The Secrets to Managing Difficult Training Session Attendees

Have you ever kicked off your shoes after leading a particularly difficult training session and wanted to just give up! Leading training sessions can be great when you’ve got an energized group that’s ready and willing to contribute to the discussion, asks probing questions, and absorbs the material like a sponge. Unfortunately, most trainers have had the grueling experience of dealing with difficult attendees that seem to thwart the best laid plans. Indeed, it is amazing how one truly problematic attendee can dampen and even destroy the learning experience for the entire group. The good news is that there are very effective methods trainers can use to manage these challenging personalities. We will explore four of these most common challenging personalities and provide you practical techniques you can use to manage them effectively. If you are a trainer and you haven’t yet encountered these personalities, please take notes because you will!

“The Know It All”
Most trainers have encountered the “know it all” at one point or another. This attendee insists (either explicitly or more passively) that they are an expert on the topic (to which I always wonder to myself “why are they taking the training?”), and they are insistent on demonstrating that expertise throughout the course of the training event. They may go out of their way to challenge the trainer, dominate class discussion, pose questions specifically designed to stump or trick the trainer, pose much more advanced questions clearly beyond the scope of the course, or contradict the trainer during sidebar conversations with their tablemates or others attending the training event. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with “The Know it All”.

? Acknowledge their expertise (if you feel they do have valid points) and call on them to comment occasionally. Don’t be at all intimidated if an attendee clearly has expertise in the topic area. This person could be a great “go to” person to help provide examples, offer opinions/input from their work environment, share war stories, etc. Remember that you attract more bees with honey than vinegar so avoid any temptation to be confrontational. The “Know it All” can become a great asset to you if you manage them correctly ?
? If they’re offering valid comments but maybe dominating the conversation a bit, reiterate/validate their comment by writing it visibly for all to see, and then ask for other ideas to complete the list. (e.g. “Steven, it sounds like you’re suggesting that we use approach x in this scenario…is that correct? That’s a great suggestion. Let’s compile a list of several suggestions, then discuss them all. We’ll list your suggestion as “A” on the list. I’d like to get at least three other suggestions from the group. What do others think?”)
? If they’re offering comments that you don’t necessarily agree with, avoid the temptation to argue with the attendee. I’ve found that there are very few black and white answers in the workplace; instead there are more shades of grey. If they are offering “expertise” that you feel is incorrect, thank them for their feedback and ask for other’s input (e.g. “Steven, that’s an interesting idea/approach/suggestion. What do others think about that idea? What have you found that works well in your environment?”) Note: If they suggest something that is clearly incorrect or ill-advised, let the group know that you disagree (and offer alternate suggestions) to ensure the group doesn’t absorb erroneous information.
? If they explicitly challenge you on a point, acknowledge the validity of your point but ask them to elaborate on their experience as well and summarize both experiences with the group. (e.g. Steven, although we’re recommending that the project team develop their project charter within the first two weeks, it sounds like that might be challenging in your environment. Tell me more about what has worked better in your environment….So, to summarize the key take aways from this conversation for the larger group, I would certainly recommend that you strive to document the project charter within the first two weeks or so; however, recognize that there could be situations like Steven’s (where he was leading an international project disrupted by a major reorganization days after the project start) where that may not be practical. That’s certainly reality so it’s great to not only discuss the best practice but also take a look at how we might react during extreme conditions as well.)
? Use the round robin technique (go around the room asking each person to share a comment) and start at the opposite end of the table from the know it all (e.g. “This is such an important issue that I want to be sure I’m getting everyone’s ideas. Let’s do a quick round robin starting with Jill…”)
? Take a break and solicit the know it all’s support offline (“Steven, you’ve brought up several key points. Thanks for that input! I’m hoping to get some of the other team members involved in the discussion to hear their ideas as well. Some members of the group are not as assertive, but I want to be sure we hear from them.”)

The MultiTasking Attendee
Nothing is more frustrating than leading a training session only to have several people blatantly texting on their PDA, reading the latest Us Weekly, or even taking a phone call during your event. You can take steps to manage multitasking behavior. Don’t become visibly frustrated. Try these best practices instead.
? Bring the issue up to the group at the start of the session and decide as a group how you want to handle technology distractions. Options may include the following:
o Use a “technology drop box” at the front of the classroom and agreeing to drop in all phones, etc. prior to start of the session
o Agree on 10 minute technology breaks every hour
o Agree on a mild punishment for violators (e.g. one group suggested that the instructor can answer any ringing phones, another group suggested anyone caught texting must sing a stanza of Take Me Out to the Ballgame)
? Use facilitation techniques that keep participants actively engaged:
o Round robin
o Active questioning
o Affinity diagramming
o Sub team work
o Dot voting
Also, constantly rotate participants working at the flip chart or whiteboard
? Use a circular or U shape room setup that allows you to easily walk around (and near) violators quite easily. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of walking around constantly! Teach from every corner of the room.
? Pose a question to the multitasker (Chris, what are your thoughts on that idea?)

The Wet Blanket Attendee
We’ve all experienced the person who is always whining, “But, that’ll never work in my environment!” This constant whining/negativity can certainly undermine the effectiveness of the training. Remember these tips the next time you encounter a “wet blanket”.

