How to manage disruptive delegates in your training

Posted on June 6, 2017 by Amanda Rosewarne

One person can ruin a course if they are not carefully managed. Disruptive delegates are something that you will have to deal with. So here is a fool proof way to deal with them.

Start by figuring out how a disruptive delegate behaves that makes them disruptive. They are not necessarily loud boorish characters, they can be:

  • Disinterested. “I’ve been sent along, so I’m here”.
  • Interrupting.  They have to show what they know – constantly
  • Questioning.  Appropriate questions are great, but yet another question from the same delegate every 5 minutes will drive your group nuts!
  • Drunk
  • Argumentative

How to deal with these people?  At the first available opportunity, take the offending person to one side, well away from the rest of the group and explain to them how their behaviour is impacting on the rest of the group.  Many will not be aware that their behaviour is inappropriate and will immediately change.

For those characters that show no inclination to change after a second request, removing them from your course is the only option left.  Politely ask them to leave, again well out of sight of the rest of the group.

Should you fail to act on a disruptive delegate, the rest of the group will feel that you have let them down and will mark you down as a poor trainer.  So be strong and control disruption in groups early and firmly.

29 responses to “How to manage disruptive delegates in your training”

  1. Hi Simon,
    While there’s a general health warning; “Caution: Training May Contain Nuts”. I do think your two strikes and you’re out ruling is rather harsh; though I can see how it can be effective with certain individuals and in some circumstances .
    One alternative is to stop the training session at an appropriate point, display agreed groundrules and ask delegates which of these are we not following/should we pay more attention to?


    • I totally agree!!! The absolute key is engagement and more time spent at the beginning of the course exploring fully what people want and agreeing how the course will run as a group means everyone is engaged and signed up! Never had a disruptive delegate in 15 years of training because of the engagement

  2. I think this approach has its place if the course is yours but if you are an associate or a company has asked you to run a course then highlighting potential difficulties and ,how these are handled should be part contracting with the main client. As Jim has mentioned it is also important to set ground rules at the beginning of any session. You are also assuming there is only one disruptive person. If a group are disgruntled with their employer they are likely to project their feelings onto the facilitator and sometimes it is important to acknowledge this and work with it rather than against it.

  3. Having trained over 5000 delegates in Presentation Skills over the last 25 years, I have only ever had to deal with one delegate I would class as disruptive. My approach was to thank them for their interest and (constant) contributions, explaining that if we were to get through our agenda for the day, we did not have the time to discuss each point in such detail. I then offered to spend time with the delegate over the lunch break to address their questions / concerns. The problem was solved with no embarrassment or awkward atmosphere. During a training session, it is not always possible to take a delegate to one side.

  4. Hi All
    I’m inclined to think the solution presented here is a little cut and dried. I try to defuse negativity and discuss expectations and agreements surrounding consideration and respect at the beginning. Then no one is surprised when I say we need to move on in order to complete the course. Perhaps, though, my training sessions may be easier to manage because it is application training and has a clear goal which has to be achieved before anyone can go ahead top the next process.

  5. Be dealing aggressively with mildly – moderately disruptive participants (ie. kicking them out) can be more disruptive to a group as the behaviours mentioned above. It’s a part of the facilitators job to manage the group, and deliver the stated outcomes to the audience you’re given. Know-it-alls and repeat questioners can help open group discussion, disagreements with theory need to be dealt with sensitively, immediately and can help larger group understanding if it’s done properly. As for drunkness – 1000+ workshops in, and I’m yet to have a drunk and disorderly participants.

    When you’re faced with challenging characters be creative, be professional and make sure you know your content.

  6. Good blog you have got here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours these days.
    I truly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

  7. I agree with Simon’s post because you have a ‘care of duty’ to the other learners to achieve their return on investment and one person cannot ‘rule the roost’.

    Ground rules will achieve something and need to be done. In my experience someone that is being a pain will not be put off by ground rules alone.

    My ‘kneel down next to them, when everyone else is working’ question is: ‘I can see that I am not helping you and I am ok with that because I cannot help everyone. Would your time be better spent back at your desk?’.

  8. I love the responses, thank you – although note I suspect this “cut and dried” solution is only one of 7 solutions and this is simply a blog to stimulate interest in products and services.?

  9. When I have a ‘naysayer’ or ‘one-upper’, I quickly realize they were not there of their own accord and can quickly steamroll a training if not handled. I set ground rules/meeting expectations so that when these personalities appear I can address them more assertively. I will call them out by asking them to positively, constructively, solve the problem they are complaining about instead of just complain about it to the group. This puts them into an unfamiliar situation because they are 1) getting the stage they have been wanting, but 2) are forced to be postive, and come up with solutions, not just complaints. It creates a new way of thinking for them or it enables them to realize they can be heard if they only act with civility. It often changes the tone of the training for the better.

  10. Such people are often demonstrating a few of the 5 Basic Patterns of Chronicity. I teach these on the Integral Eye Movement Techniques Trainings as ways to help people to stop messing their lies up. Having such a person is often perfect to demonstrate the Patterns in action. I have never had to eject a person once they realise they are demonstrating the very patterns that they are supposed to be helping their “clients” or “patients” to deal with! Often the person will be give a T-shirt or some such and thanked for helping me to demonstrate the pattern so superbly. I seldom have any issues after that!

