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A Powerful Way to Minimize Disruptive Behaviors


Fri Feb 10 2017

A Powerful Way to Minimize Disruptive Behaviors

When I facilitate ATD’s Master Trainer Program, I often ask trainers to share their number one classroom challenge. Overwhelmingly, they tell me it’s disruptive participants. They give examples of participants using cell phones during discussions, folks coming back from lunch late, people reading email during breakouts, and learners having side conversations while the trainer is talking.

Passive aggressive behavior comes up too. Often, it’s displayed by participants who were forced to attend training: the so-called prisoner. Or participants who aggressively share their opinions over the interests of other people in the room. Sound familiar?


Many of these trainers are hungry for “The 101 Tips for Dealing With Disruptive Participants.” Some writers suggest you establish eye contact, or physically move toward the learner. And if the person is really disruptive, take him outside for a conversation during the break. Others suggest taking greater control of the class by issuing clear rules for classroom behavior at the outset. But is learning a list of tactics the best way to deal with disruptive participants? 

Is It Different for Master Trainers? 

I’ve noticed that I rarely see master trainers employing such tactics. I’ve also noticed that master trainers tend to have fewer disruptive participants. Is this just luck? Or design?

When I ran TV training at the BBC, I had the privilege to work with some of the most experienced and talented media trainers. Rarely was a classroom behavioral problem escalated to my level.

As I think about the master trainers who shaped me as a trainer, I saw the same thing: virtually no disruptions or need for overt tactics. I also see this with master trainers I coach. 

It’s About Preventing Disruption 

After many years of reflection, I’ve concluded that master trainers deal with disruptive behaviors by preventing them. And one of their key tactics is to develop a rapport within the classroom to remove anything that threatens a learner’s sense of control or status. Get this right and you won’t be turning to “101 Tips to Avoid Distractions” every 45 minutes.


I know this sounds a bit theoretical, and not something that applies to a real-life classroom. But the kind of rapport I’m talking about goes deeper than just being friendly when participants walk in and showing them where the coffee is.

For the sake of this conversation I’m going to share four things I’ve seen master trainers actively doing that prevent disruptive behavior and lead to deeper learning experiences.

Why Do Some Participants Disrupt a Class? 

Often people are disruptive because they are reacting to a breach of an important value. Two values important to everyone are having a sense of control and being respected. They tie into a sense of survival and are reflected in David Rock’s SCARF model, which lists five domains of triggers that drive social behavior and influence collaboration: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Interestingly, they all dovetail into important values held in adult learning theory.

Essentially, if any one of these domains is threatened, the brain goes into fight or flight response and we react defensively. This can lead to disruptive behaviors and limit collaboration and learning. When they are affirmed, learners will likely increase their engagement.

In my early twenties, I attended a writing workshop and asked the trainer a question about the relevancy of grammar. In front of the whole class she said, “I know your type—I’ve been teaching for 15 years.” She then proceeded to dress me down. I am not sure how my question threatened her, but my status took a direct hit. I felt belittled. I had asked a question our of genuine interest and had been labeled a troublemaker. What was my response? In defense, I assumed the role of class clown, making her job much more difficult.


I have no doubt that I’ve also shut people down in class inadvertently. But it’s fascinating that very often the cause of disruption is defensiveness. 

What Does This Mean in Practice? 

I’ve noticed four key actions master trainers take at the outset of the learning experience to prevent disruptive behavior: 

  • Develop authentic trainer rapport.

  • Encourage genuine peer rapport. 

  • Give the class control over the learning environment. 

  • Practice critical self-reflection. 

Authentic Trainer Rapport 

It’s critical to develop authentic rapport with each learner. Train-the-trainer programs tell you to greet each person as she enters the room and make her feel comfortable, or send an email or note through your LMS for online programs.  

However, we need to go beyond this. We need to be authentic, honoring each learner’s existing knowledge and experience, looking for common connections. It’s where classic adult learning theory meets the SCARF model.

Your role as a trainer potentially ascribes the learner a lower status. Master trainers actively work to ensure that participants have equality with the trainer. Novice trainers, however, often fall into the trap of acting as experts, which fails to acknowledge their learners’ skills, shutting them down.

Establishing a sense of equality is especially important for participants who don’t want to be there. These folks often believe they already have the skills and are resentful that they’ve been forced to attend. Acknowledging them can take away some of their defensiveness. Again, be genuine—don’t just use this as a cheap trick to shut them up. 

Genuine Peer Rapport 

It’s all very good for learners to develop rapport with trainers. But if they’re not sure about the person sitting next to them, they could well be on the defensive. Master trainers will work to make sure healthy rapport exists between participants.

Lead affirming activities that nonthreateningly introduce participants and encourage them to collaborate from the get go. Use icebreakers and manage class activities so each participant gets to work with lots of other participants. Allow these activities to affirm that everybody brings important experience to share with the class and give people space to develop relationships.

When participants establish good rapport with one another, you’ll find your class is more lively and supportive. This can be threatening for new trainers who are not yet comfortable managing lively groups. But you’ll find this allows the group to self-manage and lets you focus on content. 

Class Control 

Master trainers give learners a sense of control over the class. After all, it’s their class if we’re truly adopting a learner-centered approach. Many how-to guides suggest that trainers issue clear ground rules at the beginning of class—about cell phones, whether people should put their hand up to talk, and when to take breaks. But when you issue the rules, you rob them of control and affirm your status above them. How about asking them to develop the ground rules? If you’re a new trainer, and this terrifies you, start by offering just a few options. In my experience, most groups come up with the same ground rules you’d want as a trainer.

Unless I’m facilitating at an event that has lunch at a scheduled time, I ask the group to vote on when to take lunch. I ask if they’d like one break in the morning and afternoon for coffee, or a shorter break every hour. I ask them if cell phones should be allowed in class or not. 


Finally, the tough task. Very often we as trainers react to small triggers in the classroom. It could be that our sense of control or status has been threatened.

Fifteen years ago, a participant in a class whipped out his phone to check email whenever he finished an exercise early. I found this very irritating because I was worried he’d miss some instruction and would need me to explain it again.  

Another time, two participants engaged in side conversations during a workshop. It was distracting to me. But I later found out one participant was seeking clarification because she had not understood something I said. Luckily, I let it go and it never became a big problem.

All were actively learning but I was the one who had felt threatened. As a trainer, it was my job to deal with it and not let it get in the way, something that takes time and practice. As trainers, we need to constantly reflect on our own emotions and ensure they don’t derail our work to create a conducive learning environment. 

Values Lead to Authenticity and Practice Makes Perfect 

A blog post can only scratch the surface on this topic. So, it’s important to reflect more on what we’ve discussed. But how to you apply it?

First, we must be genuine when building an environment to support learning. It’s more than just preventing disruptions. It’s about making the environment as easy a place to learn as possible. We shouldn’t be building rapport just to get good Level 1 feedback scores. It must be for the learner’s progress.

Most adult learning professionals I know are driven by an insatiable desire to help people learn and be better at what they do. At the core of this is a fundamental respect for the individual and her capacity to learn and grow. Applying these techniques must be forged by valuing the learner. Second, preventing disruption is about letting go of control, being humble, and trusting the learner. Being comfortable with this isn’t always easy. Allowing yourself to learn by starting small takes time but leads to success.

So, if you want to avoid memorizing 101 tactics for dealing with disruptive participants, focus on building rapport with the learners, create opportunities for learners to build rapport with one another, trust learners to exert some control, and continually reflect on how you react to them.

Want to learn more? Join me for Core 4 in Anaheim.

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