Facilitating with difficult personalities: What to do when the unthinkable occurs
It’s Monday morning following a long and well-deserved vacation. Although the content is dialed in and the necessary supplies are packed, the bedside alarm goes off nonetheless at 5:30 a.m. It’s winter, the drive is long and you have a solid hour of setup (by yourself) before the nearly four-hour session begins.
This particular program is part training and part facilitating, but there’s still a lot of work to be done: tables to be arranged; décor to be placed; markers, pens and candy to be added; fidget toys to be positioned; paper and flipcharts to be staged; sticky wall to be hung; PowerPoint to be loaded; and the list goes on.
The first learner arrives about 10 minutes before class, takes one look at the interactive table arrangements and setup, and immediately declares, “Oh! This looks like it’s going to be a lot of work.” Then confides in you that she did not do the reading or pre-assignments and doesn’t really want to be there.
Her boss joins her a few minutes later and for the balance of the session they are audibly distracting to you and other participants; rarely engaging with their colleagues during the in-class assignments and group work; and constantly on their devices – checking and responding to email, among other things.
No one ends up sitting with them — and, honestly, the rest of the class is so engaged that it is almost easier to try and ignore them. But then during quiet work time and self-reflection they’re chatting and cackling. It’s incredibly disrespectful to you and the rest of the class (who, by the way, seem genuinely interested in the content).
Fast-forward 48 hours.
It’s day two of a two-day training on facilitation. You begin the day by asking participants to think back to yesterday. How had they shown up? If they recalled hearing their voices a lot during yesterday’s class, perhaps they’d consider moving back today. And if they’d been less vocal, perhaps they’d consider moving up.
From there you begin demonstrating a process called getting core agreement. After reviewing the steps involved, establishing the context and helping the group visualize success, your attention turns to a modified SWOT analysis. You begin by asking the group to brainstorm the strengths of the team that will lead to their victory.
As you expect, the list is populated quickly and easily. But as you move on to the weaknesses of the team that threaten their victory, a male participant arrives late/mid-demonstration. As if in one fell swoop, he both sits down and is the first to answer. You could never have anticipated the words that came next: “We have too many women!”
Although each of these two scenarios is different – including the severity of the disruption and the composition of the audience – the bottom line remains: facilitating with difficult personalities requires a trained facilitator who’s ready and willing to intervene at exactly the right moment with an effective response.
No matter the difficult personality with which you are faced, following are some initial considerations to mull over as you prepare the intervention:
- You first have to show up for yourself. This means that you shouldn’t take the behavior personally. Check your emotions and any gut reactions. Then, quickly consider all possible alternatives and make a decision about how you’ll respond.
- Your next responsibility is to the difficult personality. There may be an inclination to ignore the behavior and hope it resolves itself. However, in my experience, unchecked behaviors generally escalate. Additionally, everyone in the room is likely looking to you to see how you’ll respond. So before you respond, briefly consider the baggage or the triggers that may be causing the difficult behavior in the first place.
- You must consider the other participants in the room. You want to ensure everyone feels safe and that conditions allow everyone to fully participate. In some instances, the participants may be willing to step forward and address the difficult personalities directly, but in other cases it will be left up to you.
- Finally, there may be others not present who are affected. For example, you should update the sponsoring organization, as well as any other faculty members who might be teaching future courses for the same learners. To the extent possible, consider ways to be proactive in the future.
The theory is all fine and well, but what do these conversations look like in real life? While they may not be textbook responses, following is how I approached each of these two scenarios.
Scenario 1: “Patty” the Passive-Aggressive Participant
My initial response before class: Good morning! I’m happy that you’re here and I’m really looking forward to today’s program. Before everyone else arrives, I’ll encourage you to think about how you’re showing up today. If you’re able to reset and engage from a place of curiosity, I’m hopeful you’ll find today’s session really informative and beneficial.
Scenario 2: “Sam” the Sexist Participant
My response in front of the class: At the start of class today we reviewed participant expectations. I asked everyone to think back to yesterday. How had they shown up? If they recalled hearing their voices a lot during yesterday’s class, perhaps they’d consider moving back today. And if they’d been less vocal, perhaps they’d consider moving up. In this moment I’ll invite you to think about how you intend to show up today.
Although in scenario two I didn’t specifically address the sexist behavior, my response did have an immediate impact on the quality of “Sam’s” participation for the balance of that demonstration. Likewise, at least one participant did address the incident in the post-course evaluation: “Loved that you level-set ‘Sam’ so effectively.”
So, how would you have addressed these scenarios differently? What "fun" facilitation challenges are you currently facing?