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Ask a Trainer: How Should I Manage a Difficult Learner?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019
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Dear Tim,

My job involves facilitating diversity and inclusion workshops, which can touch on controversial topics. While my training sessions are sometimes met with initial resistance from learners, I’ve never had any pushback I couldn’t handle.

That wasn’t the case, however, with my last class on this topic. I could tell from the beginning that many people in the audience thought diversity and inclusion weren’t worth their time. About halfway through, one individual stood and announced that anyone offended by the examples I’d given was too sensitive and that my advice was encouraging people to stereotype and focus on differences instead of similarities.

I tried to explain the methodology behind my training content, but he kept repeating his objections in an increasingly antagonistic tone. I eventually told him I had to continue with the session but offered to discuss his objections in more detail during the break. He then gathered his things and left the classroom.

I carried on with the session but felt horrible the rest of the time. My legitimacy was undermined, I felt like I offended the participant, and everything felt awkward.

Should I have done or said something differently? How could I have handled this in a better way?

Sincerely,
Unsure What to Do



Dear Unsure,

Oh, gosh! Well, first, let me say this: How embarrassing . . . for him! The thing about diversity and inclusion training is that it requires folks (the facilitator and the participants) to have an open conversation about topics that tend to be uncomfortable and elicit strong opinions.

If this were a workshop on any other topic (for example, effective presentation skills), you’d want your participants to share their opinions, experiences, and objections. After all, that’s a key tenant of adult learning theory. When you’re dealing with topics like diversity and inclusion, however, those opinions, experiences, and objections can become contentious.

With that all being said, here are a few things you need to know:

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First, how this individual chose to respond was not a reflection of you as a facilitator but rather a reflection of them. Assuming you were facilitating solid, evidence-based content, you shouldn’t let this individual’s reaction undermine your confidence as a trainer.

And second, while it’s never fun when someone chooses to leave a class early, in this situation, it was likely a blessing in disguise. If he were to have stayed for the remainder of the workshop, my guess is he would have continued interrupting with his objections.

So, what could you do differently next time?

First, I think you did the right thing by trying to explain your methodology and offering to talk to him during the break. I would have gone one step further and thanked him for engaging in the conversation. While this doesn’t mean you have to accept or validate his comments or objections, it could have helped lower his defenses by showing that you’re willing to discuss differing opinions.

I would also encourage you to anticipate these types of situations and objections in the future, so that you have a plan for your response. This may require some upfront research into the organization or team, so you can understand the culture and any related issues they may be experiencing. As you prepare for a workshop like this, it’s 100 percent acceptable to inquire why the organization or team is having you facilitate the training. This will help you better prepare for what you’re about to walk into.

Next, to help cut the tension that was created within the room, I think it would have been appropriate for you to acknowledge to the class what just happened. This doesn’t mean you need to comment on how it made you feel or why the participant’s opinions or objects were right or wrong. Simply apologizing for the disruption and letting the class know you don’t want it to become a distraction will help you reset and regain your composure. It’ll also help put your participants at ease.

And finally, following the workshop, I would have recommended escalating the situation to the appropriate people within the organization. While it’s not your job to dictate whether he acted inappropriately (he did), you do have a responsibility to the other participants.

For example, if his co-workers or direct reports witnessed his reaction, it’s possible some of them left that workshop questioning his willingness to accept and respect their differences. This doesn’t mean he needs to be fired, but perhaps it means he needs additional coaching, counseling, feedback, or education greater than what could be provided in a classroom setting.

I’m so sorry this happened to you! I hope there isn’t a next time, but if so, I hope these tips help!

Tim


We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

5 Comments
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I've been where "Unsure" is. If at all possible, having a co-facilitator is helpful for so many reasons, with this topic in particular.
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This is really solid advice, Tim! Yes, D&I can be controversial, but so can a technology training or a time management class if someone has a bone to pick. Give your participants additional peace of mind by sharing a road map (agenda), some collateral (handout, workbook, article), and allow them to interrupt you anytime with questions (keep your balance by putting items on a parking lot). Better to let them feel some control addressing a controversial topic rather than feel taken for a ride.
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I'm curious if the workshop started with an explanation of WIIFM (What's in it for me). Were there any business-related explanations as to why the workshop would be of value to each individual? For example, according to a study in (enter source here), diversity and inclusion training has led (enter some examples here) to improve team collaboration and increase profits by (enter some % here)?
By framing the training toward business outcomes, participants may be more open to the course.
Finally, people in certain roles may also get frustrated in these types of situations based on the time of year that the workshop is taking place.
For example, if the workshop happened at end of quarter and the person is in sales, that's another attention deficit that would exist for this type of workshop.
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Otherwise, they may see this type of workshop as a check-the-box, we already know that situation (or in this participant's case, they don't care about this situation).
It would also be interesting to know what role that person is in. For example, someone in sales where time is money might be under pressure to produce. That's another reason to include a WIIFM.
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