Train The Trainer

Dealing with Difficult Delegates

A trainer is expected to lead the group, facilitate learning and manage difficult delegates. Basic theories of assertiveness will help any trainer to deal with difficult situations effectively; the more assertively you behave, the fewer opportunities for disruption present themselves.  However, it does happen to the best trainer.  We have all probably experienced this in some form or another – trying valiantly to reason with an incredibly difficult person.  The situation proves frustrating, maddening, and can sometimes even be frightening.  The truth is, you can’t reason with an unreasonable person.  However, there are proven techniques to better manage situations such as the ones listed below.  Read through them and make a mental note of how you would deal with these delegates.  Our hints and tips on how to deal with these situations and many others are listed later in the article.


  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”!
  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. Hint – it is not a problem if you do not know the answer to a question you are asked.  Note the question and go back to the group when you have found out the answer.
  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. Hint – still include everyone in your questioning during the course.  You never know you may just get people who initially do not want to participate suddenly engaged and wanting to offer their feedback and advice.
  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.

Have you met these delegates?  I am sure you have – difficult delegates are not that rare.  What is really interesting though is how often the person responsible for arranging the training and assigning the delegates to the course is already aware that the future delegate is not happy, but has failed to inform the trainer of this fact and has not done anything to tackle it prior to the course taking place  (Example 1).  Moreover each delegate should have agreed their objectives with their manager before coming on the course.  Having objectives is an important part of preparing to go on a course.  Not only is this useful for clarifying the purpose of a course, it also identifies what each delegate needs to get out of it, and what will be expected of them when they return to work.  This will normally provide far stronger motivation than some vague notion like, ‘I’m here to learn some presentation skills’.  Creating strong motivation is a very positive way to deter delegates from indulging in inappropriate behaviour.

Many times as a trainer or facilitator we come across delegates who just do not want to be there (Example 2).  Whether it’s because they have been ‘sent’, or whether they are hostile to the idea of the training, it is something that we have to deal with for the benefit of other delegates who may not share their views.  It is also necessary to do our best to try and engage them.

Whatever your level of experience as a trainer you will probably have encountered some situations which require careful handling.  Challenging or difficult behaviour may stem from a perception that they won’t benefit from the training; that it’s irrelevant or a waste of their time and as the facilitator you need to ensure other learners’ experience is not hindered by this potential disruption.

There are many ways to deal with this type of delegate, but the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t always coming from a place of negativity – for some delegates, critical questioning and inquiry is simply their preferred way of learning, so don’t jump to conclusions about the reasons behind someone’s behaviour.

Clearly whatever the reason for it, a good trainer needs to have the confidence and methods to deal with any behaviour that can disrupt the learning experience for others.

The trainer’s ability to perform to a high standard throughout the day when faced with difficult delegates is inevitably impacted, as is the concentration and involvement of other delegates who can be distracted or even influenced by such behaviours.  The point, however, is not to excuse someone’s bad behaviour but rather to understand that people seldom behave badly for the sake of behaving badly.  Rather they are utilising the behaviour they think is most likely to get them the result that they think they want.  Instead of confronting them with what they are doing wrong, it can be far more effective to demonstrate that they can achieve their desired outcome, or possibly an even more desirable outcome, by adopting a different course of action.


Here are some ideas for dealing with difficult situations:

  1. Greet the delegates as they enter the training room, talk to them briefly as individuals and try and engage with them early on to break down any barriers and detect any future problems.
  2. Listen – listening is the number one step in dealing with “unreasonable” people. Everyone wants to feel they are heard.  You will not progress until the other person feels acknowledged.  While you’re listening, really focus on what the other person is saying, not what you want to say next.  Do not ignore the person, or people – they will not go away.  Wherever possible, talk to the difficult person on a one to one level.  Find them at lunchtime or coffee break and ask them what the problem is.  Even the most upset person will usually talk reasonably given the opportunity for a private chat.
  3. Stay calm. When a situation is emotionally charged, it’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Take some slow, deep breaths.
  4. Don’t judge.  You don’t know what the other person is going through. Chances are, if a person is acting unreasonably, they are likely to be feeling some sort of vulnerability or fear.  Many delegates are negative because they are frightened that they might be exposed or put on the spot.  Remember that people learn and process information at different rates – sometimes we may think that someone is being deliberately difficult or pedantic just to be difficult, when in fact they are just having to work hard to understand.
  5. Show respect and dignity toward the other person.  No matter how a person is treating you, showing contempt will not help productively resolve the situation. Never humiliate a person – most of the other delegates will feel some sympathy for the challenging delegate, and you may find yourself alienated from the group.  Remember you also have the right to be assertive and say, “Please don’t talk to me like that.”
  6. Look for the hidden need.  What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid?
  7. Don’t demand compliance.  For example, telling someone who’s upset to be quiet and calm down will just make him or her irate. Instead, ask the person what they are upset about—and allow them to vent.  Ask them what they would like you to do – put the ball in their court.
  8. If you say, “I understand,” it usually makes things worse, especially if you do not understand. Instead, say, “Tell me more so I can understand better.”
  9. Avoid smiling, as this may look like you are mocking the person. Similarly, humour can sometimes lighten the mood, but more often than not, it’s risky and it may backfire.
  10. Don’t act defensively.  This is tough. You’re naturally not enjoying the other person saying nasty things or things that you know aren’t true.  You’re going to want to defend yourself.  However the other person is so emotionally revved up, it’s not going to help.  Remember, this is not about you.  Don’t take it personally – easier said than done.
  11. Don’t return anger with anger.  Raising your voice, pointing your finger, or speaking disrespectfully to the other person will add fuel to an already heated situation. Use a low, calm, even monotone voice.  Don’t try to talk over the person.  Wait until the person takes a breath and then speak.  Don’t argue or try to convince the other person of anything.
  12. Say, “I’m sorry,” if appropriate or, “I’m going to try to fix this,” if this is possible can go a long way toward defusing many situations.
  13. Switch to small group activities, if they persist in spreading the negativity have a discussion with them about the best way forward outside the training room. Keep everyone really busy and make the session fast paced – it throws the most ardent awkward delegate as they haven’t got the ‘space’ or time to be negative.
  14. If they really think that nothing on the course will be of benefit then just tell them that maybe they are right and their time is better spent at work – offer to telephone their line manager and explain the situation. Alternatively, if they don’t think that they can learn anything new then maybe one approach is to ask them to stay in order to share their skills and knowledge with the others.
  15. Another type of difficult delegate is the ‘know-it-all’ – the one questioning every piece of information you provide or stopping others from being involved in discussions. In this situation, be sure to praise the delegate for their contribution, but also acknowledge that others in the room might like to put some thoughts forward on the topic.  If this doesn’t work, use activities that ensure everyone in the room gets a chance to speak, eg round robins, group work and working in pairs.  This way, the delegate doesn’t feel singled out and still gets to contribute, but not at the expense of the rest of the room.

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. Consider the other delegates and do your best to ensure their learning is not disrupted. 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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