Laurel and Associates, Ltd. – Madison, WI

Tip #68: Managing Difficult Participants- The Complainer.

Tip #68: Managing Difficult Participants- The Complainer.

On May 5, 2005, Posted by , In presentation, By ,, , With Comments Off on Tip #68: Managing Difficult Participants- The Complainer.

Difficult Behavior: Complains about anything and everything, including: the room, materials, topics, instructor, organization, weather, refreshments, etc. Focus is on what is wrong or bad rather than on what is right or good.

What a Trainer Can Do:

In front of the group:

  • Acknowledge the validity of the complaint;
  • Apologize for the inconvenience;
  • Determine the desired remedy;
  • Indicate what will be done to address it (if anything can be done);
  • Identify the time necessary to implement the resolution;
  • Thank the person for bringing up the issue;
  • Initiate action to resolve the issue; and
  • Move on.

If the complaint is not valid:

  • Apologize for the person’s distress.
  • Clarify your distance from the decision that generated the complaint.
  • Explain that the desired recourse is not possible.
  • Use humor to defuse the situation.
  • Avoid getting personal.
  • Refer the issue to the rest of the group, to show that the concern is not shared.
  • Pretend not to hear him/her.
  • Set rules: criticism is acceptable, as long as it is constructive and offers viable alternatives.

If the complainer may be a spokesperson for the group:

  • Determine whether the person is alone in his or her thinking, or if others feel the same way.
  • If others agree, it may be appropriate to say:” I am not here to defend the content. I am here to explain it and teach you how to use it.”
  • At other times, it may be appropriate to allow a limited amount of time for group venting or for posting constructive recommendations from the group.

In private:

  • Provide constructive feedback about the impact of the behavior on the session, the participants, and/or the trainer.
  • Coach the person to select more constructive behavior.
  • Co-opt the person- ask for his or her assistance.
  • Discuss the true source of the individual’s complaint.
  • Ask if the person is willing to let the other participants learn.
  • If necessary, indicate that the person is free to leave the session.

What a Trainer Should NOT Do:

  • Argue with the person.
  • Insult the person.
  • Get defensive.
  • Express anger.
  • Let the person control the discussion.
  • Agree with the complainer just to end the argument, if that will mislead other participants.

Real Life Example: Generally, I have found that complainers approach me privately during the break, rather than in front of the group. Their complaints are usually related to their workload, circumstances, or supervisor. I have found that giving them my sincere attention and actively listening to them tends to satisfy them. Sometimes, they complain about hygiene factors (room temperature, availability of certain beverages, etc.)- which I may occasionally be able to address. In those instances, I acknowledge their concern and indicate what I can and will do to address it. Otherwise, I simply sympathize and ask if there is anything else we might do to make them more comfortable.

Commentary: When confronted with any difficult behavior, we need to be able to step back and objectively assess what might be the root cause of the behavior. Why would someone complain?

If the complaint is valid, there probably is some workload or organizational issue that is distressing. The person needs to vent and the trainer is a relatively safe person.

If the complaint is not valid, the person is probably feeling victimized and outraged by something and needs to let off steam. It is important to treat the person with respect but put clear limits on the person’s ability to express those complaints.

I recently learned a wonderful technique to minimize disruption. Hand each participant 3 poker chips at the beginning of the session. Indicate that they may vent three times for 30 seconds at a time, handing in a chip for each venting session. Once the participant has used up his or her poker chips, s/he may not complain any more.

A variation on this is to give each person 2 cents and indicate that s/he can put his or her “two cents’ worth” into a discussion for 30 seconds. Again, once the 2 cents have been handed to the trainer, that person has no further opportunities to complain.

Obviously, you can create your own rules and process. Just make sure to be clear about the rules at the beginning of the session and implement them consistently.

Tip #69: Managing Difficult Participants- The Unconsciously Incompetent.

Difficult Behavior: Thinks s/he already has the correct knowledge, skills, and ability, when in truth s/he doesn’t. Complains that attending the training session is a waste of time. Doesn’t feel the need to participate, since s/he is so certain s/he already knows everything.

What a Trainer Can Do:

In front of the group:

In the introduction, mention that the collective expertise in the room far exceeds your own- and request their input and assistance so that everyone can learn what they need to learn. Also mention that you appreciate that some folks may feel the training is unnecessary. However, someone other than yourself decided that everyone should attend so they could have the same knowledge and vocabulary. If anyone is feeling stressed about having to attend, invite that person to consider it an opportunity to become more conscious of what s/he is doing correctly. At the very least, suggest that they consider it a time to relax, be entertained, and get to know each other better.

  • Begin with a focus question that will determine the extent of all of the participants’ knowledge of the topic. Split the participants into two groups to brainstorm and post their answers on flip charts. This will not put the unconsciously incompetent person on the spot, but will make clear to all participants what they know and do not know when the trainer adds in information.
  • Follow this with a questionnaire that asks questions regarding all of the key points to be covered. First, have all participants complete the questionnaire independently. Then have them discuss their answers within the small table groups. Tell them they can change their answers, but they need to be able to report out the correct answer and the rationale for the answer. Debrief the answers to the questionnaire, calling on individuals in the group. If they get the incorrect answer, they can always blame their small groups. This adds humor and provides a safe way for individuals to save face if they do not have the correct answer. Presumably, the unconsciously incompetent person will have a wake up call- either because the small group convinces the person to change his or her answer. Or, if the unconsciously incompetent person was persuasive in his or her group, the fact that the reported answer is incorrect should make an impression on the person.

In private:

  • Ask the person to serve as a co-facilitator by providing real-life examples when necessary.
  • Co-opt the person- ask for his or her assistance.
  • Discuss the true source of the individual’s complaint.
  • Ask if the person is willing to let the other participants learn.
  • If necessary, indicate that the person is free to leave the session.

What a Trainer Should NOT Do:

  • Argue with the person.
  • Insult the person.
  • Get defensive.
  • Express anger.
  • Let the person control the discussion.

Real Life Example: I made the terrible mistake early in my training career to take at face value the assertion of a manager that he already knew everything we were going to cover. I, therefore, called on him by name for answers- which he was unfortunately unable to answer. We both learned at the same time, in a very public way, that he actually did not know what he thought he knew. I felt terrible and I don’t think that he ever forgave me for his public humiliation. As a result, you will see that I have found group activities that will allow the unconsciously incompetent person to gain personal consciousness of his or her incompetence in a much more private fashion.

Commentary: When confronted with any difficult behavior, we need to be able to step back and objectively assess what might be the root cause of the behavior. Why would someone claim competence when in fact the person was incompetent in a topic?

The fact that we refer to this person as being unconsciously incompetent says it all. This person does NOT know s/he doesn’t know! Often, this person is a leader, either by virtue of position or seniority. The person may either be too far removed from daily operations to stay in touch with procedural changes, or may be kept so busy with other duties that s/he is unable to attend informational sessions that would update his or her knowledge on the topic. In some instances, management may simply assume that this person does not need to attend those informational sessions, because they think the person is already aware of procedural changes.

The important thing is to ensure buy in from the person that competence on the issue is important, and then to provide a safe way (generally in a group discussion setting) for the person to realize what s/he does not actually know. No one CHOOSES to be unconsciously incompetent.

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