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Every learning and development person gets them…the difficult delegates, the disruptive learners who don’t wish to be at a learning event.  It shocks us, as most learning professionals are striving to be the best they can be, and so we don’t understand why anyone given the opportunity to progress wouldn’t want to take it with both hands.

Someone once told me: There is no such thing as a resistant learner, merely inflexible facilitators. Every person who disrupts is also a person with needs, and that’s an opportunity for us to look beyond the behaviour, and challenge ourself.

So what tools can we use? I’m sharing just a few tips with you.

Managing disruptive learners – Pre-event

If I am managing a project, if I get to know the people, and they get to know me, I tend to have a better experience. I like to connect with people before a learning event. This can be face to face, Skype, email, Facebook group, phone, anything. Getting to know what their fears, motivations, strengths, abilities, aspirations are is so useful to limit challenging behaviour.

I once had a pre-meeting with a senior leader before she attended a modular programme with her peers. She confided to me that she was dreading attending. This was someone who had the most impressive CV in the group of 6, had a PhD, and headed up the largest department in the company. Her fear? She was the only woman in the group. She had only ever studied in women majority groups, she networked in women’s only groups, and she had only just realised how fearful she was of being alone with men on a learning experience. Having that pre-discussion was invaluable, as I coached her to enable her to be the best she could be when attending the events.

Managing disruptive learners – At the start of the event

Here are a couple of my favourites to start events with:

Groundrules – the question I always write on a flipchart is ‘How will we look after each other during this event?’. I remember an inexperienced trainer saying ‘Why do we {as trainers} always get the blame if someone doesn’t get what they want from an event?’. A relationship relies on both parties upholding their part of the contract. By asking this question, you are actively inviting everyone in the room to take responsibility to look after each other. I white tac the flipchart up, and reflect back during the event. ‘Are we upholding the groundrules?’, ‘Are they working for everyone?’, ‘Would anyone like to add anything?’. Tip – I always add on ‘Everyone to take responsibility for their own learning today.’. You as trainer can add things onto it, remember.

The importance of agreeing groundrules can’t be overstated. I attended a TA101 event run by Rosemary Napper and she said up to 1/3 of whatever the learning event time available can be spent agreeing the groundrules. Let’s ensure we all feel safe, and ready to learn.

Visioning – do a quick visioning exercise. I invite attendees to fully come into the room. Think about the worries and concerns we can bring into any learning event – the last email you picked up, the ‘To do’ list, the last conversation you had in the corridor.

How it works:

Invite everyone to close their eyes, and run whatever visualisation works for you (a sandy beach, a lush garden, a summer sky) and then ask them to visualise the following:

“You are here amongst your peers today. This is your showcase, your shop window to the world. I want you to imagine the very best version of you in this room today. What will you look like?; what will you say to win hearts and minds?; what impression of you will people leave the room with?; what connections can you make today that will last a lifetime? ”

Once you have brought them from the visualisation, invite each person to write down what they visualised to your guided questions. This is a marvellous technique, and really invites people to be fully present into the room, in a positive frame of mind. I don’t ask people to share what they’ve written down, as it is powerful enough to get people to prioritise their day, and how they want to behave.

Managing disruptive learners – During the event:

Two tips for your toolbox:


If an attendee has any kind of blocker, listen to them. This could be “I have too much work to do…”; “I am worried about deadlines I have back at my desk…”; “I don’t see any need for this learning…”.

As facilitators, we often don’t have the power to invite someone to leave an event, (other than if they are really overstepping the line), so be mindful that you might end up breaking the contract with the course sponsor if you allow them to leave the event because of the above reasons.

Use the “if…then…” technique to empower them to take responsibility.

“If you have so much work to do that it will affect your ability to get the most from today…then what decision do you need to make now?”

“If you are worried about deadlines you have back at your desk…then who do you need to speak with to help you ease those worries?”

“If you don’t see any need for this learning…then who do you need to discuss this with, and when?”

I’ve had learners leave to discuss work, priorities, and perceived learning needs, and they have found that once they’ve given themselves the permission to act on concerns, they are in the right mental place to learn effectively. Sometimes, their Boss has helped them focus on the priority, which could indeed be their work. It is hard to motivate yourself to learn if you have too many important and urgent deadlines.

“The Learners Grid”

This builds on the groundrules you have agreed earlier. You have asked your learners ‘How will we look after each other during this event?”.

Write whatever they have said as a grid on a flipchart:

On the left hand side of the grid, write their groundrules, which could be:

  • Keep to time
  • Confidentiality
  • Ask questions
  • Make the examples relate to our situations
  • Keep it fast paced
  • Have fun

Split the vertical axis into the event sessions, so it might simply be session 1, 2, 3, and 4, for a one day event. Then ask the group to rate the sessions out of 10 (with 10 being excellent to 0 being poor) for each of the areas of the groundrules. It doesn’t take that long, it is involving and gives everyone the chance to fully review how we are looking after each other.

I find this excellent in dealing with the potentially difficult delegates, as it encourages each learner to take responsibility for their own learning. It is a team activity, as because everyone inputs, and my experience is that difficult behaviour is managed by the group after the first session. I love it – it’s a simple, powerful record of achievement and I have known even the most challenging person change their behaviour using this technique.

Managing disruptive learners – After the event

Of course, learning professionals want people to leave with positive memories, and learning that will make a difference at work. I have found professionally connecting with people (on Linkedin) has given me affirmations, surprises and new learning.

I can reach out to people, and I’ve often been given praise for how I dealt with a situation. I have learned that 28 years in learning and development means there are still surprises. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere’s character says “Most people don’t surprise me.”, to which Julia Roberts character responds. “You’re lucky. Most people freak the hell out of me.”. As a learning professional, I relate to the people who freak me comment, and I actually think it’s good to still have that level of surprise, as it means there is still much to learn.

We provide training qualifications at the Foundation & Certificate level for any learning practitioner who wants a professional qualification. Our Certificate in Psychology for Learning Practitioners is ideal for the experienced trainer who would like techniques for managing individual and group behaviour. Contact us to discuss individual and in-house needs for train the trainer.

I’d love you to share your comments, and tools and tips for managing those disruptive learners.

Kay Buckby

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  1. Adrian Green says:

    Lots of really good tips and techniques here from Kay. I also find that if you put time into the design of your course or session then you will be better placed to respond if you get some unexpected behaviour from an attendee. This link will take you to some hints and tips and a free ebook download:

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