Training – How to Deal With Problem Participants


It’s inevitable in the training world that you will eventually have to deal with “problem participants.” These are people who either have no clue about “training etiquette” (they think nothing of carrying on side conversations while you’re trying to instruct) or else they have some kind of issue – resentment, inflated assessment of their knowledge, etc. – that can take away from your influence and have a negative impact on the class dynamics. There are a few strategies that might be helpful for some of the most common problem participants:
THE BULLY is the person who’s antagonistic and hostile. He probably is resentful about being there for some reason.
Handling Strategy: listen actively to him, hearing and responding to his issues – not to the emotion. Monitor your emotions and don’t get defensive. When you get a private moment, speak to him separately to see if you can uncover the source of his anger and resolve it.
THE MONOPOLIZER loves to hear herself talk and will often go on forever in asking a question or inserting a comment.
Handling Strategy: as the trainer, you need to take control. While you don’t want the Monopolizer to feel like you’re short-changing her, you’ve got to look at the impact on the group. If she’s taking up too much time, you must politely cut her off: “Thanks for that question… ” or “You’ve made a great point – now let’s hear from Joe… ”
THE CONSTANT ARGUER probably has a chip on his shoulder about something, so will debate everything you say. It’s usually not a genuine disagreement, but rather an attempt to show off or trip you up.
Handling Strategy: once it’s clear this guy is not participating productively, you must politely cut him off, “Some people do feel that way, thanks for pointing it out.” And from that point on, try your best to ignore him. A private word outside of the class might help get at the heart of the issue.
THE RAMBLER can’t get to the point. She repeats herself, talks in circles, lacks clarity.
Handling Strategy: seize control. Ask a question to get at the heart of it: “So what finally happened?” or “Could you summarize that in one sentence?”
THE AX GRINDER is resentful about something and will find a way to vent about it. Every comment or question he makes seems bent on griping about this particular issue, which could be about anything from the room temperature to the short notice he received for the training.
Handling Strategy: again, as the trainer, you must keep control. Certainly some empathizing is in order to make him feel heard: “Oh, I know how frustrating it is to have so little time to plan… ” But then you have to bring focus and remind him what this session is all about and why we’re here.
THE KNOW-IT-ALL knows everything about the subject and frequently interjects comments to let everyone know how much she knows.
Handling Strategy: the best defense here is an offense. Willingly and publicly acknowledge her expertise. Then make her your ally. Call on her before she has a chance to respond: “Tracy, I know you’re familiar with the process. What’s your experience with it?” If the problem participant makes good points, you can acknowledge them. If, however, her claims are inappropriate or wrong or unrelated to the subject, then don’t let her get away with it-in a nice way. “Thanks for sharing your opinion, Tracey. Some people do feel that way, but here’s what our work has found… ”
THE SIDE CONVERSATIONALIST talks with his neighbors, seems to not be paying attention.
Handling Strategy: get over it. Assume the positive – “Oh, he must be getting so much out of this that he can’t resist sharing it!” Usually side conversations don’t last long and the best thing to do is just ignore them. If, however, they are annoying others and don’t seem to let up naturally, there’s a two-step approach. First just try silence. A voice speaking up out of turn is suddenly very noticeable when the instructor is silent. Only if that doesn’t work, and only if the talkers are truly distracting others in the group, should you resort to Step 3, which is to address the offenders directly and politely ask them if their conversation could wait until later…
THE CLAM doesn’t contribute or participate. It might be from shyness, or lack of preparation, or disinterest.

Handling Strategy: assume the best and gently encourage the person: “We haven’t heard from you, yet, George. What do you think?”

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