How to deal with participants from hell
There’s a common nightmare amongst those of us who run development workshops. It is guaranteed to rouse us from a deep sleep and transform us into feverish, agitated blobs of jelly. It concerns encounters with ‘participants from hell’! Whether you are a novice to development, or an experienced workshop leader, we can all be scared at the prospect of meeting one of the breed in a workshop. And when the nightmare becomes a reality, it can be extremely painful.
It’s bad enough when we have battled our way through an event, trying all sorts of creative techniques to engage them in the learning process. It is perhaps even worse when you feel it’s all gone swimmingly well, only to find that the so-called ‘happy-sheets’ are anything but happy. How did we miss the presence of this malcontent in our workshop? How could we have got it so hopelessly wrong?
So, it’s something experienced by most of us at some time. If you haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s because you are such a brilliant star performer that no participant will ever have a problem with your events. Having worked with the best facilitators and consultants in the world, I can assure you – it’s an experience likely to come your way.
Still, hope is at hand. Whilst there are no fool-proof mechanisms for avoiding or dealing with such problems, there is action you can take to minimise the damage – both to yourself, other participants and the so-called ‘difficult person’ themselves.
It is of course invidious to stereotype people, but in order to help identify some of the issues, let’s take a creative look at the cast of tricky characters who can plague our lives:
Mostly, these people are not aware of what they are doing. They are unconsciously destructive. They would probably react with shock and indignation if someone were to suggest they were a disruptive influence.
As a basic rule of thumb, therefore, it is important to focus on their behaviour rather than to condemn them as a person. And give any feedback in a vulnerable and contributing, rather than condemning, way.
As a starting point, it is useful to approach these difficult customers with curiosity, trying to find out why they are behaving as they do. Not many people have been placed on this earth to deliberately to ruin your workshop. So, there are normally good reasons why they act the way they do. In most cases there is action you can take to alleviate the situation, but you often have to look in unlikely places for the solution.
Perhaps the best way of thinking about action you can take is to explore different parts of the process where you can intervene.
- Before the learning event
- The opening of the learning event
- During the learning event
- After the learning event
Before the learning event
It is essential that you enrol participants in the process. They need to have a personal investment in their learning and a willingness to be in the training room. There are a number of ways of doing this. For instance:
- A letter from senior management stating the reasons for attending the course and the benefits for those attending
- Ensure the initiative is the result of a personal appraisal or performance review, agreeing a development area for the person
- Line Managers need to be involved in pre-course briefings with the participant, identifying learning objectives.
- Joining instructions need to be pitched appropriately so that they are both inviting and clear about what’s on offer.
The key element is to ensure people feel they have a choice. So, if the learning event is compulsory, you will need to work very hard at selling it in, and allowing people to see the value in it. This is why ‘sheep-dip’ training can provoke so much negative behaviour in participants. If they are being treated as fodder, they are likely to behave as such.
Opening the learning event
When reluctant participants enter the training room, they can regress to negative experiences in the school classroom. They are then likely to project their discomfort about this on to the workshop facilitator – turning you into the worst teacher they ever had. So you need to work hard to overcome this prejudice.
Fortunately, there is a lot you do to dispel this projection. For instance:
- create an atmosphere which engages right from the start.
- build relationships with people on arrival.
- welcome people individually and try to have a conversation with each of them (this will also allow you to anticipate any problems that their might be.)
- have music playing in the background so people feel a bit more relaxed.
- have visually stimulating material around the room.
- make sure the learning environment is of high quality so participants feel cared for.
- think about the best room layout. Avoid it looking like a traditional classroom. Do you really need tables? How can you lay the chairs out so that everyone feels engaged?
In your opening introduction it is worth acknowledging some of the difficulties that people may have in order to attend. You might ask directly: “have you chosen to be here, or have you been forced to come here?” If they have been forced, then it’s worth recognising that and helping them to realise that they still have a choice about creating value from the experience. By addressing the issue head-on it stops it festering away for the rest of the course.
Whilst your style of introduction will need to have energy in order to inspire people, you have to gauge it carefully so as not to provoke cynicism or rebellion amongst the participants. Actively engaging them in the process early on is very important, rather than talking at them. Getting them to hear their voices in the room will allow them to realise that they are responsible for what’s going on, rather than reverting to the old-fashioned teacher/pupil relationship.
Explicitly laying out areas of responsibility is also useful. Contracting, so that you all agree certain ‘ground rules’ and behaviours for everyone in the room. You might even have these written up to refer to later. And making sure participants feel responsible for the success of the process.
