Updated: Jan 24, 2019
In my experience it's fortunately very rare that you have to deal with difficult trainees, however it seems to be the biggest fear that new coaches and trainers have.
That's totally legitimate, it is daunting enough delivering training....you don't want to be worrying about how to handle things if you have a disruptive element in your session!
Participants may challenge what you say, but that’s usually a good thing. It means that they’re engaged and care what you tell them.
For those cases where you have to deal with trainees who are actually difficult, here are a few effective tips, collected from experienced trainers.
It got a little tense: De-escalate The Situation
Call for a break, speak to them in private.
There’s no need to give others a chance to get involved, let alone take sides.
Once you’re talking to the “offenders” in private, ask something along the lines of “My impression was that you didn’t enjoy the session. What’s wrong with it, how can I improve it?”
In other words, try not to escalate things, approach them with an open mind.
People Are Resisting Learning: Remove Fear, Uncertainty And Doubt
Many people are naturally resistant to change because it leads to fear, uncertainty and doubt....it's scary learning a new skill!
If you are seen as a change agent, for example because your training introduces change in the organisation, or the knowledge you're imparting is brand new, people might also resist your training.
A solution is to show how they stand to benefit from the changes.
If there are no obvious benefits to the employees, it may help to at least explain the reasons behind the change.
I design my training and facilitation to relate a lot more to the learners’ experiences so that they can relate the material to something familiar.
By taking this approach, I find that I can grab the learners attention and open their mind to technology or a task that will make their job easier.
It doesn’t always work, but the common response from the learner is that they understand how it can relate to their job, they just don’t seem themselves benefiting from a task or device. I am fine with the response so long as they have stopped being disruptive.
Groups are forming: Change The Group’s Dynamics
If you encounter a disruptive trainee, try to change the group’s dynamics.
One simple way of doing this is by moving them, tactfully, next to somebody else who you think might be able to play the role of mentor.
I had a recent experience where in the first session the trainee was uncooperative, disruptive and totally uninterested , however in the second session she sat next to by coincidence one of the most enthusiastic guys in the class and he acted as a facilitator and managed to catch her interest by involving her in various discussions.
This was helped also by group work , so I suggest find a trainee who is willing to act as a mentor , someone whose enthusiasm is contagious. It really works.
To get the right trainees together in one group, i.e. the disruptive participant paired up with the “mentor”:
Break for an activity : have the participants count 1 – 5 .
Group 1s, 2s, 3s …. 5s together and so on.
A little maths and some calculation, can get the desired participants together.
Hence, as I suggested earlier : Take a break , don’t battle the situation right-away. Plan the numbering combination and then resume the session with an activity or just regrouping.
People 'don't see the point': Play devils advocate
Another way to design your training with the aim to avoid disruptive behaviour, is to elicit the reasons for training from the group itself.
For example, if I’m doing training with a group of civil servants, I might play the devil’s advocate and ask the group, ‘So why should we even care about customer service? I mean, it’s not like our customers are going to go someplace else – so why even bother?’
Typically, the group responds exceeding well, and identifies all of the reasons customer service is important in their roles. This often has the effect of settling disengaged people down, when they realise that all of their peers in the room are serious about the topic.
What this does, in effect, is introduce an element of peer pressure to your advantage.
Someone once told me that cynics are just really passionate people who have been hurt too many times before.
A cynic might just need a bit more evidence or reassurance. I say to a cynic: ‘how can I prove to you that this isn’t just another fad?.’
After that, there is often a shift in their perception of me. They many not believe the company will follow through on it, but they believe that I believe in it.
They might then turn into the person who asks the most crucial questions, or becomes totally engaged in the process and acts as a catalyst.
Handling: Someone dominating the proceedings
If someone talks too much, don't look at them (and implicitly invite their comments), but ask others for their views.
A person who appears pedantic may be a “a specific communicator”, who needs more information than most.
There are two types of a communicator, a general communicator will take the information on and assimilate it later. On the other hand, you have a specific communicator; these individuals want to know the ins and outs of everything.
To us as trainers, they can come across as difficult and pedantic! But this is rarely the case.
The best way to engage a specific communicator is to be specific yourself, leave no stone unturned.
If you don't have time for this, do it in the break.
I find one of the most difficult behaviours to manage in training is that of shy people, who won't get involved because they're afraid to speak up.
I've found that putting people into pairs will mean that the shy individual can still participate in activities, but won't necessarily need to speak up, as the other partner can do so.
It may be you that's the problem
Remember, your actions 'drive' behaviours in your learners. Look to avoid the following, and your delegates should have no reason to act up:
Don’t stuff a three day training course’s content into one day
When you cram, it all goes wrong.
If you're under a time pressure, deliver the training over multiple weeks, or have your participants do some of the preparation online, through an online training platform (e.g. a learning management system).
Cramming means stuff WILL be missed and you'll have to repeat training with a (quite reasonably) unengaged trainee.
Don’t ever think your participants have nothing to teach you
A participant may know more about a particular topic than you...good!
In that case, ask the participant something along the lines of “So Dave, what’s your opinion on this topic?”
Also use this opportunity to create some interaction with the group: “Does anybody have any additional questions for Dave?” (Assuming Dave is open to that kind of thing.)
You do not have to know it all, you need to know how to 'handle' it all...there's a huge difference.
Don’t just repeat the textbook
Instead, adjust your presentation to your customer’s needs – and the real-time response of your participants!
Involve them by asking for their own experiences.
See how your training can be implemented on the job – their job. In short: teach less, facilitate more.
Avoid scheduling the 'edges' of the workweek
Monday mornings and Friday afternoons may not be the best times of the week for your training.
On Mondays, many people are still mentally engaged elsewhere. On Fridays, they’re looking ahead at the weekend.
Avoid too much seat time
Get everybody on their feet every once in a while to keep them engaged. Blood flows to your brain quickly and energises you when you stand after a long time seated.
Avoid running over time.
Keep a bit of spare time at the end of the training session for discussion and action planning. Running over affects other areas of the business, and that's not great.