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How To Handle Training Difficult & Disruptive Participants

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

The participants were going around the room sharing a 30-second introduction of themselves. About halfway through, it was “Jim’s* turn.” With arms folded, he said deadpan, “237 days.” As it turns out, Jim had been with the company for 30 years, with less than a year to retire, the last place he wanted to be was in a training program for new managers.

Why his manager decided it was a good idea to send Jim to this training is anyone’s guess. Maybe it was a requirement of his job, regardless of the retirement date. Maybe the manager thought this would be good information that Jim could use in case he decided on a second career after retirement.

Regardless of how and why Jim ended up in an entry-level manager’s course, he and I were stuck with each other for the week. For that matter, so were the 30 other participants in that class.

No one wants to have a participant who is clearly miserable – not just because it makes your work more difficult, but it also can be toxic for the other participants. One angry, miserable, belligerent participant can thwart the learning experience of all the others.

In a survey of TrainSmart facilitators, dealing with the “Jims” of the world is probably the most challenging of the challenging situations facilitators face. Here’s how a couple of our facilitators faced their own Jim.

Anna Filas shared, “As a participant walked into the classroom, with others already seated and ready to begin, he verbally expressed his dismay at being there. He finally sat in his seat, crossed his arms and sternly told me, ‘I don’t know why I am here. My manager told me to show up. This is stupid.’”

I smiled and said, “Your manager must have seen some potential in you to become a trainer. It’s a hard job, and he must have felt that you were up for the challenge.”

He looked at me, smiled, and then said, “Looks like I am making your job hard today.”

I laughed and replied, “I love a challenge. I bet you do too. Listen, give this a chance today. I have a feeling that you will learn new skills and be very successful as a trainer. At the end of the day, let me know how it’s going and if you still feel that you are in the wrong class.”

He was one of my favorite participants. He did a great job in class and was a real leader.”

When Anne Harlow is faced with a difficult participant who doesn’t want to be in the training she says, “that’s when we have to put on our sales hat and figure out what will have meaning to that individual. By asking lots of questions and then pointing out the benefits of the training, this will sometimes turn them around. If that doesn’t work: have a conversation with them during the first break to address this issue. Let them know that you understand that they don’t want to be here and that they don’t think this is of value to them but ask them to at least not disrupt the rest of the group.

Regardless of the approach you take, the key is to take an approach and deal with the situation immediately before one person’s unhappiness blankets the entire session.

* ”Jim” is a pseudonym. This is a real situation.

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Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.