Tip #69: Managing Difficult Participants- The Distracter

Difficult Behavior: Asks questions or raises issues which are not related to the topic which is being discussed. Talks on the side about unrelated things while the group is trying to work. Jumps into the discussion without raising a hand or using other courtesies for obtaining permission to speak.

What a Trainer Can Do:

In front of the group:

  • Conduct a large group discussion to create ground rules for basic classroom courtesies.
  • Use a Koosh ball to recognize speakers. In this way, only the person with the Koosh has permission to speak.
  • Post a process map of the agenda on the wall as a continual visual reminder of the topics to be covered.
  • Provide Post-Its on the participant tables and encourage participants to post their questions on a flip chart “parking lot.”
  • Clearly introduce each topic and close the discussion on each topic.
  • Quietly monitor small group activities so that you can intervene where necessary.
  • Move close to the distracter who is speaking while others are working, to use physical proximity to prompt him or her to stop talking.
  • Make an assignment that will distract the distracter and ultimately provide the attention s/he is seeking in a more controlled and acceptable fashion.
  • Briefly acknowledge the distracter and indicate who actually has the floor to speak.
  • Say “Thank you, but let’s see what others have to say, now.”
  • Stand beside him/her.
  • Put him/her in charge of an activity.
  • Try comments such as, “Interesting, but could you hold it until later?”
  • “I’d like to discuss that, but we really have to get back to our topic.”
  • If the distracter is conducting a side conversation while someone else has been recognized to speak, make a general statement: “Could I ask everyone to give their attention to [the speaker]? Thank you.” or “I’m not sure that everyone can hear what [the speaker] is saying. “
  • If you are able to create a friendly relationship with the distracter, use gentle humor to rein the person in.

In private:

  • Thank the person for his or her energy and involvement- then explain your time or agenda constraints.
  • Co-opt the person- ask for his or her assistance.

What a Trainer Should NOT Do:

  • Get distracted from the agenda or the topic at hand.
  • Lose patience or focus.
  • Get angry at the behavior.
  • Let the person control the discussion.
  • Let the person break the group’s classroom rules.
  • Allow the person to treat other participants in a disrespectful fashion.

Real Life Example: I recently gave a workshop for a very large group. One participant, who sat in the front of the room, had something to say about almost everything we discussed. He was polite and always raised his hand, but his comments were often philosophical and tangential to the point under discussion. There were times I was at a loss to make the connection between his comment and our topic. Yet I know that he had a good heart and good intentions, so I practiced my patience and redirection skills. For the most part, I would try to recognize others before I recognized him. Rather than dwelling on his comments and drawing others into a tangential discussion, I would simply call on him, thank him for his comment when he was done, and then move on. When I could manage it, I would indicate that we needed to move on and therefore would not have time for all comments, thereby avoiding calling on him.

My goal was to stay on topic and on time, while involving and treating all participants respectfully. I certainly hope that my demeanor remained patient and welcoming, and that I did not telegraph my growing anxiety to him or to the other participants. I did find that, on occasion, his wonderful rather quirky sense of humor was very welcome. So, rather than labeling him, I attempted to value him as a contributing member of the group.

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 choose distracting behavior?

Some people really enjoy chatting and tend to think with their mouths. They get so focused on their thoughts and expression of those thoughts that they are unaware of others around them.

Sometimes, they are very philosophical and simply miles ahead of the rest of us. As a result, although there is a logical connection to the topic from their perspective, their comment sounds off-base to everyone else.

Their enthusiasm for the topic may cause them to speak out without waiting to be acknowledged. Although their behavior may be distracting to the trainer, their interest and their comments may be on target.

In all of these instances, their behavior is not intended to be disruptive, even if the trainer may tire of trying to rein them in. Patience and firm but respectful facilitation are both key to handling the distracter.


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