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Training Difficult People


From time to time trainers face the ‘difficult’ participant: the one who doesn’t want to be there, or doesn’t care; the one who won’t shut up, or won’t speak up; the misery guts, or the joker, the know-it-all, or the ‘doesn’t want to know’. TrainingZONE members share their experiences and coping strategies with Dawn Smith.

“If you don’t give people a reason to kick up they usually don’t,” says Mike Morrison, Director or RapidBI Ltd, who believes that for the most part, taking preventative measures such as showing respect to participants and giving them airtime will stave off any chance of unpleasantness in the training room. However, the difficult participant comes along occasionally, and there’s no single response that works every time.

Sometimes, people can appear difficult without meaning to, says Bryan Edwards at
ABC Training Solutions Ltd. “For example someone who comes across as negative may just need someone to point out this behaviour and coach them in a more positive manner,” he says. A delegate may be difficult simply because they have problems outside the office, in their personal life, he adds. Other participants may appear unresponsive because they are shy, or pedantic because they like things to be explained in fine detail.

Often, however, negative, disengaged, or disruptive behaviour is a result of participants not being interested in learning, and only taking part because they’ve been coerced, or because they see the course as a way of getting out of the office and messing around with their friends. Rich Lucas at Supremacy Training, who has written various ezine articles on the subject, categorises these types of participant as the ‘prisoner’ and the ‘timewaster’.

Whatever the cause, trainers agree that the starting point to tackling difficult behaviour in the training room is to try and establish the reason behind it.

Getting it out in the open
One approach is to ask people outright at the start why they are there, says Rich Lucas. This can be enough to break the ice and reduce the tension. After that, you “can ask about ways that you can change their perspective and give them value from the day,” he adds.

Richard Nugelt at Kaizen Training adopts this type of approach when faced with a negative or disengaged participant, and believes there is no such thing as a difficult delegate, only an inflexible facilitator. “If someone is being difficult it means I haven’t met their needs,” he says. “I have a transparent conversation with them about what they need to make the session really valuable to them.” As well as being effective, this strategy is also “a more resourceful place for me to be,” he adds. “If I just stand up there and get pissed off with the person it gives them all the power. If I believe they are being difficult because I haven’t met a need in them it is absolutely in my power to do something about it.”

Karen Drury at fe3 consulting has taken this open approach with an entire group, when conducting a presentation training session with eight senior executives who didn't think they needed to be trained in presentation skills, and had been instructed to attend. “About ten minutes after walking into the room, I'd realised that most of the people were there under duress and boiling mad about it,” she says. “I decided it would be better to have it all out in the open. Having had their say about the way they'd been coerced into the two days training, how busy they were and how pointless it all was, they seemed to relax slightly, and after a general discussion about the need to make the training as business-focused as possible, they started to participate and respond.”

Having a quiet word
When an individual is rocking the boat, rather than the group being up in arms, a more discreet approach is favoured. “If someone decides not to participate in a way which disrupts the activities, ask them what the problem is, although proibably not in front of the whole group,” says Karen.  Mike Morrison agrees that “pulling people aside and having a quiet word” can work sometimes. Bryan Edwards comments that when giving feedback in private, trainers could try using E.E.C.: “Example of what you observed, Effect of the behaviour on the rest of the group, and Change – what Change would you expect.”

Rich Lucas advises: “Say that you worried about the tension between you and the offender and apologise if you have done anything to upset them, but you don’t want anything to come between the group’s learning and if they could leave any ‘challenges’ to the end/kerb their behaviour... This should do the trick… you’ve marked their card in a nice way and shown that you won’t stand for it.”

The power of peer pressure
Sometimes, pressure from the rest of the group can pull a delegate up short. Mike Morrison witnessed this effect when faced with a disruptive particpant on a two day course who “never got back from a break on time, slowly sauntered in and made sure his entrance had an impact, chatted to people around him, got his phone out and started texting, took a phone call and walked out to answer it.” Mike ignored the behaviour, but found things improved after he set an overnight group activity which the delegate disrupted by leaving early and arriving late. “He got a lot of peer pressure back for that,” says Mike. “By the end of the workshop he came up to me and said how much he’d enjoyed it.”

