All trainers have to manage difficult participants at one time or another. Whether the difficult participant is a talker or know-it-all, a fighter or arguer, a quiet or withdrawn person, a complainer, an unconsciously incompetent person, a distracter, or a rambler, the trainer needs to know what to do and what not to do when handling the behavior, and how to avoid taking the behavior personally.
Our discussion of strategies to engage or manage “difficult” participants began with the article about the Talker or Know-It-All, who is trying to add to the discussion. This article discusses the Fighter, who is trying to detract from and take issue with the topic or the trainer.
The fighter or arguer is quick to find fault with the material or instructor. Picks apart statements in an inappropriate way. Often is angry, but will not come out and admit or explain the anger.
Special Note: Some people have an argumentative style, or like to devil’s advocate to ensure a lively debate. Their motivation and behavior is not fueled by anger or deep frustration. As a result, they are more easily brought back into the fold through the milder actions suggested below.
What a Trainer Can Do:
In front of the group:
If it is an attack on the topic:
- Keep cool- you can never win an argument.
- Acknowledge the level of passion and ask for the reason behind it.
- Request that the person back up assertions. Ask for evidence.
- Avoid getting personal.
- Refer the question to the group and then to him/her.
- Try to win this person over by finding some good reasons to agree with some points.
- Pretend not to hear him/her.
- Agree to disagree.
- If nothing else works, suggest that your differences be cleared up later.
- Use humor to invite others to speak up.
- Set rules: only the person who has the Koosh can speak, or there is a 2 minute limit per person, etc.
- Set rules: criticism is acceptable, as long as it is constructive and offers viable alternatives.
If the arguer may be a spokesperson for the group:
- Determine whether the person is alone in his or her thinking, or if others feel the same way.
- If others agree, it may be appropriate to say:” I am not here to defend the content. I am here to explain it and teach you how to use it.”
- At other times, it may be appropriate to allow a limited amount of time for group venting or for posting constructive recommendations from the group.
If it is a personal attack:
- Ignore the attack.
- Reframe an attack on you as an attack on the problem.
- Reframe a personal attack as friendly.
- Reframe from past wrongs to future remedies.
- Reframe from “you” and “me” to “we.”
- Provide constructive feedback about the impact of the behavior on the session, the participants, and/or the trainer.
- Coach the person to select more constructive behavior.
- Co-opt the person- ask for his or her assistance.
- Discuss the true source of the individual’s anger.
- Ask if the person is willing to let the other participants learn.
- If necessary, indicate that the person is free to leave the session.
What a Trainer Should NOT Do:
- Argue with the person.
- Use insults.
- Be defensive.
- Express anger.
- Lose control of the discussion.
- Agree with the fighter just to end the argument, if that will mislead other participants.
Real Life Example: Another thing a trainer should NOT do is go into a training session unprepared and unaware of issues that may impact the session. However, despite pre-session interviews and other needs assessment work done up front, there may be times when a trainer unwittingly becomes the catalyst or target for group venting.
I once did a session for a public agency, had even spent the evening before the session chatting with participants, and then ran into a buzz saw when the training began. The focus of the program was team building, and we began with a checklist of effective work team characteristics. I read down the list, asking the participants to check off all of the characteristics that were currently present in their work teams. I then asked them how they had done, and one woman’s hand shot up. She proceeded to say that not one of the characteristics existed anywhere in the entire agency!
After listening to her angry expression of frustration, I turned to the rest of the group and asked how they felt. The entire room (approximately 150 people!) erupted. As they were recognized, each person confirmed and embellished on the first woman’s statements.
Now, did I mention that all of the agency top management were present in the room? Well, they were- but not for long. When I turned to ask them if they would like to respond, not one of the managers remained!! So, there I was with a workshop on teambuilding and an entire army of participants up in arms about the very thought!
I did what any reasonable, shocked trainer would do- I called for a break. Immediately, participants came buzzing around me and it became crystal clear that they would need a structured opportunity to vent before there was any hope of continuing with the training content.
We quickly distributed flipchart paper and markers to all of the tables and, when the participants regrouped, I told them they would have 10 minutes to post their constructive feedback and recommendations. I promised to summarize their comments and send a copy to them as well as to their management, for management’s response. I made clear that, after that exercise, we would return to the planned agenda.
Well, it worked! They wrote furiously, then handed in their recommendations. We continued the training without further difficulty. I sent the summary of their recommendations, as I had promised. Unfortunately, someone leaked the information to the press, so the entire incident ended up on the front page of the state newspaper. Luckily, I was referred to as an “unnamed consultant!”
Commentary: When confronted with any difficult behavior, we need to be able to step back and objectively assess what might be the root cause of the behavior. Why would someone fight or argue with a trainer?
Anger is a basic human emotion, and this complex world offers many legitimate reasons why someone might be angry.
The person may resent having to come to the training session, particularly if attendance at the session is mandatory- or even last minute. I’ve had folks come into a training session understandably furious because they had been notified of the session with a note on their windshields the night before!
The person may disagree with the content, or have difficulty with authority figures (yes, that means the trainer!), or simply be having a very bad day.
The person may dislike the trainer, be angry about the quality of the coffee or the lack of refreshments, or be troubled by some issue at home.
Often, I have found that the training session is the only time, and perhaps even the very first time, that the participants are together and can discuss how they feel. The issue may have little to do with the actual training content, but some participant will find a way to bring it up.
Sometimes, the group will direct their anger or frustration at the trainer, because they view the trainer as an extension of management (and probably easier to confront than a real manager). Sometimes, the group will feel safe to express their frustration because they hope that the trainer can have some impact as their advocate with management.
We need to balance the needs of the participants while still achieving the set goals of the training program.. So we make decisions intended to defuse, deflect, or reframe the anger- because we know that no learning will occur while the anger persists. We do our best to dignify the person, while setting controls around the behavior.
For those of us who are conflict-averse, managing the Fighter or Arguer may be a real challenge. Yet it is necessary for us to effectively meet that challenge, or we will lose credibility and control in the classroom. And, if we lose control in that situation, our participants may not feel safe enough to continue in the session.
In the next article, we will look at the other end of the difficult behavior spectrum, the Quiet One or Withdrawer.