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Trouble in the training room

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From the whiner at the back to the manager reluctant to deal with their issues, Judith Germain gives her advice on dealing with difficult people on training courses.

A good training course delivers its objectives, is interesting and interactive and allows for the differing learning styles of the attendees. However, the success of the course will require an effective trainer who can impart their knowledge whilst retaining the attention of the learners. To this end, understanding human behaviour is often a requisite to being able to deliver a course that can exceed the expectations put upon it.

First things first

When you are delivering training it’s important to understand not only what your required outcomes are, but also what the organisational goals are, the prevailing context and what the attendees were told about the course before they arrived. You are more likely to have a higher proportion of difficult people on your course if attendance was mandatory and not seen as necessary by them, and/or an organisational environment where major change is happening (e.g. redundancy).

Understanding the expectations of the attendees and whether they are likely to be hostile to your training intervention is therefore vital. If this is a possibility then it’s important to design the content of the course accordingly and deal with their potential hostility upfront and immediately that the course starts. A ‘safe’ way to do this is when you ask the attendees what their objectives are for the training course.

Our experience shows that at this stage the attendees often articulate any resentment to being on the course and how they feel about the organisation. This is a fantastic opportunity to discover their objections, listen to their issues and calibrate them to the need for attending the course. This is why knowledge of the organisational context is important. It is imperative that this section on understanding their objections and you addressing them should be kept very short. The last thing that you want to do is spend significant time discussing their objections as it will have a destabilising effect of the morale of the group and your ability to deliver the course well and on time.

It is very common (and to be expected) that there will be at least one member of the course who will feel the need to demonstrate their expertise and challenge your authority or credibility in running the course. A good trainer would have used the five minute introduction phase of the course to establish they credibility and to flush out the individuals who are likely to be ‘lively’.

Delivering a lively, interesting course – mindful of the attendees behaviour

Some trainers mistakenly believe that delivering training in environments where some hostility is shown means they are entering a battle zone. The problem with this theory is that within every training environment there will be some hostility – and the actions of the trainer can therefore make it substantially worse. A good trainer does the following subconsciously:

  • Analyse the attendees’ behaviour to discover which ones fall into the subsequent categories: The ‘know it all, the ‘sceptic’, the ‘been there done it’, the ‘enthusiastic puppy’, the ‘maverick’, the ‘follower’, the ‘academic’, the ‘life long learner’, the ‘demotivator’
  • Adjust the course delivery and perhaps content to suit the training characteristics of the attendees
  • Seek interaction and ensure that all learning styles are catered for
  • Deal with each attendee according to their ‘training characteristic’ (for example the ‘maverick’ needs to be treated differently to the ‘follower’
  • Are able to smoothly and flexibly shift their own style to meet the needs of the group
  • Deliver a course that meets the objectives of the learner and the organisation

An example of dealing with a difficult training characteristic – the ‘maverick’

The definition of the ‘maverick’ refers to a wilful independence and it is this training characteristic which is probably the one that causes trainers the most difficulty. Mavericks have a high sense of self confidence and self esteem and believe that they are more intelligent than others. This can be a heady mix when they are faced with a trainer that has not established their credibility or is delivering a course that they consider to be boring or inappropriate for them. The following are likely indicators that you are facing a maverick:

  • You are asked a number of questions that are disrupting and show that they believe they know more than you do on the subject
  • You are shown disrespect by the attendee (this can be on a continuum from mild to extreme)
  • They show their displeasure through body language and audio clues (eg heavy sighs and rolling of the eyes)
  • You are challenged constantly and other attendees or yourself are undermined
  • They refuse to participate in the course or the exercises

Interventions to use with the maverick training characteristic:

  • Establish credibility upfront and immediately
  • Discover their objectives/objections for being on the course (and build into the course)
  • Find a way to avoid making them look stupid (if you fail you are likely to make running the training course extremely difficult)
  • Ensure that you do not lose control or appear uneasy
  • Provide boundaries and structure (when you need to enforce your control, do it quickly and do not dwell on it – avoid trying to make the maverick lose face in front of their peers)
  • Be clear on the objectives of the course, and how the course will run. What are the components of the course? Give them something to do – eg ensure they lead on some of the exercises

Recognise them (whilst ensuring that they do not dominate the course) and appeal to their intellectual ability Training courses present the trainer with an opportunity to engage with all members of team, even those who seem to be resistant to whatever you are trying to teach them.

Remember that a one size fits all approach is unlikely to be successful as is approaching resistance from a defensive position. It can be easy to spend the majority of the course then fighting your corner, but by using some of the techniques mentioned above, you can be better placed to deliver a lively and interesting course which has benefit for all those in attendance.

Judith Germain is managing director of Dynamic Transitions a leadership company, specialising in working with Troublesome Talent ® and improving leadership performance within organisations. Judith provides strategic mentoring for senior executives and business leaders, develops networking strategy and delivers innovative leadership programmes, leadership consultancy, training, coaching and mentoring to corporate clients. For more information visit www.developing-leadership.com

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