Tip #345: Avoid Six Mistakes in Handling Unhappy Participants

“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” Bertrand Russell

There are many reasons why participants in a training program may be unhappy and voice or act out their displeasure during the training session. They may not like the topic, the learning activities, the trainer, the timing or location of the training, the other participants, or the very fact that they are in the training. In addition, they may just be having a bad day, drawing issues into the training room that have more to do with their lives or their work rather than with the training itself.

There are six mistakes that a trainer should avoid when faced with participants who are unhappy.

Mistake #1: Ignoring the situation.

It is miraculous thinking to believe that ignoring a bad situation will make it go away. In fact, whether their issues are real or imagined, participants want to be treated with respect. The only way to handle the situation is to listen carefully to their concerns and then give an honest response. If it is an issue that you can do something about, you can offer to consider it and make adjustments where possible. If it is an issue over which you have no control, you can either sympathize or provide a constructive outlet.

For example, a limited time to vent, problem solve, or make recommendations to resolve the issue can help to dissipate the energy fueling the participants’ concerns. In the latter case, it can also give the participants a needed sense that they have some control over the situation.

Mistake #2: Minimizing participant concerns.

Few people appreciate being told that their concerns are trivial or imagined. When participants voice a concern, whether it is rational or not, it is still their reality. Acknowledge the concern. To the extent possible, distance yourself from the cause or the decision makers responsible for the issue. Create a sense of partnership to support the idea that you are sensitive to their concern and will attempt to provide them with skills or resources to address it.

For example, if participants complain that they will not be allowed to apply their new skills back on the job, a trainer can help them strategize how to persuade their management to give them that opportunity.

Mistake #3: Caving in.

Do not make the mistake of becoming so disheartened by the participants’ unhappiness that you minimize the value of the training you are there to deliver- or worse, gloss over large portions of the training to end the session as quickly as possible. A needs assessment presumably identified their need for this training topic and the choice of learning activities. This is the time for the trainer to work at obtaining participant buy-in to the importance of the training, or at the very least, a willingness to participate.

For example, help them identify the benefits of the training or the consequences of not receiving the training. As a last resort, invite unhappy participants to leave the training (with the understanding that you will need to alert their management).

Mistake #4: Taking it to heart.

As mentioned earlier, there can be a plethora of reasons why participants are unhappy that have nothing to do with the trainer. This may not be readily apparent. Apply a proven negotiation technique and reframe a perceived attack on the trainer into an attack on the problem. If the trainer is willing to take conversations off line to explore the root of the participants’ problems, it can help to put a light on the real cause of their unhappiness. It actually might be useful for the trainer to think of this situation as a positive one, in that the participants feel comfortable enough to voice their issues and complaints.

For example, this may be the first time all of the participants have come together and have the opportunity to discuss their complaints. In this case, the trainer can consider providing time during the training or giving a longer break to encourage conversation.

Mistake #5: Assuming responsibility to resolve organizational issues.

Sometimes trainers, in a sincere effort to be supportive and responsive to participants, will promise more than they can deliver. Be frank about your role, your responsibility and the intended scope of the training. Stay very clear about your ability (or inability) to have a positive impact on significant organizational issues. If you are there to conduct a training program, you really have no authority to get involved or interfere.

For example, this is not the time to become a crusader rabbit to ingratiate yourself with the participants. To do so can be the kiss of death for a trainer. You will only irritate or anger the management that hired you and disappoint those for whom you advocate.

Mistake #6: Denying reality.

There may be (hopefully infrequent) times when the scheduled training is simply not going to meet the needs of the participants. If there are outside issues that affect the participants’ focus and attention, it may be necessary to adjust the training content. In some cases, the only practical solution is to end the session and reschedule it for a future time. It would be unrealistic to attempt to continue with the training as planned.

For example, when the participants’ unhappiness is due to an extreme event, such as a death or a disaster in progress that directly affects the participants, converting the session to a mutual support and problem-solving discussion may be the only constructive response.

In summary, the reasons why participants express unhappiness during a training program frequently have little to do with the training. However, it would be unwise for a trainer to ignore the situation, minimize participant concerns, cave in, take it to heart, assume responsibility to resolve organizational issues, or deny reality.

May your learning be sweet.


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