the topic.

The Rambler:  this learner prevaricates around a question but never actually asks one.

Possible responses: “Are you asking…?”

The Stealth Subversive: quiet, but body language or gestures are not supportive: eye-rolling, checking their phone, looking at the clock.

Possible responses: You can confront directly with something like “You seem like you don’t agree with this information, is there something you’d like to share?” Or in the case of looking at their phone, the best strategy is to physically move closer to the person.

The Talker: there are several versions of this problem learner.

Possible responses: acknowledge the comments, limit time to express their viewpoints, and if need be, say something like “I’d like to hear from some different people.” OR “I understand your view, does anyone else have a different one?” and then move on.


Let us not forget, another Adult Ego in the room is that of the facilitator! How can you manage yourself to support a safe and creative learning environment? (Rogers, 1986)

1. Interpersonal Interaction: This is the ability, and belief in the value of, using interaction as a teaching modality; the facilitator must give up some control over the teaching process and its outcome by recognising that the participants share the leadership of the teaching process as well as the responsibility for its success or failure.

2. Professional Intimacy: This is the capacity to reveal personal thoughts, values and emotions to the learners; demonstrating tolerance of divergent opinions and values; comfort relating to people of different levels of education or professional status; and non-judgmental acceptance of learner statements and opinions. Being appropriately self-revealing humanises the facilitator and strengthens the human connection between all. (Rose, 2000)

3. Moderating Tension Level: Good trainers monitor the tension level in the group. This is accomplished by using a relaxed conversational tone and being approachable and sincere through your facial expressions, tone of voice and choice of words. Humour is also a useful tool as long as it is genuine for you.

Awareness of yourself and others is key, once you understand the behaviours and possible triggers they are simpler to defuse. The Adult learning environment does not need to be a challenging one, enjoy it and enjoy your participants – they will thrive with you as you expand your consciousness and compassion.

Fiona Malcolm   Dip.C.Hyp. NLP, MA, DELTA, CELTYL, Trinity TESOL, BA Hons.


Johnson, S. M. (1994). Character Styles. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rogers, A. (1986). Teaching Adults. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Rose, C. (2000). Accelerated Learning. Aylesbury: AL Systems.

Thesenga, S. (2001). The Undefended Self; Living the Pathwork. Madison: Pathwork Press.




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