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Learning & Development Blog

How To Survive Participants Who Think They Are Hostages

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Every time a trainer walks into a new training session, they know they will be greeted by four distinct groups of participants: The Scholar, The Tourist, The Prisoner and The Explorer. Understanding their attitude toward the training can make the difference in having a successful training or having a training that ends up as one of your worst case scenarios.

Of the four, the most challenging is “The Prisoner.” However, there are important strategies for dealing with each of these archetypes.

The Scholar is the person who believes, rightfully or wrongfully, that they don’t need to be in the course. For this participant, using an analogy of a professional athlete who has to go to training camp can often hit a nerve and make them a tad more receptive to the training. It’s also important to demonstrate that you are not intimidated by their expertise. You can do that by asking for their input and thoughts throughout the workshop.

The Tourist is the participant who isn’t really interested in the training but has a smile on their face because it means a day away from their normal routine. They’re excited about the refreshments and meeting new people. They’ve put an away message on their email alerting everyone that they are out of the office and cannot be reached. While The Tourist originally didn’t think they would learn anything useful, they often surprise themselves by getting value from the training.

The Explorer is the ideal participant. Explorers have the attitude that there is always something to learn, and if they can take two to three tidbits out of the training, it will be worth their while. They want to learn and see training as a valuable resource.

The goal is always to convert the other three archetypes to The Explorer.

While scholars and tourists can easily become explorers, the prisoner is much more difficult to convert. Left to their own devices, The Prisoner can take the life out of the room, leaving The Tourist, The Scholar and even The Explorer with little energy and even less enthusiasm.

The first step in surviving The Prisoner is to know exactly how many prisoners you have in the classroom. A popular technique, used by many seasoned facilitator/trainers, is to mention the four archetypes in their opening comments and ask people to self-identify by raising their hand. Sharing the four archetypes in the opening remarks also serves as a great ice-breaker. Scholars and Tourists tend to laugh at the identification and most important, Prisoners feel acknowledged.

Often, just having the facilitator/trainer formally acknowledge that they are being “forced” to attend the training is enough to crack their defensive veneer. The ice-breaker provides The Prisoner with a public soapbox to let everyone else know they do not want to be there. For most Prisoners, that public acknowledgement is usually enough to shift their attitude. While they don’t immediately become full-fledged Explorers, they are no longer shut down to the idea.

That is not always the case. There is always the outlier who cannot be cajoled out of their determination to be miserable, and don’t give a rip whether their behavior might make other people miserable in the process.

Unfortunately, it usually takes a few hours to determine whether or not a prisoner will reform.

Some things that prisoners may do to demonstrate their displeasure:

  • Ignores the rules about cell phones and computers and continues to do regular work
  • Leaves the classroom during breakout exercises
  • Refuses to answer a question even when asked directly saying something, “I don’t have an opinion.”
  • Audible sighs and makes negative comments under their breath.
  • Tries to recruit others to join in the misery.

During the first few hours of the training, the facilitator/trainer should use every strategy possible to see if the participant is ready to release their prisoner attitude.

Some strategies to employ:

  • Create a round robin response chain to a question. After you ask a question explain the setup: you are going to call on five people to share their thoughts. Call on the prisoner third or fourth in the chain.
  • Assign a triad exercise and observe the body language of The Prisoner to see if they are participating.
  • Talk to them privately during a break to see what you need to do to make it a success for them. Often, reaching out to them personally will help break the ice.

If none of the strategies works, you need to take an immediate action to prevent the prisoner’s misery from infiltrating the entire class.

If you are internal and have the authority, have a private conversation with the prisoner and give them two options: either participate or reschedule when they will.

If you are an external facilitator/trainer how you handle the prisoner depends on what process the client agreed to in your pre-training agreement. If you don’t have a pre-training agreement, you will want to have a private conversation with the participant and share that you are fine with them leaving early.

While it is uncomfortable and very stressful to have this kind of conversation, the alternative is worse. Instead of having one unhappy individual, you’ll end up having a roomful of disappointed people who may share on the evaluation that you did not handle “The Prisoner” and as a result, their training was compromised.

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