Helpful Tips for Dealing with Difficult Participants

Difficult participants—they seem to find their way to just about every classroom. Trainers are eager to learn tools to handle these uncomfortable and sometimes awkward situations. Here are some tips on working with unwilling (or just unaware), yet still difficult trainees from author John Townsend.


Agree/Disagree/Deflect Technique

When you disagree with a participant’s remarks or arguments but don’t wish to embarrass them:

1. Find something about the contribution with which you agree, then ...  

2. Gently disagree with the key issue and, lastly ... 

3. Deflect to the group for comments

Example: "Yes, you are absolutely right that this situation is extremely common. I’m not sure that this is the only way to handle it, however. Has anyone else found another way to deal with it?"


Non-verbal Technique

When words fail you, a non-verbal signal can be very effective in handling participant interventions. For example:

1. Hands up in mock surrender. 

2. Hands over ears as if it’s all too much. 

3. A mock and exaggerated frown to show surprised disagreement (but ‘please convince me I’m wrong!’). 

4. Eyebrows raised in mock surprise/horror. 


Receipt Technique

This is the most basic and non-negotiable of all techniques. Simply give a receipt for every contribution made by any participant!

1. Say thank you and mention the participant’s name.

2. Rephrase the participant’s words to fit your learning point, e.g.: ‘Okay, so you are saying that…..good!’

3. Simply repeat the last phrase and ask for other comments.

Refocus Technique

Whenever a discussion starts to wander or when you are under pressure from the clock or from a participant, refocus by diverting the group’s attention to something else:

1. Distribute a handout.

2. Switch on the overhead projector.

3. Go to the flip chart and write something.

4. If you are seated, get up and spread your hands out, palms down.

5. Use emphatic “Right!”, “OK!”

6. Find a verbal link to the next point. Interrupt the participant by linking with, “Yes, that’s important because…”


You and Me Technique

When faced with “experts” or “know-it-alls” who frequently interrupt, you need to ask them to allow others to have their say. With the ‘You and Me Technique’ you make it clear, verbally or non-verbally, that you know they know but that you also want to hear from  the other, less knowledgeable members of the group.

Non-verbally this can be done with eyebrow movements, a wink, a smile and some blocking hand movements. Always try and keep the interrupter on your side. Make them feel that they are co-trainers: you and me against the others.


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