Managing challenging participant behaviour

Guidance

Anne Bradbury, L&D Consultant Last Modified  31 August 2016

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Background information
Challenging behaviours from participants may include negativity, disengagement, lack of participation or over-participation and, very occasionally, aggressive or confrontational behaviour. Participants rarely behave in challenging ways without some type of provocation and this is usually due to circumstances outside the training room.
Causes of challenging behaviours
There are many factors outside the training room that may impact on participant behaviour once the training begins. Listed below are some of the factors that may provoke a participant or group of participants to behave in challenging ways:
  • A participant gets conscripted onto the training against their will
  • No pre-course materials were received
  • Participants unclear about why they have been invited
  • Pre-course materials failed to explain benefits of training and provide full details
  • No briefing from line manager
  • Line manager sends person on training as a punishment or as a means of addressing poor performance
  • The participant gets sent on the course without any notice being given
  • Personal or work related problems
  • Lack of cover back in the work environment
  • Participant has just been put on notice of redundancy
  • Ongoing conflicts with other people on the course
  • Lack of confidence
  • Anger at organisational or structural changes
  • Running a course where participants have reporting relationships e.g. a supervisor and their team member on the same course
  • Participants are related to each other
  • The boss's wife, husband, son or daughter are on the course
  • Participant wrongly sent on the course with either too little or too much experience to attend
Preventative measures to take
It is impossible to anticipate the full range of external factors that can impact on the participant behaviours. However, there are number of steps you can take in preparation and at the start of your training in order to increase the likelihood of people arriving in a positive state of mind.

Preventative measure to take before the training
  • Giving the course an appealing title that will build interest and anticipation (see An effective title for your training).
  • Sending out pre-course materials well in advance which include full details of the course, benefits to the participants and any pre-course preparations (see Creating engaging pre-course materials).
  • Conducting a pilot training session which is attended by a cross section of typical course participants. Acting on feedback to make the course more job specific and relevant (see Creating a pilot training session).
  • Find out as much as possible about course participants before they arrive for their training. This begins with conducting a comprehensive learning needs analysis and planning and designing the training to meet these requirements.
Preventative measures to take on the day of the training
What you do on the day of the training may also have a big impact on the way participants behave. Points to consider include:
  • Giving participants a warm welcome before the training begins by greeting them in the refreshments area, making introductions and being friendly and approachable (see Putting participants at ease).
  • Starting the training session on a positive note so that participants understand what benefits the benefits are, what to expect and get the opportunity to create ground rules (see Opening the training session).
  • Ensuring that participants get the chance to set their personal learning objectives and know that these will be reviewed at the end of the course (see Agreeing personal learning objectives).
Establish ground rules
Although ground rules are mentioned in other tools, they require a special mention here. Agreeing some behavioural ground rules early on helps you to manage participant behaviours later in the day. You can record the ground rules on a flipchart, put them on the wall and refer back to them later on, if needed.

Clearly the group need to identify the ground rules for themselves but you should prompt them to set ground rules in the following areas:
  • Return from breaks punctually
  • Respect each other’s opinions
  • Everyone to contribute
  • Balanced contributions
  • No side conversations
  • No interrupting each other
  • Keeping on topic
  • Parking issues that do not relate to the training
  • Giving honest feedback
  • All electronic devices switched off

Points to consider
Avoid suggesting ground rules yourself. Instead ask open questions to lead the group to set the ground rules. For example ‘what ground rules should we set around..?’ You can then explore each area e.g. punctuality, mobile devices, respect for each other etc.
When all ground rules have been agreed, ask the group to commit to adhering to them and encourage people to speak up at any stage when they are not adhered to. If the group is mature, you could consider giving participants call bells to ring when they feel a ground rule has been transgressed.
Don’t be afraid to refer back to the ground rules yourself, if they are not being adhered to. For example, 'Remember that we agreed to return from breaks punctually as part of the ground rules. I want to keep to time today so that we can finish at the agreed time'.
Coping with challenging behaviours on the day
Some challenging behaviours can entirely disrupt the flow of the day for you and the other participants. These sorts of behaviours include negativity, hostility, showing off, or constantly interrupting. Other behaviours may be less disruptive for the group as a whole but will still need to be addressed. These behaviours might include an unwillingness to participate or a lack of confidence or experience to get involved.

