Dealing with Difficult Participants

Posted on 13th May, by JimYoung in Blog. Comments Off on Dealing with Difficult Participants

One challenging thing to deal with as a facilitator is the “difficult” participant.

Sometimes tricky behaviours will emerge during a training session and often when participants don’t feel safe, valued or heard. Much of this behaviour is amusing and tolerable providing it doesn’t impinge on other’s learning. We’ve got the prisoner, the latecomer, the sleeper (although, sleeping I don’t mind; it’s the snoring that might annoy), the know-it-all, the side conversations, the bored, the confused, the domineering, the challenger, and the otherwise preoccupied – the text messenger. In some thirty years of training I’ve met them all.

It is not uncommon to find at least one participant in a workshop who is not fully or positively engaged. When confronted with such behaviour, we might step back and objectively assess what might be the root cause of their behaviour. For example, why would someone need to talk all the time?


Sometimes, people keep talking because they don’t feel that their knowledge, experience, or expertise are appreciated. In that case we might give them a specific role in presenting the content, or providing examples that show the content in action, or ask them to serve as a mentor to others in the session.

At times, people speak up because they are enthusiastically engaged in the subject and really want to share what they know. In this case, we want to thank them and acknowledge their participation in a positive way and indicate that we want to make sure others can voice their opinions. In all cases, we should address the individual and discuss the behaviour with respect, so that they can retain their dignity.

I recall on one occasion, during participant introductions, one clearly uninterested person explained they were only there because their boss had sent them and otherwise they would much prefer to be at home watching TV. I said that they were free to go. They left. Potential problem solved. More conscientious or sensitive trainers may have preserved in an attempt to reprogramme the mindset, but sometimes it’s just not worth the effort and the cost to other participants. Anyway, here are seven types of workshop blockers and strategies other than the dismissal tactic that we might employ to deal with these behaviours:

  1. Aggressive. These people do not want to be in the workshop, think it is a waste of time, and actively oppose what the facilitator is trying to achieve. They are often loud, argumentative and critical, and their behaviour distracts others from contributing. Give them time to make their point, and do not argue with them, listen patiently, and use conciliatory language. If necessary speak to them outside the meeting during a break, asking for more tolerance, seeking their active support.
  2. Complainer. Everything is wrong for a complainer, from the room size or temperature to the meeting time and duration, the list of participants, the type of coffee and biscuits, the agenda and scope of the workshop, and so on. Listen to their complaints, and acknowledge anything which is valid. Then agree to address concerns outside the meeting. Deal with immediate matters during a break, and take up other issues later.
  3. Know-it-all. Some people delight in expressing their opinion and demonstrating their expert knowledge of a topic, even when they are not real experts. They have strong opinions and voice them confidently. They are the first to answer every question, often dismissing the views of others as uninformed or naïve. Demur. Recognise valid expertise, and play back their opinion so they know they have been heard and appreciated, then extend on their input if possible, building on it to regain the initiative. I think that paying attention initially so that you are validating their input and then throwing it out to the rest of the group is an excellent technique.
  4. Agreeable. While agreeable individuals may appear to be the facilitator’s friend, they often fail to share their true opinion for fear of upsetting someone or being criticised. They smile and nod encouragingly, but shy away from disagreeing with others, and are often reluctant to speak first in any debate. Beware of allowing them to get away with “being nice”, and challenge them to express their true opinions. Ask them to contribute first from time to time.
  5. Negative. These people will disagree on principle with others, seeing it as their role to give the opposing viewpoint (even if they don’t believe it). They undermine the facilitator and other participants by casting doubt on the truth or reliability of their inputs, and prevent consensus through constant nay-saying. Maintain a degree of neutrality, not allowing them to get you on their side in criticising others. Accept valid alternative viewpoints, but aim for realistic compromise. Depersonalise their opposition, make it about the process or the principle but not about the person.
  6. Staller. For the staller, there is never enough information to make a firm judgement or to give a clear opinion. They wish to defer everything until later, when more data is available or more progress has been made. Explore reasons why they are reluctant to offer an opinion on the available data, find out exactly what additional information they require, and give them an action to bring it to the next meeting. Encourage them to give an interim assessment on the current data.
  7. Silent Some people just refuse to contribute. They sit quietly but will not speak up to give their opinion, even when challenged or specifically invited to do so. Decline. Refuse to accept non-participation or withdrawal. Ask them direct open questions, then wait for an answer, using silence as a motivator. Speak to them in a break to encourage participation.

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