Ask the expert: Dealing with difficult delegates

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Question markHow do you deal with delegates who behave like seven year olds having tantrums? Andy Bradbury gives some advice.

Question: I recently did a training session where two participants were told that they had to attend because of their behaviour. Right from the start they were disruptive, argumentative and would not participate in any activity. Both were ladies, recent graduates who had worked for about a year for the company. I was given the run down by the manager so knew what to expect but their behaviour was appalling. Not to say too much but it was like working with seven year olds with tantrums. Has anyone else experienced this and how did you manage having an effective training session?

Deborah Rensburg

Andy Bradbury replies:

Firstly, I appreciate that some readers will be doing exclusively in-house training whilst others will be doing contract and freelance work, so it is a little bit difficult to give any simple 'one-size-fits-all' answers. Having said that, however, I’ve been reading some research which shows that training tends to be much more effective when the trainee’s manager is also included in the loop. Apart from anything else, this should go a long way towards ensuring that managers don’t send people on courses as punishment, to pass the buck, or for no particular reason at all.

Moreover each trainee should have agreed their objectives with their manager before coming on the course. Having objectives is an important part of preparing to go on a course. Not only is this useful for clarifying the purpose of a course, it also identifies what each delegate needs to get out of it, and what will be expected of them when they return to work. This will normally provide far stronger motivation than some vague notion like, 'I’m here to learn some presentation skills'. Creating strong motivation is a very positive way to deter delegates from indulging in inappropriate behaviour.

In particular I believe that it is vital to get the trainer to complete manager feedback form. This doesn’t need to be filled out at great length if all has gone smoothly, but it may act as a very effective deterrent for anyone thinking of acting inappropriately if they know from the off that such feedback will occur.

In the event of any significant breaches of discipline the relevant manager should be notified immediately. More than once I have seen colleagues blindsided by delegates who have caused trouble and then reported the trainer to their manager as having been unreasonable, inefficient or whatever. In some cases the manager already knows the person well enough to know what their complaints are worth. Occasionally, however, the tactic works, especially if the trainer is working for a company where they are not well-known, and the trainer has been quite seriously compromised simply for trying to keep the course on track and minimise unwanted interruptions.

One reply to the original Any Answers question that caught my interest was Rus Slater’s account of the brief 'Holiday makers, prisoners and learners' speech, which he tells me came originally, as far as he remembers, from the late Gordon Bessant:

  • Holiday makers are here for a day off work, they don't want to be made to do anything other than enjoy a free lunch - to holiday makers I say, I am the facilitator; from the French facile, meaning easy, you are delegates, from the English delegate, meaning you do the work... either join in or you can go back to work now.
  • Prisoners are here because they have been ordered, they will not do anything unless forced - to the prisoners I say, I don't take prisoners... either join in or you can escape now.
  • Learners are here because they see that they can get some benefit out of the day - to the learners I say: Welcome.

It can be useful to learn a little basic psychology in order to tackle small niggles before they have time to become full-blown problems. The use of transactional analysis can be helpful, particularly in maintaining an adult state whilst dealing with delegates who may be resorting to parent (overbearing, judgemental) or child (childish, disruptive) behaviour.

For myself, I’ve always found it useful to keep in mind a couple of NLP presuppositions:

  • Every behaviour has a positive intention
  • People do the best they can with the resources they believe they have available to them.

The first presupposition is often misinterpreted as meaning that people always act for the best of all possible outcomes. Unfortunately this is not the case. People primarily act to achieve the best outcome for themselves, as they see it. This will not necessarily take account of other people’s interests, and may not be in the best interests of the person concerned in the long term.

The point, however, is not to excuse someone’s bad behaviour but rather to understand that people seldom behave badly for the sake of behaving badly. Rather they are utilising the behaviour they think is most likely to get them the result that they think they want. Instead of confronting them with what they are doing wrong it can be far more effective to demonstrate that they can achieve their desired outcome, or possibly an even more desirable outcome, by adopting a different course of action.

Andrew Bradbury is the author of 'Successful Presentation Skills' and 'Develop Your NLP Skills'. He has spent 30 years as a trainer, course designer, training manager and training consultant.

Andrew would like to thank Sue Beatt, Garry Platt and Rus Slater for their help in the preparation of this article.

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