A strategy used by Bryan Edwards is to set the usual session groundrules - such as no talking over one another; listen to contributions; be positive etc – and put these in full view. “Putting the ground rules on a flipchart and in view for the rest of the workshop can help,” he says. “Certainly if the trainer gets people to agree to the rules, then this can help with self-policing as delegates remind each other of the rules, when abused.”

Karen Drury adds that if someone objects to what she’s saying or disagrees with the training content, she asks the views of the rest of the group. “Often peer pressure can make them behave - or at least shut up for a while to give you a breather! Negative behaviour is also something I'd ask the group to ‘leaven’ by asking if everyone felt that way; quite often the group itself will try and ‘jolly’ the individual along.”

The last resort
“If a delegate decides the training is not going to be valuable to them, even after we’ve discussed the ways we can try to make it useful, then I give them the opportunity to leave,” says Richard Nugent.

Karen Drury also regards this as a final option if trying to engage a difficult delegate hasn’t worked. “If they still don't participate, and it's getting to the stage that they're disrupting the group, as a last resort I have asked people to leave,” she says. “ I'd choose a break on a one-to-one basis, rather than during the training, and never in front of the whole group.”

Mike Morrison has found that this stragegy can actually turn things around. “I once asked someone to leave,” he explains. “I said that they were signed in, and as far as I was concerned they were present all day, so why didn’t they just go. That changed their behaviour. They decided to stay and they stopped playing up.”

More tips from the training room
While the person who doesn’t want to learn may be the trainer’s nemesis, there are other types of challenging behaviour that are encountered from time to time. The trainers we talked to gave us their tips:

“Someone once told me that cynics are just really passionate people who have been hurt too many times before,” says Richard Nugent. “A cynic might just need a bit more evidence or reassurance. I say to a cynic: ‘how can I prove to you that this isn’t just another fad?.’ After that, there is often a shift in their perception of me. They many not believe the company will follow through on it, but they believe that I believe in it. They might then turn into the person who asks the most crucial questions, or becomes totally engaged in the process and acts as a catalyst.”

Dominating the proceedings
“If someone talks too much, don't look at them (and implicitly invite their comments), but ask others for their views,” says Karen Drury.

A person who appears pedantic may be what Rich Lucas calls a “a specific communicator”, who needs more information than most. “There are two types of a communicator,” says Rich. “A general communicator will take the information on and assimilate it later. On the other hand, you have a specific communicator; these individuals want to know the ins and outs of everything. To us as trainers, they can come across as difficult and pedantic! But this is rarely the case. The best way to engage a specific communicator is to be specific yourself, leave no stone unturned. If you don't have time for this, do it in the break.”

“I find one of the most difficult behaviours to manage in training is that of shy people, who won't get involved because they're afraid to speak up,” says Karen Drury. “I've found that putting people into pairs will mean that the shy individual can still participate in activities, but won't necessarily need to speak up, as the other partner can do so.”

Being forewarned: a two-edged sword
Bryan Edwards believes that being forewarned about someone who could be difficult can help to alleviate problem. “A key aspect for me is whether the difficult behaviour could have been predicted and therefore avoided/coped with better,” he says. “Perhaps the trainer could discuss the delegates and their motivations for attending with the line manager beforehand. Perhaps the manager could do a pre workshop briefing to lower any barriers in people’s minds. Perhaps the delegate’s line manager could hold a 1-1 pre-course meeting to discuss the content and establish some key outcomes with the delegate.”

But being forewarned can be a two-edged sword. “I have been warned in the past that people were going to be difficult, and in about 50% of the cases they were,” says Mike Morrison. “But how much was my reaction to the people causing the problems?” he asks. “I think the trainer’s reaction in this situation could be an issue, particularly with in-house training where people know the personalities involved. In the tape version of the One Minute Manager there is a good expample of this: the trainer is expecting a manager to be difficult and they are.”

Karen Drury, fe3 consulting

Bryan Edwards, ABC Training Solutions Ltd

Rich Lucas, Supremacy Training

Mike Morrison, RapidBI Ltd

Richard Nugent, Kaizen Training

One Response

  1. Its really difficult
    Its really difficult situations training people. To build great strategies for dealing with troubling people and complex situations. Identify times when they have right to walk away from volatile situations.


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