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How do trainers deal with ‘difficult’ people?

In this article, we consider strategies which may help with participants whose behaviour runs counter to the aims of the session.
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There are many reasons why participants may be uncommunicative or reluctant to participate, but they’re probably not due to anything you’ve done. For example, someone may have just had a nightmare of a school run; another person’s car may have broken down on the way in this morning; someone else may have an ageing parent who is seriously unwell and they are worried about them, and another person may be anxious about a blood test result she’s expecting today. It’s only natural for a trainer to pick up the body language and wonder if it’s something they have done, but it very rarely is.
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Even if learners have things on their mind, they usually still prefer to participate in learning exercises rather than sit through a Death by PowerPoint during which they can continue to mull over their problems. Occasionally you may be unlucky enough to experience a situation like this. “I just find it totally unbelievable that I’ve been asked to come here. This is my third time to be honest, and I’m hearing the same old stuff. And, you know, I cancelled a clinic, you know, sixteen patients on that clinic who need my expertise. I just find it unbelievable.” If you do, keep calm and respond in an adult way like the trainer does here. Try never to argue in front of a group.
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“I’m sorry you feel that way. But we all need to be aware of the Trust Values and it’s very important that all staff take part in the Trust Induction when they join”. If we explore further, there’s probably a reason here too. “I’ve been on this course twice now. And they cancelled a clinic for sixteen patients. I do understand why they need to do it, and the need to understand the Trust Values. But they really need to think about what impact that has on a clinician”. Although this person’s manner was arguably unnecessarily aggressive, the situation could probably have been avoided by a check of the register before the event, which might have highlighted the course as inappropriate for this individual.

Healthcare staff are among the kindest and most tolerant people on the planet. For this reason, ‘difficult’ people are not commonly encountered in training.

Nonetheless, at some time or another, most trainers encounter someone who acts in a disruptive or aggressive manner.

Dealing with difficult people

As we saw in the video, there are usually reasons why course participants act as they do. We suggest that no one gets up in the morning determined to be a ‘difficult person, but they may begin the day with an issue of some kind.

If such a situation occurs in a training event, it’s important for trainers not to become flustered. It’s also crucial not to mirror the person’s behaviour, as this is likely to escalate any tension.

Below are some suggestions which may help.

1. Ensure people attend the right course

In the video, we acted situation in which a clinician had been asked to attend an Induction course for the third time. It could have been avoided by more attention to booking and checking of registers.

An angy looking person sitting among other trainees

In this situation, the trainer did not reflect the behaviour of the person and was able to resolve the situation in a civilised manner.

2. Try never to argue or mirror aggressive behaviour

If someone acts or speaks in an aggressive way, it can be very hurtful to a trainer who has spent many hours preparing the event. For a split second, the emotional part of the brain reacts to this perceived insult. But it is crucial the trainer’s response de not mirror the aggression.

3. If there is a problem, address it at the first break

If there is a problem, it is best to address it as soon as there is a break. Having a ‘comfort break’ a little earlier than planned may provide an opportunity to speak to the person concerned and try to resolve the issue.

4. Actively ask others for their opinions

Trainers always try to value opinions and thoughts offered by participants. Sometimes, a participant is unaware that they speak so frequently other participants are denied an opportunity. Whether this occurs in whole group situations or small group discussions, trainers can redress the balance by actively asking others for their thoughts.

5. Don’t kill with PowerPoint!

Although ‘Death by PowerPoint’ (in which a multitude of text slides are shown), doesn’t make people ‘difficult’, it’s unlikely to create a positive mood either.

Series of many text slides

A well-designed, interactive session is more likely to produce a positive mood.

Set of colourful, minimalist PowerPoint slides

Even the most disaffected participant is likely to appreciate the effort you’ve made to make it interesting.

6. Thank people for their thoughts and move on

If you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, try to find out at the break. If it’s a short training session, assure the questioner you’ll find out and get back to them.

Sometimes, questions are posed which are based on a person’s need to be heard, rather than requiring an answer. As the saying goes, they need to ‘get it off their chest’.

If this happens, you don’t have to agree, thank them for their contribution and move on to ask someone else for their thoughts.

A small but valuable tool in any trainer’s toolbox is the response,

‘That’s interesting…‘

It acknowledges the person’s contribution but does not imply agreement or otherwise.

7. Share a bad experience with a fellow trainer

A negative incident in a training session can have an upsetting impact on a trainer. We can’t overemphasise the benefit of sharing your feelings with a colleague as soon as you can after the event.

Almost always, they will have had a similar experience, sometimes even with the same person. Sharing in this way can remove a huge weight of negativity from your shoulders and turn it into a learning experience.

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