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Top tips on dealing with difficult delegates (in training sessions)

Libby. July 1, 2019

We wanted to highlight a training issue that we come across all too often – one disgruntled and difficult delegate derailing the training for the whole group.

Some recent examples:

Delegate 1. A senior manager stated at the start of the training that she was not happy and didn’t see the value in the day long course. She then argued her way through the day and sought to repeatedly undermine the trainer by challenging the relevance and accuracy of the materials presented. The following day the HR manager said that she knew the delegate was going to be difficult, but hadn’t felt it necessary to warn the trainer or withdraw her from the training, saying that she thought it would be interesting “to see what happened”!

Delegate 2. A director of a global corporate sought to deliberately undermine, in front of over 100 people, the trainer who was delivering a speech on diversity and inclusion. He asked a question that he already knew she did not know the answer to, because their was no definitive answer.

Delegate 3. A teacher said that she did not wish to participate in the training course, but as she was required to, she would attend but move her chair to the back of the room for the day. So while she was present, she wanted everyone to know that she would not engage with the training.

Delegate 4. A delegate felt that his company should not have asked a competitor to deliver training, but instead use in house training resources. He demonstrated his anger by returning very late from all breaks throughout the day and not speaking when he was present.

Difficult delegates are not rare in the slightest. We could have given you 500 examples here! What is really interesting though is how often the person responsible for arranging the training is already aware that the delegate is not happy, but has neither informed the trainer of this fact nor done anything to tackle it prior to the course taking place.

Perhaps there is a lack of understanding of the impact of allowing unhappy delegates to attend training. As you can see from the above examples, in our experience delegates who set out to disrupt training tend to either undermine the trainer or withdraw their co-operation in one form or another. Seldom do they act as mature adults and find a way to discuss their viewpoint with the trainer and then withdraw completely from the training if that is the most sensible thing to do.

However, the trainer’s ability to perform to a high standard throughout the day when faced with overt hostility is inevitably impacted, as is the concentration and involvement of other delegates who can be distracted or even influenced by such behaviours. Which begs the question as to why there is a tendency to say it is more important that difficult staff attend training, rather than for those attending training to be given the best possible training experience?

As this is an issue so many businesses experience, here are our top tips…

Top tips on dealing with difficult delegates:

  1. Ask the person who has invited staff to attend a training session if any of the delegates are unhappy at having to attend. If the answer is yes, ask to speak to those individuals before the training takes place to ascertain their views and attitude.
  2. Do not allow the delegate to dictate how they will behave during your training session. The trainer must have the authority of the organisation to be able to challenge delegate behaviours, even to the extent that they are able to ask a particularly disruptive delegate to leave.
  3. Factor in to your time plan a short period during the first break and also a lunch break (if you have one) to talk privately to a delegate who is being difficult or disruptive.
  4. Step up into ‘parent mode’ if that is required to set the standards of behaviour during your training session. You should not feel obligated to always operate in ‘friend’ or ‘colleague’ mode.
  5. Remind yourself that it is more important you deliver a great course than be ‘liked’. This should free you up to feel able to be more assertive with the difficult delegates.
  6. Remember that bad attitude in the workplace is an act of misconduct. Therefore bad attitude during a training session is inappropriate and not professional and should be dealt with accordingly – even if your training is taking place off site.
  7. You, the trainer, should set the standards/rules for your training course and should not rely on the adults attending to know what standards of behaviour and participation you expect.

Delivering training is often challenging and demanding as well as rewarding and satisfying, so it’s a shame if just one delegate derails you and makes the day difficult and unsatisfactory. We would encourage HR and staff organising training to be more aware of the needs of the trainer in respect of information about delegates and their authority to manage delegates. Likewise we would encourage trainers to continually develop their skills in managing conflict and difficult people to ensure great training courses are not derailed.

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