How to Deal with Difficult Participants

Posted on: February 28, 2019 Posted in: Coach Training

Some might say that having difficult participants is just a perspective. While that may be true, there are certain individuals who are tough to anticipate or prepare for. This can sometimes hamper the flow of your workshop or presentation. But keep this in mind, it means that there are people who are willing to engage in your workshop which is always a good thing. They are also looking for guidance, and might always not know the correct way to ask for it. You will have to work around those aspersions and get through to them, probably be a bit more patient with them than with the rest of them.

1.  Don’t Give Them Any Ammunition

Design your training to circumvent or anticipate any objections. In other words, don’t provide potentially disruptive participants with any ammunition. Says Shaun, a seasoned trainer:

“In our customer service training programs when we would talk about the importance of a smile, we used to occasionally get the cynic who would say, ‘I hate people who just have fake smiles.’ This, of course, had the effect of sidetracking the conversation into a negative and unproductive area.

All we did was add, early on, a lighthearted story about a service person with a grouchy look on their face and the impact it had on people. We say something like, ‘Jeepers – even if this person could work up a FAKE smile it would have been better!’ It gets a laugh, and nobody feels inclined to argue that a fake smile is worse than a genuine frown.”

2.  De-escalate the Situation

Call for a break, speak to them in private. There’s no need to give others a chance to get involved, let alone take sides. Once you’re talking to the “offenders” in private, ask something along the lines of “My impression was that you didn’t enjoy the session. What’s wrong with it, how can I improve it?”

In other words, try not to escalate things, approach them with an open mind.

3.  Remove Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Many people are naturally resistant to change because it leads to fear, uncertainty and doubt. If you are seen as a change agent, for example because of certified coach training program introduces change in the organization, people might also resist your training. A solution may be to show how they stand to benefit from the changes. If there are no obvious benefits to the employees, it may help to at least explain the reasons behind the change.

Kristopher, a professional trainer and coach, delivers training in a new technology. His strategy for dealing with resistance:

“I have designed my training and facilitation to relate a lot more to the learners’ experiences so that they can relate the material to something familiar. By taking this approach, I find that I can grab the learner’s attention and open their mind to technology or a task that will make their job easier. It doesn’t always work, but the common response from the learner is that they understand how it can relate to their job; they just don’t seem themselves benefiting from a task or device. I am fine with the response so long as they have stopped being disruptive.”

By explaining the benefits of change and the reasons behind it, you diminish the potential cause of disruptive behavior: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

4.  Change the Group’s Dynamics

If you encounter a disruptive trainee, try to change the group’s dynamics. One simple way of doing this is by moving them, tactfully, next to somebody else who you think might be able to play the role of mentor.

Lesley, an experienced coach and trainer, explains:

“I had a recent experience where in the first session the trainee was uncooperative, disruptive and totally uninterested , however in the second session she sat next to by coincidence one of the most enthusiastic guys in the class and he acted as a facilitator and managed to catch her interest by involving her in various discussions. This was helped also by group work, so I suggest find a trainee who is willing to act as a mentor, someone whose enthusiasm is contagious.

It really works.”

To get the right trainees together in one group, i.e. the disruptive participant paired up with the “mentor”, Lal Mathews suggests:

“Break for an activity: have the participants’ count 1 – 5.

Group 1s, 2s, 3s …. 5s together and so on.

A little math and some calculation can get the desired participants together.

Hence, as I suggested earlier: Take a break; don’t battle the situation right-away. Plan the numbering combination and then resume the session with an activity or just regrouping.”

5.  Set up A Straw Man

Another way to design your training with the aim to avoid disruptive behavior is to elicit the reasons for training from the group itself. Shaun explains:

“One technique that can work is using a ‘straw man’ to highlight the importance of a specific skill or principle. For example, if I’m doing training with a group of civil servants, I might play the devil’s advocate and ask the group, ‘So why should we even care about customer service? I mean, it’s not like our customers are going to go someplace else – so why even bother?’

Typically, the group responds exceeding well, and identifies all of the reasons customer service is important in their roles. This often has the effect of settling disengaged people down, when they realize that all of their peers in the room are serious about the topic.”