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Dealing with Difficult Participants

The worst kind of children are grown-ups.

—Loesje International Poster, Holland

Now that you are managing yourself more effectively by monitoring and changing negative attributions and negative self-talk into positive attributions and positive self-talk, and you have increased your internal locus of control, strengthened your commitment, and overcome perfectionism and other internal roadblocks, it is time to face the issue of difficult participants. Difficult participants can knock us out of the zone of peak performance and they are likely to appear when we least expect them.

There are two types of difficult participants: situationally difficult and chronically difficult. Well-versed presenters do not get discouraged by these individuals, rather, they learn from them. All of us can be situationally difficult. For whatever reason, some days are just more difficult than others. Chronically difficult people are difficult most if not all of the time. These are the kind of people who can't have a good day until they've ruined someone else's. The effective presenters have learned the Law of Non-Resistance. The Law of Non-Resistance states, "Everyone who comes across our paths, comes across our path for a reason, to teach us something about our own skills and talents."

When it comes to dealing with difficult participants we have three choices: We can become a victim, a survivor, or a thriver. In this section we will learn to thrive—or at least survive—difficult participants by learning the power of a correct diagnosis, the power of the change first principle, the power of appropriately increasing one's muscle level, and the power of asking the audience how they would like to deal with the situation.

A colleague Pat Lasaruk, says, "You can change your reaction to people's reactions to the material by asking ‘What do the participants need?’ In other words, being more focused on being a vehicle to their learning/development than worrying about yourself. As a presenter you need to get over yourself!"

This is easier said than done, yet all self-aware presenters have done it. Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association, said all good speakers go through three phases of development. The first phase, where every speaker starts, is concern about oneself. In this phase, the speaker is consumed by such thoughts as, "How do I look and how do I sound?" Presenters who never get past this "I-focused" phase let their personal insecurities and anxieties keep them from connecting with their audience.

Presenters who learn through practice and perseverance to get over themselves then move to the second developmental phase: concern about your message. That is, the now-confident presenter is most concerned about the value of the information being presented. When this phase is mastered, Robert says, you move into the third and final phase of maturity: concern about your audience. This is where good presenters become great and superb presenters are made.

The Necessity of an Accurate Diagnosis

At least half of any medical cure is a correct diagnosis. As a presenter, you have to determine if you are dealing with a difficult person.

We all have bad days or troubling issues that can make us difficult in certain situations. Other people are consistently and persistently cantankerous and for no particular reason. Therefore, we have to learn how not to take it personally. It may be that the man in the second row is not paying attention because he has just had an argument with his wife.

Brad: I remember doing a presentation where one of the participants seemed totally disinterested. In fact, she refused to even make eye contact with me. I fretted about trying to reach her during the whole presentation and I am sure that the presentation was less effective because of it. I also must admit that I felt very relieved once it was over. After everyone left, I commented to the presentation organizer that I was sure I would get at least one poor evaluation. The organizer immediately knew who I was speaking about even though I didn't mention her name. The organizer then said, "Oh, I talked to her on the way out and she loved your presentation. In fact, she said it was one of the best she had ever attended." I was dumbfounded—my diagnosis could not have been further from the truth.

David: I have had similar experiences in which I misread the listener's response. I was presenting a full-day program to a roomful of lively and responsive people. That is, everyone was lively and responsive except one. Three rows back and on the center aisle was a woman who was clearly not having a good time. She didn't take notes, she didn't answer questions posed to the group, she didn't participate in any activity, and when the audience laughed, she frowned. For the first hour or so, I obsessed over this. I was confident that I could "bring her around." Yet, every attempt to draw her into the fun and excitement failed. After about 90 minutes, I gave up and wrote her off. At the end of the day as I packed up my materials, she walked toward me. I thought "Uh-oh. I'm about to find out just what she didn't like." Imagine my surprise when she said, "I just want you to know that I learned more in this program than from any I've ever attended." Wow, did I ever misread her. What I took as disinterest was instead intensity. She was so focused on learning that she wouldn't allow herself to be distracted by all the other "lively and fun" activities. What I learned from this is that some people's outward appearance belies their true feelings.

