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How to Deal with Participants Who Deliberately Disrupt or Sabotage Training

Posted by James Summers on 1/22/18 8:00 AM
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Photo by: CloudVisual on Unsplash

As trainers, we know there are many things that have the potential to throw us off our focus during training. These things can include equipment failure, stumbling through a facilitated activity, or the most common and challenging obstacle, the disruptive learner.


In many cases, adult learners find themselves adopting disruptive behaviors unknowingly. However, in some cases, an adult learner may behave in such a way to knowingly sabotage the training. Either way, it doesn't take much to disrupt a training class.


What are some of the common disruptive behaviors we see? Side conversations, excessive cell phone use, and participants who tend to dominate discussions are just a few. There are also latecomers and resistant learners. It’s not always easy to determine the cause of these behaviors, however our goal is to address them all in a consistent manner to preserve the adult learning principles.


So, what can be done about learners displaying these disruptive behaviors in training? There is no “right” answer, or single technique that will work in every situation, but having some tips stored away and ready for use will help increase your comfort and maintain your professionalism.


Here’s a five-step process which has proven to minimize disruption and often gets the difficult learner on your side:

1. Identify the problem and ask yourself if it is important enough to warrant any more of your attention.

2. Wait to see if learners self-correct.

3. If behavior persists, wait to see if the group corrects. (Have the group agree on house rules at the beginning of the session and post them so they can be referred to at any time.)

4. If behavior continues, try a low-level intervention. For example, make eye contact, pause, and move towards the learner.

5. If low-level interventions are unsuccessful, consider a high-level intervention. For example, speak with the learner privately, utilize I-statements, and outline consequences.


All these steps employ the use of gentle, yet assertive, intervention rather than direct confrontation. Unfortunately, even after implementing this process you may still come across a highly disruptive learner. In that case, it’s probably in your best interest to escalate the situation to their supervisor.


What methods have you used when dealing with disruptive participants? Please share below in the comments. I look forward to adding some new tips to my own tool kit!


Interested in learning more about difficult group dynamics? Check out our Advanced Instructional Techniques workshop.


Dealing with Difficult Participants

James has been a course leader with Langevin since 2016. He studied Communications and Journalism at Florida A&M University. He started his career as a communications specialist in the Florida State University Law Center. Once he moved back to Dallas, he began his role as a trainer, working with adults to help them achieve their GED. It was in this role that James discovered his passion for training and working with adults, and hasn’t looked back! His second passion is fashion! James loves to stay up to date on new ideas and trends, and style his friends and family.

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