How to Handle Difficult Participants – It’s Not a Trick!

© Steve Whiteford 2013

A friend recently dropped me an email exclaiming that she had just learned some really good tricks for controlling difficult participants and managing groups when facilitating. I was immediately interested because this is a recurring question when I teach Presentation and it’s exciting to imagine there is something new and clever that I might learn. I was a little disappointed when I looked at the list of tips, because I really didn’t find anything that I haven’t taught or used over the years; just a novel packaging.

Clever packaging is fun and gets our attention. It can make us see things anew. I should probably use more of it. Yet I sense there is danger in thinking a quick hit technique will really do the job. The quick hit “tricks” only truly work if they are not used as tricks, but are the surface point maneuver of a whole way of being. A recommended behavior like – acknowledge what’s valuable in a challenge and then add value, bridging to your point – is a quick verbal technique that can be done with words alone. It might even work at that level, once or twice.

Example Challenge–

The best presenters have a grab-bag of quick tricks; it’s too much to connect with everyone…


Absolutely! Tricks can make you feel more confident. What really makes the “trick” work is a strong commitment to respecting and valuing each participant; seeking to understand the resistance and blend it into the learning of the group…

You can learn and practice the repartee, but without depth of intention the verbal strategy may fall flat. The problem is when we feel we’re being clever or using a great technique, we’re manipulating. There is a depth of caring and openness that drops out. There is little respect in the idea that we can mesmerize someone and deftly move on. Even though some will admire you, the intrinsic vibes of disrespect and distrust may resonate through the group. Though things may run smoothly – there will be a separating edge. Often people will be inspired to further test you.

I’m not suggesting you need to be a saint. I’m not a saint. Sometimes when participants show up with strong defense and resistance I stand there thinking – “OK, where’s my two by four!” If I don’t catch that feeling and transform it, I’m in trouble.

No long ago, I was facilitating a workshop in job search techniques. (This can be sensitive work because participants show up sore – from having lost their jobs, and skeptical – that there is anything they can learn that will help their situation.) I had one participant which the others quickly dubbed “The Grinch.” He was resistant and challenging at the opening of the workshop. I wanted my two by four. (I sometimes have the thought that to do a good job, I have to get everybody to participate in everything, immediately acknowledge my sage expertise, and respond only positively.) BUT, in this instance I took a breath, looked for what I could like about this guy, respected his condition – and then made the verbal move of acknowledgment with a playful request that he “keep me on my toes.” We all moved forward. He and I had established a relationship. I found that it was part of his character to throw off-handed wringers into the conversation, and I kept tapping into my sense of relationship with him as I used whatever approach might move us forward while adding to the learning of the group. I consistently received his divergent comments and connected them to positive recommendations from the course material.

I was actively using something I had learned in a Horses and Leadership workshop…I gave him some rope. I loosened the reigns – enough to acknowledge his independence and yet still give a tug to hold command and control distraction.

The second day of the workshop other participants expressed appreciation of the way I had worked with “The Grinch.” I was gratified when one senior manager in the group just smiled at me and said “You’re good!”

“Well, he’s not really a bad guy, and I do this a lot.” was my answer.

The Grinch came an hour late, had to drop his kids off at school…But oddly, I was glad to see him. He continued to test me and I continued to learn from the opportunity to reposition essential points.

The next week I was teaching a different workshop at the same venue and was pleased to see “The Grinch” walk in the door. I was ready for him, and this time he turned out to be one of my greatest supporters, who added a lot of value to the workshop by offering perspectives from his pertinent life experience.

“Turn the beat around…Turn it upside down.” Effective rapport is a dance.

The deft move is more profound when it is not just toward the other, but starts with an internal shift.

Check your attitude, your openness, and your connection to “the opponent,” before you try any of the following:

  • Always start facilitation by giving participants a chance to speak briefly – flipchart expectations / concerns. Use comments to build rapport.
  • Acknowledge challenging comments, extend credibility when appropriate, then bridge to your point.
  •  Be willing to give away attention. Let them get some satisfaction, then add value to their comments and perspectives and run with the ball.
  • Specifically use body position and eye contact to exclude distracters. Turn slightly away from them. Keep your eyes on other participants to encourage their participation.
  • Blatantly use good humor. Have fun with the situation / participant.
  • Defer distracter questions/issues to the audience…often they will provide effective rescue.
  • If there is general tension with the group – lay your cards on the table – ask what’s going on and discuss solutions
  • Name the pattern / behavior they’re presenting and provide a good reason for requesting different behavior…
  •  Take it “off-line.” Considerately request a conversation at break-time.

Bolstered with rapport and sincerity, these verbal moves are guaranteed to do the trick.

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