As these examples illustrate, sometimes the difficult person turns out to be ourselves. We know the topic and the materials so well that we don't set up the presentation properly. In any presentation it is helpful to highlight that the tone/opening you use goes a long way to clarifying expectations and setting the tone with the participants. Clear agendas and guidelines for how the presentation will be structured are important to most people. On the other hand, there are difficult people in the world and their difficulty comes in varying degrees.

The Change-First Principle states that if you want to change the behavior of another person or your relationship with that person, you first have to change your own behavior. In a similar vein, the literature on Brief Solution-Focused Therapy states: "If it is working, do more of the same; if it isn't working, do something different."

Doing the unexpected, the Change-First Principle, and "if it isn't working do something different," all have a common element. That element is changing a behavior pattern. When the old pattern no longer works, try a new pattern that does. In order to do this more frequently, we have to be aware of when we are at a "choice point"—those critical points in a situation when, if we choose to do something different, the situation will move forward toward a resolution. On the other hand, if we choose to do more of the same behavior, we will continue the old pattern, reach an impasse, or escalate into a conflict.

As presenters, we are constantly negotiating, as the following example illustrates.

Brad: My workshops are highly interactive, and the participants spend a lot of time doing simulations and role-playing in the workshop. Just before the beginning of one workshop, one of the participants, Bob, came up to me and said, "I don't believe in role-playing. It is a complete waste of time. I have been to lots of workshops. I have never learned anything from role-playing and I refuse to do it in this workshop."

This worried me because my workshop is highly experiential and I have three to four negotiation role-play simulations planned over the next two days.

I replied, "There are some things that are difficult to learn any other way."

Bob replied, "That's just a motherhood statement."

Obviously I wasn't getting anywhere with this approach, so I changed strategies. My response to this statement was, "I am willing to be wrong."

To my surprise, Bob replied, "I am willing to be wrong, too."

Bob went on to participate in all role-playing in the course and even volunteered to participate in the most difficult role-play in front of the whole class. Hence, changing my behavior changed Bob's behavior.

In summary, we would all do well to follow the advice of presenter Janet Laap: "If you seek out difficult people, you will find them, or you will create them. Do your homework, align with your audience's needs, expectations, and aspirations, go to where they are without forcing yourself in."

When negotiating, the muscle level is the amount of power or force you bring to the table. There are two common mistakes when it comes to using power: too much too soon, and too little too late. Let's see how we can apply the concept of muscle level to dealing with difficult participants and how to apply different levels of muscle depending on the level of difficulty we are dealing with.

As stated previously, at least half of any medical cure is a correct diagnosis. Similarly, dealing with difficult participants requires a correct diagnosis of the problem and of the amount of power or force necessary to rectify it.

We will now look at how to match the amount of power or force we bring to the situation at various muscle levels.

Consider a situation in which a particular participant seems to have it in for you and the topic of your presentation.

Muscle Level One: Get more information. See the person in private during a break and engage him or her in light conversation. Try to find out as much as you can because some of this information may shed light on that person's behavior.

Brad: At one of my presentations, one of the participants seemed not to be paying any attention whatsoever. This surprised me because I have given this presentation numerous times before and had always been successful. Secondly, all of the other participants in the room seemed to be fully engaged. Half way through our conversation at the break, Rob told me that he had just been informed that he was losing his job through downsizing, that he had always had excellent performance appraisals, and that he had gladly moved his family several times to meet his employers' needs. He went on to apologize for finding it hard to concentrate because he felt so betrayed and poorly treated.

I told him that I understood, that he was welcome to stay or leave, and that I had some excellent materials on resume writing that I would be glad to send him. Rob decided to stay in the training because he felt that the skills would help him in future positions. After our discussion, Rob concentrated extremely well considering the circumstances.

