Dealing with "difficult" people or challenging situations in the training room

From time to time as trainers and facilitators we find ourselves working with  people with whom we (or the group) seem to be having difficulty.  We might find their behaviour is affecting others or impacting on the activity.  What to do?  Here are some tactics I have found helpful.  

Points worth noting first!

1. Recognise and accept that for the person at that moment in time whatever is going on for them, whatever they say, it is true for them. They may even regret quite quickly a heat of the moment comment.  Your response (rather than reaction) will affect what happens next.

2. Consider first whether it is worth intervening.  Is this disruption minor or is it greater than the possible disruption that would be caused by you stepping in?

3. Is there a choice whether to intervene publicly in front of the group, or whether it is better to wait until a break (or call one there and then) and address the person privately?  But don't cop out.

Trainer tactics

a. Building rapport and active listening - demonstrate you are paying attention, understand, are interested and value the view point. Look at the non verbal cues and use of voice and manage your own as well.  I often say "thank you for asking that" before I respond.

b. Give some venting time and have a 'parking sheet' - build time into the programme early on if you know emotions are going to run high.  When this happens, people stop listening to each other and won't be amenable to learning until there is space to "get it out".  If it is one person, let them get the words out and keep listening and empathising, which in itself serves as a calming response.  Don't lose sight of the emotional dimension.  It may be others have something to say too, so create a "Parking Lot".  Give a set amount of time for issues to be vented, write them on a flip sheet, thank everyone, then explain that these are not part of the day's training, but will be fed back. You have then "parked" the issues but enabled venting and, hopefully, the means, to move on.

c. Boomerang - deflect a comment back to the group, e.g. "Vince has suggested 'x', what does anyone else think?"

d. Back at you - deflect a challenging question straight back "What do you think?". I manage my voice and non verbal self when this happens. This is not @batting it back" at someone, rather making room to expand.

e. Surfacing - say what is going on in the room (it helps the group to be 'real').  At a surface level - "it's warm in here, shall we turn down the heating" - it is simple; you will need to work at an intuitive level and understand risk if you are diving a bit deeper, as it needs to be done carefully.  

f. Restate meaning - summarising, reflecting back or paraphrasing can help clarify the meaning of what is being said.  Use the person's frame of reference to express the essence of what is being said.  Better (assuming you have listened actively!), repeat back EXACTLY what you heard without the tone (tone directs meaning).

g. Three positions - I have a choice about how I respond. Position 1, from my own viewpoint 'I would like to say how I feel/what I think about what you have said'; Position 2, in their shoes (empathy) 'I understand what you are saying about that and that it looks like...'; Position 3, the helicopter view 'Let's stand back for a minute and look at what is going on here'.

A process for managing

Assuming you are managing yourself and have identified and put aside "self', when there is conflict in the training room I find a process that has a set of steps to follow can help:

NEEDS - establish the needs of all parties present. 'Tell me what your position is on this'. Be impartial, give everyone their say and have ground rules on interrupting.

IMPACT - go round again and ask each to state the impact of the others' position on them. Again, no interruptions.  This should introduce some listening.

CAUSE - explore the cause of the conflict.

OPTIONS - facilitate a discussion of options for resolution moving forwards.

How to get better at dealing with challenging behaviour

As a trainer or facilitator I am a practitioner and as such I'm continually developing my own skill and ability, so I recommend you do the same - get feedback on how you managed, train yourself, use critical reflection to assess what happened to plan and adopt future approaches, develop your feedback skills (they are not naturally handed to us at birth) and assertiveness skills.  

It would be easy to categorise "difficult people" into types (the whisperer, the aggressive one, the time hogger, the attacker, the grenade thrower, the 'here in body only'), but I don't believe this is helpful or a professional way of practising.  It is the behaviour and not the person that is at issue and this is what governs my thinking and responding in the training room.

Have a strategy for the behaviour, by all means, but always treat the person as an individual, with respect and unconditional positive regard.