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dealing with tough problem participants in training


No matter how well you prepare for your workshop or training session, you should always expect the unexpected. Sometimes a session can have a great, fun and upbeat start then easily turn into a nightmare. Something you say may strike the wrong chord with a participant who doesn’t agree with you or you may have a chronic trouble maker in the room who just enjoys putting you on the spot and watch you squirm. Some behaviors or attitudes can be predicted and it’s your job as a trainer to both anticipate them and deal with them effectively.

When dealing with disruptive behavior or a tough and challenging situation with participants while you are delivering, always remember the following three key principles that should be your goals to handle the situation professionally. 

1- The first and most important goal is to respect the person and avoid embarrassing or belittling him or her in any way. Allow them maintain their dignity at all times

2- Stop the dysfunctional behavior as soon as you can

3- Keep the person engaged and involved in your session and prevent him or other participants from “shutting down” and keep in mind that the way you handle the disruptive person/situation will be judged by the whole group. 


Once you dealt with the situation and responded to the disruptive behavior or personal attack, make sure you acknowledge the feelings or emotions of the person and never return the attack otherwise other participants may turn against you. Avoid aggressive statements like “Your attitude is very negative” or “You have to listen” instead say something that acknowledges the feeling and diffuses the situation like “I can understand you have a strong feeling about this” or “I’m sorry you feel that way”.


There is no one simple solution to dealing with difficult participants or difficult behavior.  It is usually a matter of thinking on your feet and doing the best that you can in that situation. But when you are trying your best to deal with a participant who is being “difficult” then you must remember that your
main objectives are to minimize the difficult behavior, while maintaining the self-esteem of the individual participant.

The following are some tried and true ways of dealing with difficult participants that may help. You will need to develop your own repertoire that you can call upon when you need to.


The talkative

This is someone who wants and enjoys being under the spotlight, he’s usually the first one to volunteer and seems to have something to say and an opinion about everything. You can give him a chance to shine once or twice but follow it up by saying something like “I really appreciate your input, but let’s give a chance for others to contribute as well”, suggest that you would be happy to follow-up the discussion at break time or during lunch to ensure we can stay on schedule.

The excessive talker can also be assisted to lessen their contribution by gently interrupting them and then asking them to summarize and get to the point. As soon as you got the summary, move on to someone else. Either by inviting someone else to speak, by saying their name or by inviting a general contribution from the group. Break eye contact with the person and turn away slightly to reinforce the message with your body language to the person that his/her contribution is over and focus will need to move to someone else.


The quiet

There’s always one in almost every group, this is the person who is very attentive but too shy to share his/her thoughts or uncomfortable speaking in a group and prefers to just passively listen. The issue here is that this type of person usually has some great ideas and valuable contributions and if you make no effort to involve them, they keep their ideas to themselves so others in the group will not benefit from peer learning and the participant himself will not benefit from getting these ideas shared and validated.

Encourage quiet participants to be involved in discussions and share their thoughts and comments by saying “(Person’s Name), I know you got some great experience in this, we would really like to hear what you think”. Attempt to include them, particularly when you know that they know something about the subject under discussion. Another tactic is to get them into small groups of two or three, this makes it easier for them to open up and start participating in small group activities.

 You can also talk to them privately and find out what is the problem. Perhaps they have been “sent” on the course by their manager and resent the fact. Maybe they feel that they already know the subject area that you are covering on the course. Speaking to them privately and perhaps sympathizing with them can sometimes get them on your side, which will often improve their behavior.

The aggressive

This is the participant who openly or covertly questions your knowledge and credibility, claiming that whatever you are saying has nothing to do with the real world. It’s important not to get into any sort of argument, you can get yourself off the hot spot by turning to the rest of the group and calmly handle the situation by offering to discuss this topic further with him/her during break time or saying something like “I completely understand your point of view about this. What does the rest of you think?” This gives the opportunity for others to participate and with some peer pressure he/she may back down or change their behavior.


The one track minded

This is the stubborn, hard to deal with person who is not ready to accept a different point of view than his own which is usually frustrating to you the trainer as well as other participants as it undermines group consensus in any collaborative activity or group learning exercises. It’s highly recommended to use a direct approach by saying something like “I understand your point of view, but for the sake of time / to finish the activity, I’m going to insist that we move on. I would be happy to discuss this further at another time”


The clueless

This is the participant who is not really sure why he/she is in this class, totally missed the point of the discussion which is revealed by his/her answers or remarks that are unrelated to the subject of discussion. With this person you can say something like “Something I said must have led you off track. What we want to point out is....”


The know-it-all

This person believes that he/she is the authority on every topic. He just knows it all. And since this person in their own mind is the expert, he/she assumes a role that is superior to other participants as well as the trainer, relishes any chance to show off this knowledge and at times tries to take over the session. To handle this person you need to first acknowledge his/her contribution, appealing to his/her ego first to make them feel special which is what they really want. After acknowledgment you can say “That’s one way of looking at it. However, there are other points of view”



The indifferent

This is the participant who showed up  just because they were told they have to. He/she simply does not want to be there and makes no effort to participate by voicing their opinions or in group activities, not only will this person show no interest, but he or she may even resort to engaging in activities separate from the group. The best way to handle this is by encouraging him/her to participate by asking for their input exactly as you would with a quiet participant. Ask something like “From your experience, what do you think?”


Class clown

This person loves getting attention and does not care if it’s at the expense of others. Telling jokes, going off topic and overly commenting on everything said can be highly disruptive so It’s important to swiftly handle this attitude and not let it go out of control by saying something like “We all do enjoy a good joke, but for now we need to focus on our topic”


The complainer

This is the individual who complains about everybody and everything be it their boss, colleagues, organization or what have you. You can easily identify this person by his/her negative verbal remarks as well as negative behavior that’s usually very evident from their body language, always frowning, defensive posture, ..etc. The problem here is that this type of negative attitude is contagious and can spread around to other participants in the group. You can respond to this negative attitude by asking questions like “What do you suggest to change this situation?” or “What have you done about this in the past?”

The side conversationalists

One last common issue that can be very disruptive is side conversations. They can be at times a frequent and annoying occurrence when two or more participants engage in a side conversation while you or another participant is talking. There are several tactics that can be used to stop this behavior, walking over to the individual/s is usually sufficient in making them stop. In case it’s repeated again, try calling out the person/s names and put them on the spot by asking them something like “We were just talking about….what are your thoughts about this?”

Be careful when handling this situation, you don’t want to come across behaving like a “teacher,” catching pupils talking in class. The famous comment of “Would you like to share what you are talking about with the rest of the group” can sometimes go down like a ton of lead. Try splitting the talkative participants candidly by putting them in different groups on your next activity and when the exercise is finished, leave the groups sitting together, instead of inviting them to come back to their original seats. Consider also giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they haven’t understood something, or maybe even the person who is doing the talking doesn’t feel very well.

To successfully handle the various tough situations and properly react to the different attitudes and behaviors of tough participants that you may come across, one thing to keep in mind is never take anything personally. If someone points out a mistake, honestly thank them for it , when you are challenged by a participant with an opposing point of view, acknowledge the difference in opinion and thank them for providing a different perspective and whatever you do, never get into an argument or a debate. No good can come out of this in any training situation.



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