My tested tips on how to deal with difficult people in an audience
Everyone presenting will sometime encounter someone who will discourage you
Did you ever encounter a situation where you were training but one of the participants stubbornly refused to learn, criticised you or in general disturbed the training? Every now and then you as trainer will encounter “difficult” learners. By difficult I don’t mean that they have a hard time learning, but that they through their actions become a difficult participant. Want to know how to deal with such situations? Read on!
One training I held had a person who from the onset had a look of disapproval on his face. It turned out to be more than just a look as the person kept interrupting me by asking questions that were unrelated or unreasonable. The rest of the group caught on to what he was doing and were losing focus on the subject at hand, making the general feeling in the room take a turn for the worse.
Another time I had a person who kept challenging me, nitpicking on details making it difficult to progress in the training. I especially remember the feeling of trying not to let me get dragged into discussion after discussion about whether or not small topics were presented correctly.
There are quick fixes and there are good fixes. Generally, the more effort you put in, the better result you can expect (isn’t this true for all of life? 😉). Below you find a list of actions you can take, presented by the amount of effort required (from low to high).
Low effort solutions
Have a break
Having a break may calm things down and with luck the session will get on a new track. During the break try to get people’s mind on another topic than what was just discussed, for example by putting on feel-good music or by doing something unexpected (like offering candies! 🍭).
Ignore the behaviour
This technique is often used to counter trolls online and is then referred to as shadowbanning, i.e. let the person rant but ignore it. It might tire the person or make them understand what he/she is doing. It might however not tire the person and then you’re stuck with even more interruptions.
For some situations, you can use humour to defuse the situation and get the person on another track. When a disturbing or offensive remark is made say something like “Whoa there, I hope that wasn’t a serious remark cause that could really be offensive” or “Haha, yeah, but let’s stay away from those kinds of remarks”. Make sure you know your audience and what message the person is trying to get across before trying this technique.
Use group dynamics
Sometimes getting the person to sit among people with whom he or she feels either more or less comfortable with, will have a calming effect. If you are going to do this then I recommend you use a subtle tactic, such as saying that we’ll energise the room by switching seats after the break.
Set the rules straight
This might be too late to do once the training has begun, but you could include general behaviour in the training rules (no phones, etc.). If you think you’ll have a difficult group then address that right at the beginning, saying something like “I know there is a problem with this issue, but this training will not focus on that”. If you do your introduction well, this won’t be needed. I’ll sometimes start trainings with a whiteboard session asking for expectations on the training, then circling the topics I’ll cover while explaining why others aren’t covered.
High effort solutions
Ask the person to wait until he/she is offered to speak or ask that the upsetting behaviour is stopped. This requires that you can be assertive and get acceptance for your authority; depending on the setting this may not always be easy.
Give the person the space he/she wants
Let the person speak uninterrupted for a couple of minutes and get it out of the system. After this you can silence further tries by referring back to the earlier opportunity the person had.
Let the group take the challenge
If you think the group is willing and able to counter what the person says then you can let the group challenge him/her. I.e. repeat what the person said and ask for the group’s opinion. Be careful though as this might really upset both the group dynamics and in bad cases be harmful for the person in question. If you go this way then make sure to moderate the discussion and watch out for bullying behaviour.
Do something else
If you are in a big group setting then switch to smaller group work or the opposite, switch to lecturing if a workshop enables the behaviour. A few years back I had one person that had a constant need to talk in a workshop. I understood that the big group workshop we were in now would never work, so I switched to smaller groups were the person in question got a lot more space. This worked out marvellously.
Acknowledge and help
The most effective, and difficult, way to change difficult behaviour is to find its cause and either help correct it or acknowledging it. Sit down with the person during a break (relaxed and “by coincidence” if possible, rather than a direct approach) and try to find out what is bothering the person. A lot of the time the person will tell, for example that they don’t like the change this training is bringing or that they are in a lot of stress. At times you can help, like explaining that the topic you are presenting won’t affect certain parts of their work. Other times the dissatisfaction stems from external factors you can’t control, perhaps then giving the person a possibility to join a later session of yours is a solution?
Be a great presenter
By doing a great presentation, you can sometimes spellbind or “convert” people in your audience. It gives me great satisfaction when I see someone who at the start of the training looks negative and even actively ignores me, but who an hour later is taking active part in the training and is smiling towards me. This comes mostly with presentation experience, though good steps can be taken by educating yourself.
To summarise, the more effort you put in — the more effective the resolution to the unwanted conflict is likely to be. There is always a reason for disturbing behaviour, and it may or not be related to the training you are holding. Getting to know that reason will help you improve the training, but you may not have the time or possibility to do so. In those case, go for the quick fixes and hope for the best!