Are you really that silly?
Have you ever looked at someone in your training room and felt the urge to ask that question?
I know that I must never actually say it – and it isn’t one of the corporate training techniques that we recommend -but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to every now and then!
Let me emphasise that this impulse is never triggered by someone struggling to grasp a concept or by a participant asking a question with an obvious answer – we genuinely embrace the mantra that ‘the only silly question is the one you don’t ask’.
No, when I have the impulse to ask this question it is triggered by someone doing something that is so blatantly inappropriate that it is inconceivable that they thought it would be OK!
A highly disruptive training participant
I had a really good example of this in a training room about ten years ago. My client had asked me to do a workshop on the benefits of diversity in the workplace and on strategies to improve interpersonal communication and inclusiveness.
In this particular workplace, previously dominated by people from very similar backgrounds, ethnic and gender diversity was starting to emerge. A key message in the workshop was the need to change long established but outdated attitudes and behaviour.
The group included a highly disruptive participant who made it very clear that he thought the course was a waste of time, the content was a load of rubbish and that I was a complete idiot!
Hitting the depths
This guy used every strategy he could think of to be disruptive: arriving late and making a big show of finding a seat; noisily not participating but then completely dominating discussions; driving his own agenda; attacking other participants for their ideas and comments; criticising everything I said; and blatantly stating that the course was an absolute waste of time and money.
All of this had happened in the first hour and I had been spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort managing his behaviour using every training strategy I had in my bag of tricks– he certainly wasn’t taking any responsibility for managing it himself!
As a learning facilitator, my responsibility is to create a culture in the room that is conducive to adult learning. The culture in this room definitely wasn’t like that – people were frustrated, embarrassed and feeling stressed by this highly disruptive participant.
Just as I was considering taking an early break, this guy did me a huge favour.
Yes, I probably am that silly!
After about an hour, just when I thought his behaviour couldn’t get any worse, he crossed a line. In front of the whole group, in a course about diversity and inclusiveness, he told a highly offensive racist joke.
As he sat back looking pleased with himself, I felt the impulse rise to ask, ‘are you really that silly?!’
It was a confronting moment and a deathly silence settled around the room.
A pivotal moment in learning
This was the key moment in the whole day. It was the fork in the road at which the course either fell apart or rose to new heights. It was a genuine test of my training skills.
I realised that, as disgraceful as this participant’s behaviour was, he had done me an enormous favour. He had presented an opportunity to:
- Deal with his behaviour in a really conclusive way
- Make a really strong point for those participants who wanted to benefit from the course
- Send a really clear message about the culture in that training room
Leaving some bruises
In an article on modelling learning, I described how one of our facilitators, Peter Arbery, used a disruptive participant’s behaviour to model the content of the course he was facilitating – workplace communication, emotional intelligence, etc.
My situation was slightly different – I needed to use the participant’s behaviour as a glaring example of the sort of behaviour the course was designed to deal with.
To achieve that, I knew I would leave some bruises on the disruptive participant.
Is it OK to ‘bruise’ a participant for the greater good?
No. In most situations, the strategy I am about to describe would not be OK. If you have an issue with a participant that is going to require really confronting them, do it in private.
You may start the process as part of the group discussion but, once it is obvious that you need to say certain things, park the issue and pick it up privately during a break.
However, it was clear that a few ‘bruises’ in this case would not only help the group learn, it was the only chance that this guy may learn as well.
Yes, that is what I am saying!
This is the way I chose to respond.
Me: you mentioned before that you think this course is unnecessary – a complete waste of time and money.
Me: Isn’t what you just said proof that it is really important?
Participant: What do you mean by that?
Me: Well, isn’t the fact that you actually think it is funny and OK to tell that joke, proof that you obviously don’t know what is appropriate and acceptable – and what isn’t?
Participant: Are you suggesting I don’t know how to behave appropriately?
There is no doubt that this participant felt confronted and possibly embarrassed in front of the group. However, if I had brushed over his comment I would have undermined every key message in the course – in fact, I would have reinforced the very issue that we were trying to address.
Leave if you want, play nice if you stay – and take responsibility either way
I went on to tell this participant that they should feel free to leave the course if they wanted - and that they would only be welcome in the training room if they accepted a responsibility for certain standards of behaviour.
However, they needed to accept the consequences of their behaviour and choices: when asked for a list of people who had completed the course, their name wouldn’t be on it. When asked for feedback on how participants embraced the course, I would be honest. When asked if there were people who needed follow up action, I would say ‘yes!’
The participant was aware that this would cause issues for them with their manager –I told them that they would have to have that discussion and explain why they chose to behave the way they did and why they decided to leave the course (or were asked to leave).
As a general principle, I will always try to help someone get good outcomes – but I will never help them escape the consequences of their own actions and decisions. In the absence of consequence, learning doesn’t occur.
I took a really hard line with this guy – in a 22 year corporate training career, there have been very few occasions when this has been necessary. It takes courage to deal with issues like this in the training room – but if you don’t you allow learning to be compromised and that must never happen!
Learn how to deal with disruptive participants in your corporate training room
Check out our blogpost on 9 people who make learning and development jobs challenging