  11. I find my background in Further Education helped deal with problem delegates.

    If you’ve been able to deal with a couple of apprentice plumbers who’ve been in the pub on a Friday lunchtime you can deal with any kind of disruption -:)

    More seriously in my fifteen years running communication workshops I find that a lack of participation is usually connected with poor self esteem or feelings of fear associated with being expected in some way to “perform” in public. I find that some personal reassurance can often help.

  12. I don’t agree with this type of training and have never had to pull a candidate aside to talk to them.

    Interaction with the delegate and some educational psychology always works for me. The day I resort to taking someone to one side I’ve failed as a trainer

    Poor advice in my opinion

  13. I don’t agree at all. In thousands of hours of training I have never had to confront a delegate. I have had one or two that were acting up. At the first opportunity, I would simply go and chat to them, pay them a bit of attention, show that their point of view was important and let them know that if they wanted to chat further, we could chat in tea or lunch time. If they ask a side tracking question, I would tell them their question was interesting and simply offer to answer it during a break. Really, if you are in control of yourself, controlling the room is never much of a challenge.

  14. In my early days as an IT trainer, I had the odd ‘show off’ on the course. Usually young men playing to the gallery or the girl in the group. In my introduction at the start of the course, I requested that the students bring all of their skills and professional experience into the classroom. The word ‘professional’ is suitably ambiguous and students were wary of crossing an imaginary line. Nobody wanted to named as ‘unprofessional’. And nobody ever was.

  15. Understanding the root causes of mis-behaviour/ disruptive behaviour in the light of William Glasser’s work (Choice Theory) helps me a lot. Seeing the disrupter as someone who is expressing an unmet need rather than a threat to my training works for me. Devising ground rules together and modelling a respectful approach have resulted in ‘awkward’ participants coming on board. I agree that staying calm and ‘in control’ makes a huge difference as does working out what the disruptor is really worrying about.

  16. After 25 years of training I have rarely had disruptive delegates on my courses, however on the couple of occasions I have experienced this, I have found that actively including them in the training by asking them to share their expertise or viewpoint often diffuses situations without making them feel badly towards the course or you as a trainer. Make them feel valued and they can actually turn into some of the most vocal supporters of your training in the future. Alienate them or humiliate them in any way and the exact opposite can easily happen.

  17. It’s interesting that you choose to label someone ‘disruptive’ who may have a different label for their behaviour. Labelling someone can be unhelpful and as an experienced facilitator I’d prefer to be curious about a person’s behaviour – there’s a rational reason for every behaviour and when you seek to understand it’s rare to feel the need to throw someone out unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.
    These situations need managing not escalating but I’d suggest you get curious rather than judgmental as it’s likely to open up more options for a way forward.
    If you’ve done a good job of building rapport, agreeing expectations and matching the needs of your learners, you’ll never have to thrown someone out. If you do then make be you failed them

  18. Because my courses depend upon a good state and conducive brain wave frequencies (Alpha or above), it is essential that delegates keep in mind that they are in control of their own abilities to use language in a conscious way. Ground rules are therefore what I can refer back to if that’s not going to plan. My trainings are over a period of several days, so people are under slightly more pressure than quick one day in and outs.

  19. I use body language and the other delegates to make the disruptive person shut up.

    I will take the question from them looking directly at them, then when I start to answer I keep looking at them and just as I finish I look at the other delegates and encourage the more positive ones to add their input so I am not the one finishing the answer nor am I looking at disrupter.

    It works a treat with most people and they get the message that you will not be their punch bag for the day because other delegates have a way of putting them in their place.

  20. Reasonable advice, but when we are diagnosing trainee behaviours let’s get the language right. Where you state ‘distinterested’ (meaning impartial) I think you mean ‘uninterested’.

  21. I would say there’s no such thing as a disruptive delegate, just an inflexible facilitator. Those ‘disruptive’ behaviours contain valuable info about the individual and/or perceived culture of the organisation. If the facilitator is brave enough to go there, that’s where real transformational change happens. My most ‘disruptive delegate’ (who reported me to his superior on the second day of our two weeks together) eventually became a raving fan of the training we were giving, and we’re still in touch 4 years later.

  22. I once had an Accenture mgmt. consultant on a financial software course, who was determined to show all our assembled customers, also on the course, that he knew everything, by constantly interrupting and asking questions. Once I realised what was going on, I suggested that in order to keep the course on track and meet our scheduled 4 day time scale, he could perhaps keep a note of all his questions, and I would go through them with him at the end of the day, with any other delegates that may like to listen in. Also, there was a good chance we’d be covering things he was raising, later in the course, so he would be able to cross questions off, if and when we covered them. Funnily enough I didn’t get one question from him after that, either written or spoken!!

  23. Agree with Melissa. People generally behave as they do for a reason: finding that is the key to dealing with them, they can they become your biggest ally. Handling difficult people is a core skill in any HR intervention, inc. training.

  24. My experience within the welfare to work sector , I have used some of the following strategies
    1. a Red/Card Yellow card behaviour management system (BMS) to manage disruptive behaviour e.g lateness
    2. Speak to the individual on a one to basis during the break
    3. Other students will also buy-into the BMS by commenting about the behaviour. This does need to be managed properly so that it doesn’t become a list of accusations
    4. Address the concern head on particularly for those who have to attend e.g mandatory

    Ultimately any behaviour that detracts from learning needs to be managed effectively, regardless of the learning environment.