How to deal with difficult and challenging delegate behaviour: Pay attention at the back

Every trainer who has faced a classroom of delegates will know that some people are easier to deal with than others. And, if you want to make sure all delegates get the same value out of your training sessions, managing ‘difficult’ behaviour is a vital skill.


Linda Johnson, training manager at distributor James Hall and Co, says that dealing with difficult behaviour in the training room is part and parcel of her job. “The main problems stem from staff believing that they are unable to benefit from training. Sometimes people will sit with their arms crossed, glaring – almost daring me to teach them something new. These types of delegates rarely give answers and often refuse to take part in group work,” she says.


Cynical behaviour


Johnson deals with this cynical behaviour by talking to the delegate away from the training room. “I often pull them to one side to ask them what their problem is. By talking to them, I can then usually get to the bottom of their issues.”


Know-it-alls can also be problematic. “If someone keeps answering all the questions, I split delegates into groups or pose questions to specific individuals. However, it’s important to acknowledge that you appreciate their contribution. I take people to one side and tell them this and then ask if they can let others get involved too,” says Johnson.


There are many other different types of behaviour that can cause problems, such as the delegate who makes no eye contact and does not take part in discussions or the side tracker, who will take every opportunity to change the subject.


Martyn Sloman, training, learning and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, was a trainer for 15 years. He says all of these varying behaviours can be avoided if time is taken at the beginning of a session to address any potential issues delegates may have.


“I learnt to ask a key question at the start of each session. I’d say: ‘There are three types of delegate – volunteers, sceptics and conscripts – which are you?’ Once you get this out in the open you can then go up to them gently in the coffee break and find out what issues they have – some may have legitimate reasons, such as an impending deadline in the office. Others may feel that the course is not relevant. If they really are going to do nothing, then it makes no organisational sense for them to be there,” he says.


Be proactive


Adrian Green, director of training firm The Development Company, presents workshops to help training managers overcome difficult behaviour. He says it pays to be proactive and find out about potential problems at the start. “You need a contract with delegates – agree that they are responsible for their own learning,” he says.


If difficult behaviour still surfaces during the course, Green says he takes time to break away from the session to address it. “If there is clearly some baggage in the group that is getting in the away of the training, allow delegates 10 minutes to discuss the issues with each other,” he says.


He then asks delegates to write down their issues on a piece of paper and place it in an envelope, with their name written on. “These envelopes should then be placed in a large envelope on the back wall of the training room with the words ‘left luggage’ written on. Agree that the issues they have discussed are real, but that they cannot be resolved on the course. Then agree that they will not be discussed and will remain in the left luggage department, where they can be retrieved at the end of the course.”


Ian Newton is a management trainer for training firm Bite Size Seminars and, like Green, also presents training sessions on dealing with difficult behaviour. He says problems can often occur if the trainer becomes riled.


“Trainers often take difficult behaviour personally. This can then lead to an emotional response, which is often to withdraw or attack. The main reason why people behave in a difficult way is because they are afraid of something – trainers need to understand this so that they can respond correctly,” he says.


Difficult delegates will try your patience, but taking time to find out why they are behaving in a certain way is the quickest route to resolving issues quickly, so you can get on with the session.


Top tips




  • At the start, ask delegates why they are attending.


  • Use coffee breaks to take ‘difficult’ delegates to one side and address any issues.


  • Do not ignore the situation. Take time out to discuss issues, then move on.


  • Do not take difficult behaviour personally or give an emotional response.


  • Do not argue with delegates.


  • If a delegate continues to be disruptive, politely ask them to leave.


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