Deal with strong emotions & non-productive behaviors

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TL;DR recommendations
—Ideally, identify any potential friction points before the session —Acknowledge—Reframe—Scope Down method —Understand the unmet need behind non-productive behaviors —Acknowledge emotions and practice empathetic listening —Set boundaries when needed

A non-productive behavior for training or workshop can look like withdrawal and not participating, not listening, dominating the group, imposing their own viewpoint, refusing to collaborate, constantly blocking or dismissing other's ideas or contributions, or any other form of derailing the workshop and preventing the group to achieve its goals. Several reasons can lead to these often called “difficult” bahaviours: being imposed to attend the session, prior challenges regarding the project, prior failed attempts to solve the challenge, feeling threatened by something or someone and so on. No matter the cause, it's good to understand that these non-productive behaviors usually come from a place of fear, and unmet needs, and require facilitators to tackle them with empathy and skill.

Being equipped to spot and deal with these disruptive behaviors will help you keep the group on track, and have a good session outcome.

👉 Tip #1: Identify any friction points before the session

Remember when we talked about identifying your audience needs before any session? This opens up a great opportunity to spot and anticipate any disruptive behavior or dynamics. Some the questions you can ask are:

—”What are the most common challenges, concerns, or objections regarding this topic?”

—”Are there any tensions or watch-outs?”

—”What dynamics or hierarchies are in the group?”

—”Who is likely to be difficult and why?”

👉 Tip #2: Acknowledge—Reframe—Scope Down

This tactic was introduced by Rob Fizpatrick and Devin Hunt in their brilliant book called “The Workshop Survival Guide:How to design & teach workshops that work every time” to defuse a situation they called a “hostile crowd””—when the group is reeling as a whole. They propose a three step method to deal with any disruptions:

  1. Acknowledge: Recognize their status, experience, and expertise, as well as effort and progress so far (For example: “You all have clearly turned this issue on all sides and are the best ones equipped to solve it, with your knowledge about the context…”)
  2. Reframe: Shift perspectives and redirect focus (“I think you've learned valuable lessons so far as to what isn't working”)
  3. Scope down to one clear value point they will get if the workshop continues without disruptions (e.g. “I've been working with [topic] for X years, and I'm hoping you'll allow me to share the skills/ thinking/ framework/ example I've seen working so far, you'll be able to find some useful new tools/ insights/ ideas to move forward with”)

👉 Tip #3: Adapt your response to the main non-productive behaviors you can encounter

In “The Workshop Book”, Pamela Hamilton identifies eight non-productive behaviors, with the underlying motivators and shares tips on how to manage them. ⚡ Clever critic: Want to show their knowledge, ideas and solutions. Because they are clever, they are less inclined to collaborate and find the answer together with others.

—How to manage: Ideally, you get some time with them before the session, so they cam share their clever thoughts and don't feel the need to criticize as much during the workshop. You can also involve them in some part of the session so that they feel they had the chance to contribute and influence.

⚡ Exasperated expert: They've been in the job a long time, seen projects come and go, and nothing ever seems to get done. They feel their time and expertise is being wasted. —How to manage: Spotlight them in the session, ask them to get more involved in certain parts, or invite them to give a short presentation on a relavant topic so that they feel heard and useful. ⚡ Terrified to talk: They are shy, worries they will say the wrong things, or they speak a different native language than the rest. They prefer to carefully consider what they share before they do so. —How to manage: Give people 1-2 minutes to silently note down their ideas after you as a question. Use small groups to create a safer space for sharing. Whenever possible, have the groups share in their native language.

⚡ Repressed creative: Want to show a different side of them to the team, to highlight how talented and creative they are beyond their current role scope.

—How to manage: Invite them to show their creativity in the way they share-back or present, but keep them focused on outcomes, as they tend to mind the creativity more than the outputs. ⚡ Reluctant participant: They are pessimistic about what the group can achieve so they don't want to invest time in something they believe will fail.

—How to manage: Recognize their concern and voice them so they know you are aware (”I understand you've been in several workshops in this topic, here's how we will run this one differently”. Remind them of their role in making the session a success.

⚡ Passive aggressive: They want to challenge your authority as a facilitator without appearing to do so, usually because of some threat they perceive or because they don't want to lose status. —How to manage: Set clear boundaries, and don't allow them to derail the plan. Reinforce the reason why a certain activity or instruction is important for the goals of the session. If you need to, call for a break and chat 1:1 with them.

⚡ Superior being: They usually have a higher role in the hierarchy, and they are an important person. They might attend and multitask, instead of participating and contributing to the session.

—How to manage: Talk to senior people in advance about your expectations for a full participation be everyone attending. Ask everyone to set their phones aside, and close their tabs. Explain how important everyone's time is, and why full participation is required for the best outcome.

⚡ Ideas bully: They want to prove they know better, by making others look bad and push forward their own ideas.

—How to manage: Reiterate the rules of engagement, pair them with someone strong, higher hierarchy, or another “difficult” person. If you need to, call a break and chat with them separately in a breakout.

Dealing with strong emotions as a facilitator

Emotions are part of our lives, and it isn't uncommon for them to manifest sometimes strongly during your virtual sessions. Contrary to common beliefs, no emotion is inherently 'good' or 'bad'. They are either helpful or unhelpful, depending on the situation.

As facilitators, it's important to welcome them and know how to respond skillfully to each situation. Equally possible is for participants to showcase disruptive behaviors that need to be addressed before moving on with the session. The most common disruptive emotions your participant might bring to a workshop or training are:

Frustration as a response to anger, disappointment, or feelings of helplessness. Technical difficulties, disagreements, or misunderstandings might cause it. Frustration and anger can manifest as arguing, raised voice, snapping, sulking.

Anxiety can also arise if participants feel uncertain or insecure about their ability to contribute to the session due to technology, context, or other personal stressors. Anxiety can cause fidgeting, or avoiding to engage, and remaining in “the shadows”.

Boredom appears when participants are disengaged from the content and if the session is not interactive or engaging. The usual reaction is withdrawal, disengagement and “not paying attention”.

Distrust caused by lack of transparency, power imbalances, cultural differences, or negative group dynamics. It can manifest either as withdrawal, or as anger.

Here are our tips to respond to these strong emotions when they arise: 👉 Tip #1: Acknowledge the emotion

When someone expresses strong emotions, the first step is to acknowledge their feelings. The worst thing you can do is pretend they don't happen or tell them to “calm down”. Sometimes, all you need to do is honor the emotion with attentive, respectful silence. The key is to allow space for that emotion in your session in a non-judgmental way.

👉 Tip #2: Practice empathetic listening

Empathetic listening involves the act of actively trying to comprehend the emotions and underlying causes behind them and then reflecting this understanding back to the participant. This is achieved through a sequence of steps, beginning with attentive listening, followed by asking open-ended questions, and concluding with the feedback loop, which can take this form "You are feeling (emotion) due to (reasons)".

👉 Tip #3: Set boundaries

While it's important to create a safe space for participants to manifest their emotions, it's also important to set boundaries if these emotions become disruptive or harmful. If someone is becoming very agitated, violent, or can't see reason, the best thing you can do is to call a break for things to cool off. Setting boundaries will protect the other participants.

👉 Tip #4: Follow-up Following up with the participant after the session can show that you care about their well-being and can help provide additional support if needed.

🧰 For your toolbox:

🧠 For those of you looking to dive deeper into this topic, Andra Stefanescu hosted a ButterMixer about The “Why” and “How” behind difficult situations in workshops which you can watch here, and explore the recap resources here.

🎥 Check out these subtle tips from Chad Littlefield on how to deal with people who dominate conversations