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


Tue Oct 01 2019

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

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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?



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:


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!


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

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