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Difficult Participants

Ever have to deal with difficult participants? This is a structured sharing activity that enables us to explore techniques for handling participants who disrupt interactive sessions. It can feel overwhelming to handle difficult participants while leading a meeting. A practical and helpful session for facilitators, trainers, teachers, coaches - anyone who is leading an interactive gathering of people.

  1. Step 1:

    Overview Participants brainstorm guidelines for handling disruptive behaviours, record the guidelines on a card, and place the card inside the envelope.

    Teams rotate the envelopes and generate guideline cards for handling other types of disruptive participants. During the evaluation round, team members review the guideline cards generated by other teams and identify the top five suggestions.

    Goal To handle different types of disruptive behaviours from people participating in an interactive exercise.

    Step 1: Brief the participants Ask participants to think about interactive workshops/sessions that they had conducted or participated in. Ask them to recall different types of participants who disrupted the activity. Tell participants that they will brainstorm on how to handle different types of disruptive participants.

  2. Step 2:

    Organize the participants

    Divide the participants into four teams of fewer than seven members. Teams should be approximately the same size. Seat the teams in a circle shape to facilitate the exchange of envelopes.

  3. Step 3:

    Distribute the supplies

    Give one "disruptive participant envelope" to each team. Also give each team three blank pieces of paper (or index card)

  4. Step 4:

    Conduct the first round

    Ask team members to discuss guidelines for handling the disruptive behaviors associated with the type of participant identified on the envelope they received. Tell them to write these guidelines in short sentences on a paper or index card. Announce a time limit of 3 minutes for this activity and encourage the teams to work rapidly. Explain that the teams' guideline cards will be evaluated by the whole group - in terms of both the number and the quality of the suggestions.

  5. Step 5:

    Conclude the first round

    After 3 minutes, call time. Explain that each team should place its guideline card (paper or index card with suggestions for handling disruptive participants) inside the envelope and pass the envelope, unsealed, to the next team. Ask the teams not to open the envelope they receive.

  6. Step 6:

    Conduct the second round

    Ask the teams to think about the type of disruptive participants labeled on the envelope they received, but not to look at the guidelines on the card inside. Tell the teams to repeat the previous procedure and to list (on a new guideline card) practical suggestions for handling disruptive behaviours of this type of participants. After 3 minutes, call time and ask the teams to place the guideline card inside the envelope and pass it to the next team.

  7. Step 7:

    Conduct the third round

    Conduct one more round of the game, using the same procedure.

  8. Step 8:

    Conduct the evaluation round

    Start this round just as you did the previous rounds. However, explain to the teams that they do not have to write any more guidelines on new cards. Instead, the teams must evaluate the guideline cards inside the envelope. They do this by reviewing each guideline on each card and then comparing the guidelines among all cards. The teams have 3 minutes to select the top 5 guidelines from all the cards.

  9. Step 9:

    Present the results

    Select a team at random to present its Top 5 results. Ask the team to announce the type of disruptive participants specified on the envelope and to read the top five guidelines. After reading the top guidelines, the team should explain what criteria they used for selecting them.

  10. Step 10:

    Debrief the participants

    After all teams have presented their selected guidelines, facilitate a short discussion on the interesting patterns among the guidelines. Any similarities among the guidelines for handling different types of disruptive participants? Which type of disruptive participants for were the most difficult to come up with suitable guidelines?

  11. Step 11:

    Adjustments Not enough time? Announce tight time limits. For example, allow only two minutes for each round. Play only two rounds of the game before conducting the evaluation round. Eliminate the evaluation round.

    Too few players? Conduct the game among individual players. All you need is a group of three participants. Play the game twice, using two different sets of envelopes.

    Too many players? Divide the large group of participants into three or more subgroups. Have each subgroup divide itself into teams and play the game in a parallel fashion.


    Disruptive participant categories (Select four types from the list below and write each of these selected types on the front side of an envelope)

    Domineering participants who talk too much. Withdrawn participants who talk too little and do not contribute to the discussion. Hyperactive participants who hold side conversations. Cynical participants who act as if they know everything. Unprepared participants who have not done their homework. Impatient participants who consider interaction and discussions to be a waste of time. Meandering participants who take off on tangents. Schedule ignoring participants who arrive late and leave early. Egoistic participants who constantly seek everyone's attention. Multitasking participants who keep checking their emails and sending instant messages. Hostages who have been forced to attend the session against their wishes. Resistive participants who challenge the facilitator and other participants. Insensitive participants who make offensive, derogatory, and impolite remarks Add in a custom, relevant idea(s) related to your group.