Muscle Level Two: The person continues to be disruptive both to your teaching and to other members of the audience. At this point, you can ask the other participants for their input. Describe the problem as a process problem, not as a person problem. In other words, don't ask the group to help you label Bill's behavior as disruptive, boorish, immature, and destructive (even though you may really want to do so). Instead, ask a process question. Ask the participants if they would rather proceed in the direction and manner you have proposed or if they would like to move in the direction, and/or manner that the participant proposed, or if there is a third alternative. Being open to suggestions, and being assertive enough to bring the issue forward will increase your credibility. Most of the time the participants will make it clear that they want to follow your direction and this will effectively silence your critic/distracter. In a very few cases, the participants will suggest an alternative that will work more effectively for all concerned parties, and in even fewer cases they will agree with the direction that your critic has proposed. Your job now is to act on the wishes of the participants. Don't be afraid to ask for their help in formulating the new agenda. After the agenda has been agreed to, don't be afraid to ask for a break so you can regroup and plan the next segment of the presentation.

Muscle Level Three: At this level, the difficult person starts disagreeing with everything you say and tries to take over the presentation by monopolizing all of the air time, and so on. You have met with the person individually and tried to negotiate a settlement to no avail. What this person is counting on is that you will not say anything publicly in front of the group, even though he or she is disruptive in front of the group.

Now is the time to call the difficult person's bluff by taking actionable steps. For example, you can ask the group for their input in how to proceed. There are three possible outcomes: the group will side with you and ask the disruptive party to stop; the group will side with the difficult person and you will get some very valuable feedback about your presentation style, the group dynamics, or both; or the group will suggest a solution that will allow both you and the difficult person to agree by changing or improving the presentation and each of you will also be able to save face.

Please note: Just as in medicine, the higher the level of the medical intervention, the greater the likelihood of side effects. The same is true when using increased muscle level as a presenter. The good news is, the more you present and the better you know your material, the less likely it is that a participant will try to give you a hard time. If they persist, you can then, in good conscience, move up to Muscle Level Four.

Muscle Level Four: At this point, the situation is intolerable. You have tried everything you can to make it work and clearly it is not. You are clearly in your right to ask the other party to leave. If he or she refuses, you still have a number of choices. You can say that either he or she will have to leave or you will. Please note that this will rarely happen, if ever. In fact, it has never happened to Brad or to David. However, it is important to have a strategy in place just in case it becomes necessary.

Each of these strategies is risky, but so is continuing under intolerable circumstances. Another alternative is to call a break, then call a colleague and ask for his or her help in processing the situation and your alternatives.

Presenter David Frot had this to say about dealing with difficult participants:

I have found that the best way to deal with difficult audience members is to let the audience deal with them. For example, I teach at several senior executive management programs. Sometimes the participants aren't used to listening, but there are subtle ways that if they violate the group norms or the group's wishes, the group can deal with it most effectively—the worst thing you can do is to become arrogant. For example, if they start pontificating about general management, I say something such as, "I'm not in general management. What I am interested in is the effects of demographics on retail or policy or(fill in the blank)." If they continue, I suggest that they can cover whatever they are interested during a different session. In other words, I try to put very clear boundaries on what my session is about and what it is not about and suggest that we concentrate on what today is all about. Then I relax the boundaries in the question and answer period.

One strategy David finds effective when faced with a persistently difficult participant is to say: "You have a good point and one that probably deserves further discussion, but our schedule won't allow me to address it fully at this time. However, if you wish to stay after the program ends, I'll be glad to continue our discussion." This sends a signal to the participant and the rest of your audience that you are moving on and it implies that line of discussion is now closed. David also finds it interesting that often the person whom he invites to stay for further discussion either offers some great insights that deepen his understanding of the subject at hand, or the person is the first to leave at the end of the program because that person was only interested in seeking attention.

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