One of the only downsides of running highly interactive training courses is that it requires high degree of participation. Despite the fact that people are more likely to become challenging in a participative environment, the benefits of participation usually outweigh the challenges.

Despite making thorough preparations beforehand and setting up the training on a positive note, challenging behaviours may still arise. Some suggested coping strategies for handling different types of behaviours are listed below, but you should also identify some of your own.

Read the Challenging behaviours and coping strategies table and use it to help fill out your own plan using the template provided in the Support material section.

Points to consider
Where poor behaviours are especially disruptive, always try to address the issue privately with the individual during a break.
You may wish to agree a code of conduct on courses with the senior management team. Knowing you have management backing to ask someone to leave may help.
If someone is particularly difficult during the training, try to stay calm, and explore their point of view, where appropriate. The only time to confront poor behaviour publicly is when the opinions being expressed are discriminatory or deeply offensive. For example racist, sexist, homophobic or other extremist viewpoints. In these instances, you must take a stand and ask a person to refrain from such comments immediately. If the situation persists, firmly ask them to leave.
Dealing with hostility
Possible coping strategies:
  • Ensure that you have explained the benefits of the course and try to involve the person who appears hostile.
  • Refer back to the ground rules on the wall.
  • If all else fails call a break and speak to the person in private, assertively explaining the impact of their behaviour and asking them to modify it. If this fails, consider asking them to leave the course during the next break.
Dealing with over participation or showing off
Possible coping strategies:
  • Say ‘let’s hear from someone who hasn't spoken yet’ and then ask a question.
  • Refer back to the ground rules on the wall.
  • When the next break happens, speak to the person in private, assertively explaining the impact of their behaviour and asking them to modify it.
Dealing with the course being taken off track
Possible coping strategies:
  • Refer back to the ground rules on the wall.
  • Capture any concerns on the ‘issues to park’ flipchart and review these at the end of the day.
  • When the next break happens, speak to the person in private, assertively explaining the impact of their behaviour and asking them to modify it.
Dealing with lack of participation and disengagement
Possible coping strategies:
  • Try to draw the person in by using questions and building on their comments.
  • Give them responsibility for leading a team during an exercise.
  • If the situation doesn't improve, have a gentle chat with the person during the break exploring what the issue may be.
Dealing with lack or confidence or experience
Possible coping strategies:
  • Call on the person by name and then ask them an easy question. If they get it right, acknowledge them but if they struggle offer immediate assistance.
  • Pair the person with a more confident but supportive partner during exercises.
  • If the situation doesn't improve, have a gentle chat with the person during the break exploring how you can help them.
Dealing with conflict or hostility between participants
Possible coping strategies:
  • Refer back to the ground rules on the wall.
  • Split people up during group exercises.
  • If all else fails call a break and speak to the main perpetrator or both people in private, assertively explaining the impact of their behaviour and asking them to modify it. If this fails, consider asking them to leave the course during the next break.
Dealing with a whole group that seems negative, distracted or upset
Possible coping strategies:
  • Calmly sit amongst the group, describing the behaviour you have observed and asking them what's wrong.
  • If there is a specific issue, try to identify what it is and adapt the programme to take this into account, if appropriate. For example, if everyone has just been told the company being taken over by another business and they are on a presentation skills course, use this knowledge to help them think about how they might create powerful presentations when they are in front of the new management team.
Dealing with poor punctuality
Possible coping strategies:
  • Remind the group that punctuality was agreed as part of the ground rules.
  • If appropriate, tell the group the course may over run, if people are persistently late.
  • If all else fails, speak to the latecomers during a break finding out why they were late, trying to resolve and issues and explaining the impact of their lateness on the group.