At Target Training we’ve been delivering “train-the-trainer” solutions for over 20 years to a broad range of clients across industries. Without fail, one of the most common personal training goals we see is “I want to learn to deal with difficult participants”. No matter whether you are delivering on-boarding, technical, safety or skills training, training starts and ends with your participants. As a trainer you want to deliver training which is engaging and useful … and as all experienced trainers know, a single difficult participant can impact this. This blog post shares our advice and experience, so you are better prepared to deal with difficult participants in the training room.
What do we mean by a “difficult participant” and how common are they really?
Training is about adding value to your participants and organization, by developing their knowledge, skills and behaviours. You want your participants to have a rewarding learning experience – and you have designed your training to achieve this. You’ve identified and considered the learning goals, you’ve considered the flow so it is smooth and ties together, and you’ve designed varied activities to keep the training engaging and rewarding. A “difficult participant, is a participant who hinders or prevents the above – intentionally or not. Difficult participants diminish the impact of the training for the other participants and reduce your organizations return on investment.
All participants have the potential of being difficult, and this depends upon a variety of factors – ranging from the context of the training to the training design, and from personalities to an individual’s situational circumstances. We all have bad days. However, truly destructive participants are thankfully rare. I’ve been involved in delivering training for over 23 years, and looking back I can only think of a handful of „difficult“ individuals. Unfortunately, I remember them clearer than the rest. So, what can you do? Before the training starts, you can minimize the risk of participants becoming difficult before the training even starts, through some simple steps.
Know who the participants are
If you are delivering internally, then get a list of the participants in advance and make the time to speak with their line managers. By doing this you can learn more about the “perceived” context for the training, and the participants knowledge, experience, needs and attitudes. If somebody is cynical, silent or a talker, then the line manager may flag this. Alternatively, just ask straight out “Are there any participants I should keep an eye on?”. You can also encourage the manager to speak with her participants and reinforce that they value training and have expectations. Line manager involvement is key to successful training (Clemmer 2008) and ensures your organization makes the most of its training investment.
If you have a chance to meet the participants before the session, you should take it. Give them an impression of who you are. Build rapport before they enter the training room. Introduce yourself, find out what they expect from the training and set their expectations („yes, unfortunately, there will be some role-plays“), or just make small talk for a few minutes. For you, the trainer, it makes a huge difference to walk into a room with ten strangers (not knowing what they want), or to walk into a room with five strangers and five people you already know (whose expectations you’ve already set).
Design the training so it respects and engages everyone
Use what you’ve learned from speaking with the line managers to ensure your training content is appropriate, relevant and challenging. By doing this you can minimize the likelihood of a wide range of difficult or disruptive behaviours – from boredom to frustration to challenging. You also want to ensure that your training respects the range of personalities and learning styles. Give your participants the opportunity to reflect, consider and contribute both as individuals and in groups. Plan “loud” and “quiet” times so both extroverts and introverts get what they need– not everyone enjoys brainstorming and discussions. Do consider the flow of energy within the training day and consciously design your training around this e.g. after lunch will you energize the group, or give them some reflection time to look back on the morning?
Anticipate tough questions, difficult learning points and likely areas of resistance
If this is a new training solution, then take the time to play “what if”. Write down all the questions that you hope they will ask, know they will ask, don’t want them to ask, and dread they ask. Then think about your answers. Practice your responses out loud and ensure your answers are brief, to the point and authentic. As the trainer you have a lot of knowledge and experience – and synthesizing all this into a clear and brief response can be tough.
If you’ve delivered the training before than you’ve already spotted the areas which raise questions or provoke discussions. Again, step back and consider what you want to say, how you want to say, and how much time you want to invest in which topics.
If there’s an elephant in your training room, then know how you want to tackle it
Keep your training human and keep it real. The circumstances surrounding the training can and will influence behaviours. If the organization is going through change, restructuring, laying off staff, or merging then you can expect this to impact attitudes and behaviours. You probably cannot influence these circumstances, but you can acknowledge them and prepare for possible resistance, push back or disassociation.