? In a non-defensive tone, ask them for alternatives that would work in their environment (e.g. Julie, it looks like you’re not quite buying into that recommendation. What do you think would work more effectively in your environment?)
? Question why they doubt the effectiveness of the approach and highlight/challenge any erroneous assumptions they may be making (e.g. Julie, it sounds like you’re questioning our suggestion that the Project Manager prioritize the project’s focus on cost, time, and quality because your sponsor insisted that they were all equally important on your last project. In retrospect do you think any of the three triple constraints had a higher priority from the external client’s perspective?... Oh, so time was really the most important driver? So, it seems that in your case the project sponsor was somewhat misinformed. So, it sounds like the recommendation to prioritize the triple constraint elements is still valid, but we can’t always assume that our internal sponsor has the correct information.”
? Solicit support for the recommended approach or learning point from the group (e.g. “It sounds like Julie isn’t convinced. Has anyone successfully used this approach? Bob, please share your experience.”)
? Admit that the recommended approach is not perfect (no approach is), but highlight the benefits. Also, acknowledge the danger of doing nothing. (e.g. Clearly, there is no perfect solution. Conducting risk analysis won’t eliminate all risk on the project, but if we don’t conduct it, we’re managing the project blind and leaving ourselves open to significant risk without any plan for mitigating it.)

The Vacuum (sucks up all your time wanting you to solve his problems at work)
You know this attendee. They are very engaged with tons of questions because they’re dealing with this exact issue on their job right now and they want you to fix it for them! The vacuum attendee is dangerous because they may want you to spend an hour explaining every detail of a topic you’d only allocated ten minutes for. They may also have a laundry list of questions and impede others’ ability to ask their questions. You might be tempted to avoid them or shut them down abruptly. Don’t do it. Instead, try these techniques.
? Thank them for their zealous participation and acknowledge the time allocated for that section (e.g. Carrie, it sounds like you’ve worked a lot with business plans; unfortunately, I need to closely monitor our time to ensure I can get everyone out by 4:00 as we committed. Since we’ve spent about 30 minutes on this section, can we possibly hold that question until the end of class so I can be sure we’ve made it through all the material)?
? Ask them to place their question on the parking lot (Carrie, we’re running short on time for this section, but I don’t want to miss your question. Would you mind jotting it down on a sticky note and placing that on the Parking Lot so I can review it at our next break?)
? If they’re asking questions beyond the scope of the course or going into more detail than intended ask the group if others are interested in more details/examples and offer to discuss it in more detail during break or after class. (e.g. Carrie, it sounds like you’ve worked a lot with business plans; unfortunately, if we go into detail on the financial calculations, it’ll take about thirty additional minutes of class time. If there’s interest in that, I’m more than happy to take the time to do it, but I don’t want to rush through it. I’ll review those calculations for anyone who is interested right after class ends. Anyone else interested?)
? If you feel they’re dominating the questioning, ask for questions from others. (e.g. We’ve gotten great questions from this side of the room, but the other side has been somewhat quiet. What questions do you guys have?)

One of the best facilitation tools you can use is the development of Ground Rules. Write, post, and review ground rules at the beginning of the session and ask for the group’s buy in on them. Explicitly ask if there are any ground rules listed that someone can’t buy into. Certain ground rules should be proposed to serve as a support system for you should you encounter difficult attendees. Sample ground rules might include the following:
? Balanced input from the group – everyone participates!
? No multitasking – Laptops closed/PDAs down ?
? Don’t hesitate to question
? Remember there may not be one right answer – be open to different approaches
? Stick to time limits
? Have fun!

Keep in mind that no one technique will be effective with every attendee. Your arsenal of techniques should be as varied as the different personalities you will encounter. Our intention is not to provide the silver bullet (because there obviously isn’t one); instead, we offer a wide variety of techniques that will hopefully expand your facilitation toolbox. Your challenge is to decide which tool will work best in each situation. Remember that if you’re bothered by a difficult attendee, others most likely are as well. As the training facilitator one of your roles is ambassador on behalf of all attendees. Don’t make the mistake that so many trainers make of sticking your head in the sand and hoping that difficult attendee simply gets lost coming back from the restroom and never returns. Take a deep breath, smile, and use these techniques….THEY WORK!

© 2009 Professionalism Matters, Inc.
Dana Brownlee is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc., a boutique consulting and training company based in Atlanta, GA. Her company also owns and operates, an online resource for meeting facilitation tips, training, and instructional DVDs. Her latest DVD publications are “Are You Running a Meeting or Drowning in Chaos?” and “5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting Time in Half!” She can be reached at

Author's Bio: 

In 2003 Dana Brownlee, PMP founded Professionalism Matters, Inc., a boutique professional development training and consulting firm. Her company provides interactive training workshops on a variety of topics including project management, meeting facilitation, and team building. In 2009 Professionalism Matters launched an online resource for the latest tips, techniques, instructional videos, and other resources pertaining to meeting facilitation. Her company has produced two meeting facilitation training DVDs: “Are You Running a Meeting… or Drowning in Chaos?” and “5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting Time in Half!” (Both are available at Dana has spoken to many Project Management Institute audiences including a presentation (“The Secrets to Running Project Status Meetings that Work!) at the PMI Global Congress 2008 North America in Denver. She has been selected to speak at the 2010 International Association of Facilitators North America 2010 Conference in Chicago. A much sought after speaker and trainer, Dana has presented courses in three countries and authored a course currently being taught in five countries.

Dana’s client list includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, Emory Professional Learning Program, Georgia Power Company, Mississippi Power Company, Southface Energy Institute, Learning Tree International, OCI Chemical Corporation and many others. Dana received a BS from Spelman College, a BIE from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Emory University.