And finally, at this crucial point of the event, it is very easy to lose your own ability to really see who people are. Beware your own assumptions. The person who looks frightening, is probably just scared; the one who looks bored, might just be contemplative; the participant gossiping with their neighbour could be saying how attractive you are; and the one staring into space, might just be about to have an inspiration.
During the learning event
Below is a diagram showing elements that contribute to a productive leader/participant learning dynamic. The leader needs to bring certain capabilities to the situation.
However, for it to work, the participant must become an equal partner in the process. And then it is essential to establish a creative dynamic between the two parties for real development to take place.
Be careful to make space for criticisms to be heard and dealt with. If you often allow people to voice their problems, you can deal with them and they won’t build up. Address the trouble and you can diffuse the trouble-maker. If there are issues you are unable to deal with there and then, you might want to ‘park’ them on a list for later. At least people will feel their concerns are not being ignored.
It is important to keep checking in with participants on progress.
- How are you doing?
- Is this useful to you?
- Are you getting value from this?
- Can you apply this in your work?
- What else do you want or need?
- What could you do personally to get more value out of this experience?
And make sure you hear back from your most difficult people.
Often, people who are considered difficult are unaware of the impact that they have on others. As the leader in a workshop situation, you normally have permission to give feedback on the participants’ behaviour so, by addressing them directly and stating very clearly how you, personally react to their comment or behaviour, you can articulate something for the group.
For example you might say something like: “I notice that when I make suggestions, you often scoff or sigh. In those moments I feel my ideas are stupid, rather than something that might be worth considering. I also notice, after a while, I give up making the effort to suggest anything. I wonder whether you are aware that you do that and the impact it might have on your colleagues?”
If you’re using group work, keep changing the make-up of the groups so that ‘trouble-makers’ work with more involved participants.
After the learning event
Whilst you might just want to crawl home to a bit of tender loving care and forget all about it, there is still work to be done. If you have had difficulties with certain participants, then don’t put your head in the sand and hope they will go away.
The likelihood is they won’t. So you might as well take some pre-emptive action and damage limitation. You don’t want people walking around bad-mouthing the experience they’ve just had, particularly if they will be speaking to any future participants.
Ideally your relationship with HR or the Learning and Development department is good enough for you to discuss the problems that have emerged. Be very clear on your own level of responsibility for what has happened. Endless justifications of your position won’t help progress matters.
Making the participants wrong is probably not the best strategy. Take responsibility for your part, give an accurate and specific description of what happened and recommend what can be done to improve the situation.
And what about You?
Difficulties with others normally tell you a lot about yourself. It is best if you spend some time considering what you can learn from these situations. Let the problem person be your ‘teacher’. See what value you can create from the encounter with them.
Having really considered what learning points there are and what you may have done differently, it’s then crucial to try and let go of the experience. Whilst we need to avoid developing an impenetrable thick skin, we do need to protect ourselves from lasting harm. These people can get under our skin and into our psyches.
A salutary tale
I once attended a workshop about group dynamics. The leader was a decent, well-intentioned professional, and the material being covered was important and thought-provoking. There was a participant who was clearly uncomfortable with the proceedings. He was fidgety and distracted. He spent most of his time focusing on a rather odd-looking notebook, in which he was making copious notes that seemed to bear no relation to the facilitator’s agenda.
He rarely looked up and engaged the facilitator in eye contact. And after a while, he started interrupting with questions. These weren’t just questions, in fact, they were challenges – asked in a rather superior and aggressive manner. This was extremely annoying. Particularly when I tell you that the participant in question, was me!
Yes, it really is worth noticing when you can become a difficult participant. It helps put things in perspective, knowing that you are potentially on someone else’s ‘participants from hell’ list.
Defence mechanisms exist for a purpose. They normally indicate that we feel threatened in some way. It’s always worth remembering that the apparent obnoxious behaviour that is disrupting your beautifully crafted event might just be because the person is terrified in some way.
Building relationship with them every step of the way, is often the best policy.
- See the process holistically, rather than it just being a problem about a particular participant
- Beware of your own assumptions and prejudices
- Try to understand their motives.
- Remember there may be something positive in what they are expressing.
- Bring the difficult to the surface. Don’t avoid it.
- Tell the truth.
- Ask yourself if there is something positive in the person’s contribution. This often leads to a turnaround.
MICHAEL MAYNARD has led courses internationally, specialising in leadership, teams and communication. He co-founded Maynard Leigh in 1989 with Andrew Leigh and a team of talented consultants. After gaining a degree in Sociology he became a professional actor, writer and presenter for nearly 20 years. Since then, he has worked with thousands of...