Canals and Locks

Once the water level inside the lock is the same as the level outside, the lock gates be opened and the boat can proceed on its journey.
In a similar way, when 2 people are communicating, it is only when they are at the same level that can they freely exchange ideas.

As long as I am talking down to you or vice versa, there can be no equal exchange.
This can be both physical and psychological.

The trainer standing at a whiteboard in a typical school classroom set-up does not promote an equal exchange of ideas. 
Physically the teacher is on a higher level than the students.
1 master - many followers:  that is not equality.
This works perfectly well when the flow of information is only going one way, like a stream running downhill, from teacher to student.
However unless the student is a particularly 'energetic salmon', prepared to try to swim upstream, this scenario is not conducive to ideas flowing both ways.
It is likely to produce very passive learners, who are unlikely to challenge the flow.
(And as the saying goes 'Dead fish only float one way')

As an example, I remember an experience I had as a student.
By nature I am a fairly timid soul; however on occasions I can screw myself up to be assertive.
At Music College, I was called to see the Principal to discuss an issue I had.
In his office he sat behind his big desk, with only one other chair available, which was in the middle of the room a couple of meters back from the front of his desk.
If you can picture that situation you will realise immediately that this set up does not encourage an exchange of ideas between humans of equal value:
on one side there was one older man in a position of power (college principal) sitting in a big chair protected by a heavy status desk,
and on the other, a young man of lesser status (student) on a simple chair (same design as most of the other chairs in the college) sitting out in the open with no physical protection.
Realising on some instinctive level that this lay out would not help my cause I picked up the chair and moved it up to the edge of his desk.
Now his protection had also become my protection and by leaning forward onto his desk I could raise my eye-line to the same level as his and explain my position.
I remained polite and friendly throughout, but physically I was now in a position that said I needed to be heard as an equal: the water level was the same on both sides of the desk.

The point of this example is to emphasise that as trainers we should always be aware of to what extent our situation allows us to interact with our students.
Be aware of your status, both physically and psychologically and if you genuinely want a free exchange of ideas as equals, make sure you do everything necessary to put yourself on a level both physically and psychologically that allows that to happen.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.

To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here