Dealing with difficult people when facilitating

There comes a time for most facilitators when they’re met with that person in the group who is difficult. In the context of the learning session, this is quite broad. A difficult person is someone who:
– is dominating a lot of the conversation because they have things to say
– are openly questioning and challenging the facilitator
– is making inappropriate remarks or comments to others in the room
– is cynical to an uncomfortable level
– is challenging because of recent change affected to them
– and other behaviours I’m not remembering to list

I’ve had cause in recent learning sessions to deal with these types of difficult people. And it’s caused me to reflect on what role I play in their behaviour.

First and foremost I have taken the opinion that if it is happening in the learning session, this is the right place for it. Something in that session has sparked something in that person for them to react a certain way. This may be wittingly or not on my behalf. In most cases it is an unexpected outcome of an intended exercise.

This helps me to consider that with this group, it’s my role to help that person move through what they’re experiencing. This involves a range of skills I call on to help me gauge what’s happening.

If it’s annoyance at a model or theory I’m presenting, I can accept that. These things don’t work for everyone and it’s important not to be wedded to such things just because the session was designed a certain way.

If it’s someone who is dominating the conversation,  I find this is normally because they are someone who expresses their opinion freely with little regard to how it is received. I do a few things when faced with this. I’ll set to purposefully change the way an exercise will run so that it relies on open participation and means more than one person has to be active in the discussion.

In a group discussion I normally let this person say what they need to. I’ve learned to be careful how much attention I offer that person and will move myself amongst the group and talk directly to other members encouraging their input. I’ve been plenty guilty in sessions to stand my ground (literally) and direct myself only to that person neglecting everyone else.

If it’s cynicism I find this harder to handle. Generally because I want to focus on progressive and positive discussions and learning. This often means I’m fighting my urge to argue with that person and show them how wrong they are. I have to go back to Facilitation Skills 101 and focus on my active listening (or facilitative listening) skills. Like I say this is really hard for me in this context as I’ve already judged and decided that person is wrong. When I can do this, it helps me to better understand where that cycnism is coming from and often contracting with that person to move on with the session because their concern cannot be dealt with then and there.

If it’s inappropriate remarks to someone else in the room, I have no qualms about addressing those directly. I don’t demean or put down the person doing it. It’s not heckling and I’m not a comedian. Well, not professionally. So I challenge the comments being made. I never challenge the person though. In this context I’m actively seeking to raise awareness of a person’s behaviour by challenging what they’re displaying.

Now don’t get me wrong. These techniques I use are far from fool proof, and may not be the right approach to take. Indeed there are other factors like the trust in the group, trust with me, the engagement of the group, the purpose of the learning session, the environment we’re in, the motivation if individuals, all of which and more, which may be affecting a positive or negative outcome.

I find that it it in these moments of challenging behaviour in a learning session that my learning most takes place. I have all the theory and models ready and waiting to be deployed for awareness raising, but these situations demand a different active skill set which I’m enjoying reflecting on and understanding better about myself and the environment I’m creating. This is when true learning takes place for me.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with difficult people when facilitating”

  1. Sukh, the one that really gets on my goat is the disengaged disruptive person. The one who is only there because the boss made them come and while not being directly challenging to the facilitator, the chat with other attendees etc and are passively disruptive.

  2. Luckily, these doesn’t happen often, at least not for me. I had a case in which I took the person aside at break and had a conversation. Her entire group was required to attend the communication/customer service session. She felt it was beneath her due to her experience. I turned it around and said that with her years of experience, I would have expected her to set a good example, guiding and helping those around her. I asked her not to return to the session unless her behavior changed. It did, and she was a model participant thereafter.

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