Author Profile Picture

Julie Cooper

Spring Development

Programme Director

Read more from Julie Cooper

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

The Reticent Participant


If you’ve got this far in your training career without coming across the reticent participant, you’ve been lucky. By reticent, I mean the ones who let you know that they’d rather be somewhere else, and you can tell that not only do you not have their full attention, but they are not going to contribute much to the session.

 Reticent participantIrksome? You bet! I guess from their perspective they think you  can ignore them  and carry on regardless- after all, there are plenty of other delegates in the room  to work with. Only it doesn’t work like that- one set of ambivalent vibes in the room is all it takes for the atmosphere to be tainted for everyone.

I learnt this lesson very early in my career when I was running an evening class. One lady brought a friend who wore a permanent cynical expression, and only spoke if she had something to disagree with. The next term everyone came back for a second course – except these two ladies. You wouldn’t have known it was the same group. Suddenly there was an energy, a buzz, enthusiasm, laughter… just vibrancy.  I was pleasantly surprised. I suppose that they had all felt restrained for fear of being shot down by Mrs Sulkyface.

Nip it in the bud

I resolved there and then that never again would I let a situation like this carry on for so long, which can be easier said than done. It is straightforward to take action when you have clear signs of something amiss, but most of the time these folk are borderline offenders, engaging sufficiently for you to reserve judgement. After all, some delegates are shy, and take longer than others to feel at ease, others arrive with misconceptions but can soon be won round.

The action you choose to take depends on the type of reticent participant you are dealing with.  I’ve noticed four categories over the years:

 The Arrogant

They think they know it all already and make sure that you know that have no need to engage. They feel they should be doing more important things, and make sure you know.

 The Manager

Sometimes managers have to do the same training as their underlings. Some of them consider this a waste of time, pay lip service and switch off, some have even tried to catch up on work during the session. they let you know that they are not there to learn, just to ‘show their face’.

 The Underconfident

They worry that they won’t keep up, expect to not understand so often don’t even try. They think their best defence is to sit at the back, watch the clock, and hope you leave them to count the minutes in peace.

 The Diverter

They enjoy the opportunity to work with a group and may well have been deprived of an arena where they can air their views. Over enthusiasm causes them to turn every exercise is round to their own agenda.

As a trainer, the top two categories exasperate me the most. We all know that learning from peers is much more effective than learning from the trainer, so by opting out, Mr Arrogant and Ms Manager are depriving the group of possibly the richest resource in the room – their knowledge and experience. To be unwilling to share with colleagues is a pretty big sin, in my book. (I’m assuming here that the arrogant are in fact knowledgable – they aren’t always. One man told me I could teach him nothing about CVs because his wife was a secretary. Hmmm.)

The Underconfident are often brought into the fold by the rest of the group. Most delegates rally round the struggling, offering encouragement and support.

The diverters need to be managed, before either the whole session becomes about their agenda, or the rest of the group get fed up and tune out.

  So what can the trainer do?  

Obviously every group and course is different, you will need a repertoire of approaches that fits well with your personal style and the situation.  One decision you will need to make early on is whether to address the issue as a whole group, or find another way of having a conversation with the recalcitrant delegate.

 Address the group

You can revisit the ground rules, or the aims for the day to remind everyone why they are there. Personally, I dislike it when a group is addressed and everyone knows the remarks are aimed at only one person – avoid this. It may be easier on the group leader, but can make the whole group uncomfortable.

 Join part of the group

If you need a better handle on what is going on, this works well. Divide the group into pairs or threes to complete a task. You can observe to see if everyone is participating, sometimes this is enough to get everyone involved. If you are still concerned, join the group that has your reticent participant in it. This brings a sharp focus to their participation, and gives you the chance to see if they are actually willing and able to engage with the activity.

 One to oneunderconfident participant

I usually find that it is better to have a one to one conversation. I’ve been known to declare unscheduled tea breaks to give me the opportunity, or you can use an activity where everyone needs to work alone. This only works if the room is big enough to be able to spread out, or you will find everyone can listen in.

As in most situations, it’s best to start with open, non judgemental questions or statements to give the delegate a chance to tell you what is really going on.

You can try “How are you finding the session so far?”

“You seem a little distracted. is there anything I can do to help?” 

Often there is a real reason behind the behaviour, such a health problem, or bad news distracting them.

Or, you can do all of the above!

 The Biggest Mistake

The biggest mistake I have made is focusing all my energy and attention on the person I am trying to win round. How is that fair on all the eager to learn delegates? Don’t they deserve the lion’s share of your efforts?  More than once I’ve kicked myself on the way home for allowing it to happen – surely it’s akin to rewarding bad behaviour. Far better to deal with the situation promptly than to neglect the rest of the group. How do you deal with the reticent? I’d love to hear of some other techniques!

This is a from my guest blog at Unimenta, as their expert in workplace training.

Julie Cooper of Spring Development is an author trainer and coach, specialising in one to one skills. You can find out more at

Her new book, Face to Face in the Workplace, has been described as  “A must have for every manager”   Special offer: Unimenta members can buy Face to Face in the Workplace at 20% discount by using the code ‘Unimenta’ at the checkout here:

 She has also co-authored books for advisers, coaches and mentors, including The One to One Toolkit and  The Groupwork Toolkit . You can find out about them here:

Author Profile Picture
Julie Cooper

Programme Director

Read more from Julie Cooper

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!