Dealing with Difficult Delegates

One of the most popular sessions I deliver in my Train the Trainer course is how to deal with challenging or difficult behaviours in the training room. This is because whatever your level of experience as a trainer you will probably have encountered some situations which require careful handling. Challenging or difficult behaviour may stem from a perception that they won’t benefit from the training; that it’s irrelevant or a waste of their time and as the facilitator you need to ensure other learners’ experience is not hindered by this potential disruption.

There are many ways to deal with this type of learner, but the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t always coming from a place of negativity – for some learners, critical questioning and inquiry is simply their preferred way of learning, so don’t jump to conclusions about the reasons behind someone’s behaviour.

Clearly whatever the reason for it, a good trainer needs to have the confidence and methods to deal with any behaviour that can disrupt the learning experience for others. Here are some of my top tips:

1. Don’t take it personally!

As a trainer, there will be elements of the unknown with every session. You may have designed the perfect session plan, but you have to be adaptable to the specific context of the group. Negative or challenging behaviour is not necessarily a reaction to you or the training you’re delivering, but things outside of your control – so try not to get emotional in your response and remain objective. Getting defensive will usually be met with more hostility and make your other participants uncomfortable. Your participants want to know that they are in safe hands– so smile, empathise and move on.

If there is clearly push-back or you sense something is getting in the way of them engaging in the training, take a few minutes to give the group the chance to discuss. If it can’t be resolved in the training itself or is completely off-topic, explain this to the participants and get them to write it on a post-it note and stick on a flipchart titled ‘car park’ – allowing you to continue with the session.

2. Ground rules

One of the easiest and most effective ways of managing difficult behaviours during a training session, is setting some basic ground rules at the start. Giving learners expectations of what is/isn’t acceptable in the session sets the tone for the day, and should anyone begin to deviate from the agreed list, it’s easy to manage the situation by simply referring them back to the stated ground rules.

If you haven’t indicated any ground rules at the start, it’s much more difficult to start managing the room mid-way through a session. If you want to be more inclusive and give the group ownership of their behaviours, asking them to input to the ground rules is even better.

If someone persistently ignores your calls to respect the ground rules, you may have to take them aside at a break or lunch to explore what the issue is for them. Offer understanding and reiterate the purpose of the training and highlight the impact ignoring the ground rules is having on the session and the other participants.

Examples of ground rules can include: being respectful and listening to others opinions; participating in activities and asking questions; being punctual (on returning from breaks/lunch); turning off any gadgets/mobile phones. You can tailor ground rules according to the audience.

3. Tactical praise and positive reinforcement

Another type of difficult delegate is the ‘know-it-all’ – the one questioning every piece of information you provide or stopping others from being involved in discussions. In this situation, be sure to praise the delegate for their contribution but also acknowledge that others in the room might like to put some thoughts forward on the topic.

If this doesn’t work, use activities that ensure everyone in the room gets a chance to speak, e.g. round robins, group work and pair shares. This way, the delegate doesn’t feel singled out and still gets to contribute, but not at the expense of the rest of the room.

4. Role model behaviour

As the trainer, you have a responsibility to set the tone for the session and model the desired behaviours. This includes being prepared and setup for the session when learners arrive, welcoming each learner individually and listening to their particular reasons for being on the training. I like to create a ‘Welcome’ sign on the door of the training room with each of the learner’s name on it. This creates a great first impression as well as letting people know they are in the right place!

Don’t forget that if you set ground rules at the start of the session, these apply to you too! If every time there is an individual or group activity to complete, you are checking emails or on your phone, the delegates will notice. Be sure to walk the talk!

5. Create a brain friendly learning environment

The importance of establishing an environment that is conducive to learning, and that communicates respect and safety, should not be underestimated. Learners need to know that they are in safe-hands, that the training will be a good use of their time. So ensure the training room is an environment that creates that impression from the very start – anyone coming to the session with an ounce of doubt or cynicism will have second thoughts if they walk into a brain friendly learning environment. For one idea about how to create a brain friendly learning environment, check out the following video:

6. Be brave

Finally, if the disruptive behaviour persists and they have ignored all your attempts to manage the situation, don’t be afraid to politely ask them to leave. Have this conversation with them at a break or at lunchtime. If they genuinely feel they will get nothing from the session, it’s better to focus on those learners that are eager to engage.

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