Problem Participants: Common Training Session Obstacles July 13 2015

Training can take on a variety of forms; it can be online, in the classroom, or on the shop floor. It can be on the job or off-site. It can be a short, hour-long lecture, or an all-day event. Regardless of the form it takes, the key relationship remains the same: how do the trainees interact with the trainer?

When it comes to building an effective training session, both the trainer and the trainees are key ingredients. For their part, the trainer must be able to capture the attention of the audience, clarify the goals, provide guidance, and offer supportive feedback. Trainees, in turn, should be open-minded and attentive, ready and willing to learn. Unfortunately, the optimal training scenario is more often fantasy than reality.

All trainers will eventually come to deal with particularly ‘difficult’ trainees: those who fight with the instructor, distract the class, refuse to participate, or even those who might attempt to take over a training session. In addition to having the skills required to be effective in their own right, trainers must be prepared to deal with these challenging participants.

In order to ensure that trainers are able to deliver as informative of a session as possible, we will examine the topic from two angles: 1) the process of building effective instruction itself, and 2) identifying and coping with difficult participants.

A Guide to Effective Instruction

When designing a training session, instructors will want to create a detailed lesson plan that they can follow throughout the program. Most of what is required to deliver the training should be included within this plan. While there is no specific format to follow, it is best to focus on what the trainees in question will be doing; a good plan should reflect the content, trainer, trainees and culture of an organization.

There are three primary factors in determining what makes an effective instructor. First is subject matter expertise: does the trainer know enough to be teaching the topic? The greater mastery of the given topic the instructor has, the better they will be able to inform. This is far from the only important factor. The instructor must be capable of making the material interesting, in addition to keeping the audience engaged throughout the course.

Unlike expertise, however, one cannot merely study in order to create interesting and engaging training. The following are several steps that may help in creating an engaging lesson plan:

  1. Gain attention:

Gather information from the audience. How familiar are they with the topic? Gauge the general level of interest in the room. Engaging with the audience early on is a good way to grab their attention.

  1. Describe objectives:

Tell the trainees what the session will cover. Introduce the training with a brief overview of its key points.

  1. Stimulate recall:

Involve trainees by asking them to share their past experiences with the training topic. Many may have valuable information to contribute. Having different voices keeps things varied and interesting. Regardless of their level of expertise, relating the training with their own recalled experience will create a greater impression on the trainee.

  1. Present material:

This is the main portion of the session. Explain the key points in depth and relate any other information the trainees may need to know. Summarize your points frequently; repetition will help the trainees retain the information.

  1. Provide guidance:

Set goals for the trainees and assist in meeting them. Even in practice scenarios, the trainer remains the expert in the room.

  1. Elicit practice:

It is importance to test the trainees’ abilities frequently. Trainees are more likely to pay attention when they know that they will have to demonstrate their proficiency later.

  1. Provide feedback:

Offer constructive feedback to those practicing their skills. Correct their mistakes and demonstrate what successful performance should look like.

  1. Assess performance:

Eventually, it will come time to decide, based on the performance of the trainees, whether or not the goals of the training have been met.

  1. Enhance retention and transfer:

There are many little things you can do throughout to enhance retention. Offer different scenarios within which to practice the same skills. Space out practice, but practice often. Offer notes or handouts that trainees may keep. You can even book follow-up sessions for a later date.

  1. Close training program:

Summarize everything the trainees have learned thus far. Ensure that there are no remaining questions. Be sure to thank the audience for their cooperation.

When delivering a training program, instructors should be wary of their own weaknesses. Anxiety and lack of confidence are common foes for new trainers and may be mitigated through practice or rehearsals. It is also important to note that while tools such as notes, materials, and multimedia devices can prove indispensable, overreliance on such techniques may make for an altogether unengaging presentation.

Problematic Participants

Everyone needs training, but not all trainees are made equally. In the course of instructing, trainers may run into people that, by their very nature, make teaching difficult. Such participants may require adjusted tactics. The following list contains examples of ‘problem participants’, as well as tactics one might adopt in order to deal with them:

Type of Participant



The Quiet One

  • Reluctant to engage in training due to a lack of confidence, shyness, or social discomfort
  • Difficult to deal with, as they often pass by unnoticed by the instructor
  • Treat them with respect and make light effort to engage them
  • Address them in private and ask if there is any way you might help them feel more comfortable engaging in training
  • Do not focus all your attention on them; this may only heighten their anxiety
  • The Monopolizer

    • Seeks to overshadow the other trainees and demand an inordinate amount of the instructor’s time and efforts
    • Not mindful of the needs of other trainees in the session
  • Thank the person and move on to the next subject
  • Set rules or structure: as an example, all participants must take turns speaking, or only those holding a specific marker may address the class
  • The Voice of Experience

    • The so-called “expert” in the room. Believe themselves to be of equal, or greater, expertise than the trainer
    • They may not be receptive to learning from somebody they think knows less than them
    • May inadvertently attempt to overshadow the instructor and take control of training
  • Do not compete for control of the class or become defensive
  • Treat them with respect, thank them for their input, and move on to the next topic
  • Acknowledge their experience and provide them with additional tasks to aid in running the training session
  • Ask for their assistance in answering question; only offering answers when requested
  • The Arguer

    • They are quick to find fault in the training, whether it be in the program itself, or in the instructor
    • They are eager to make their feelings known to either the instructor or the rest of the class
    • The arguer is often angry, but may be reluctant to admit or explain their anger
  • Maintain a cool and calm composure
  • Acknowledge their level of passion and ask for the reason behind it
  • Suggest that your differences be resolved later
  • If necessary, indicate that the individual is free to leave the session
  • The Complainer

    • Individuals that may complain about anything and everything, regardless of whether or not it is relevant or within the instructor’s control
    • Tends to focus on the negatives in a given situation, rather than the good
  • If the complaint is valid, apologize for the inconvenience
  • Maintain focus: do not become sidetracked by frivolous complaints
  • Do not allow the complaint to become personal
  • Do not agree simply to forfeit the argument; this will mislead other trainees
  • Attempt to reframe the complaint in a constructive manner
  • The Talker

    • Has difficulty making simple and concise statements
    • May come up with overly complex theories or explanations, or drift frequently into tangents
    • Has danger of confusing and misleading other trainees
  • Do not demonstrate impatience or behave rudely
  • Summarize and distill their key points when speaking to them
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Set time limits for questions
  • Politely thank them and open the floor to questions from other trainees

    Part of teaching is adaptation; no one technique will work for all students. Trainees have a variety of values, temperaments, and learning styles. Being able to identify them early and tweaking the lesson plan accordingly is the mark of a skilled trainer. Not all trainees are made equally, but with the right knowledge and the proper application of strategy, you can maintain that key relationship between trainer and trainee.

    Please visit our website to find sample HR policies, forms and letters related to training and development that you can download and modify to fit the needs of your organization.