I remember delivering a 2-day leadership program to an automotive company where everyone knew that at the end of day 1 a major announcement would be made on the future of some plants. The training content was fixed and “motivating and driving performance “was a major part of the first day. We spoke about the circumstances openly, acknowledged that the topic was awkwardly timed to say the least, and agreed to reframe the training as practical management skills for the future, wherever they may be. Keeping the pace fast, the energy high and the themes as “archetypical” helped the training make a personal impact.
Reframe how you see difficult participants
Embrace the challenge of difficult participants. At its heart, training is about people, and we learn more about working with people from difficult situations than from “everything going to plan”. You want participants to be engaged and challenging you is actually a good thing. You want your participants to let you know if something isn’t going right for them during the training and not afterwards. And you want your participants to be themselves. I’ve only ever met one participant who I couldn’t work with at any level whatsoever, and even this was a learning moment – I learned that was ok, to accept the situation, and to focus on the other participants who clearly wanted to be there.
Always open the training in a way that sets out mutual expectations
Creating and agreeing on ground rules and shared expectations is essential. This then gives you and others the framework to hold each other accountable and have difficult conversations with difficult participants about difficult situations. Experienced trainers do this naturally and each trainer has their own style, but the core you need to agree on is
- Timing (start, finish, breaks and length of breaks). Even the most experienced trainers can forget this, and participants want and need to know what to expect. You don’t need to lock yourself in to a schedule if you don’t want to but telling them you’ll break for lunch “around 12.30” helps.
- Laptops open, closed, or even in bags. Phones are the bane of a trainer’s life, and when one person takes a call during the training everyone is impacted. Possible approaches could be
- at the front on a desk
- must be on silent
- in bags and only check in breaks
- take calls but leave the room before start speaking
Effective approaches to managing the pull of phone calls that I’ve seen/heard/ done have included:
- make a joke of it e.g. “Is anybody expecting a child to be born they know about? No, well in that case do we really need our phones on?”
- be direct e.g “Put your mobiles on silent and in your bags (not your pockets). You can check them during breaks, and if something is truly urgent your colleagues know where you are and how to find you. And if they can’t be bothered to come to the training room it can’t be truly urgent!”
- charity box “Everything you take your phone out you put X in the bowl up front”
- choosing a venue with no phone reception
And if none of the above are acceptable, then at least get agreement that people respectfully leave the training room when on the phone.
- Communication. If the training topic is likely to be contentious or difficult then it is worth taking time to agree on expected communication styles. e.g. try not to interrupt, ask question to learn and not to show what you know, ask if something isn’t clear, close the loop by asking clarifying questions back etc.
Agreeing on ground rules allows you as the trainer to refer back to the agreed expectations and have awkward conversations safely. And of course, all of the above approaches are much more powerful when the training participants build them themselves! This allows the participants to hold each other accountable and take responsibility for ensuring the dynamics are healthy. You can expect that colleagues can self-regulate behaviours to some extent!
Start the training by keeping it real and keeping things human
The final tip is that positioning yourself above your participants will create unnecessary resistance and provoke difficult behaviours as participants try to prove something wrong, reject messages because they reject your credibility, or fight to show they know more. You are the trainer and you are human. Use this to build authenticity, credibility and trust from the outset and reduce the risk of difficult behaviours derailing the training. Share your experience, build your credibility and also show that you know how it can be challenging at first to get to grips with the specifics (“ I remember when ..”).
If you are delivering soft skills, customer service or leadership training, then avoid presenting yourself as the example to be followed. Tap into meaningful stories, share experiences and connect with the participants on a human level. My own approach is to open our Practical toolbox for managers program with “ I strongly believe in the value of everything we’ll be covering in the next 2 days, and many of your colleagues have fed back that they found it practical. Saying that, as a manager, I do not do everything we’ll be covering myself. I’m human and I have my strengths and my weaknesses”. I then see the participant’ physically relax and open up.