Strategies that facilitators can undertake when dealing with difficult participants

The participant who talks too much:

A way to approach the dominant participant and pull in non-participants is to redirect the discussion to another person or another topic.  Alternatively, facilitators may wish to reframe their comments, making them viable additions to the discussion.  Facilitators might also ask one or more members of the group to act as observers for a few sessions, reporting back their observations to the group. Perhaps, assigning the avid talker to the observer role would help the person develop sensitivity.  Another approach is to break down the group into smaller task groups.

The participant who will not talk:

A way to approach participants is to provide opportunities for smaller group discussions or pair-share discussions. Smaller groups may help put some participants at ease. A second strategy is to ask opinion questions occasionally (e.g., “How do you feel about this?”). This may encourage participation by reducing participants’ fear of answering incorrectly. Another strategy is to have participants write out their answers to a question. Having the words written out may make it easier for a shy or fearful person to speak up.

The participant who is dominant:

Give the participant responsibility within the group or a role in which he or she has to fulfil. Reinforce alternative behaviour and introduce a quota system, in which each participant is given three stones or bits of paper, and they have to give one up every time they speak. When they have no more, they cannot speak again.

The discussion that turns into an argument:

In good discussions, conflicts will sometimes arise. If such conflicts are left ambiguous, they may cause continuing trouble. Some useful strategies in tackling these situations are as follows:

If the solution depends on certain facts, the facilitator can ask participants to refer to the text or another authority.

If there is an experimentally verified answer, the facilitator can use the opportunity to review the method by which the answer could be determined.

If the question is one of values, the facilitator may use the occasion to help participants become aware of the values involved.

The facilitator can list both sides of the argument on the board.

The facilitator can take a strong position as moderator, preventing participants from interrupting each other or speaking simultaneously. Facilitators can lay ground rules for discussion, such as asking participants to focus conflict on ideas rather than people and to resist being judgmental.

Unclear or hesitant comments:

The facilitator can encourage participants, who make unclear contributions, to give examples and factual evidence of their points. The facilitator can also restate points for verification or rejection by the participants, or give enthusiastic nonverbal cues and patience.

The discussion that goes off track:

Some facilitators keep discussions on track by listing the questions or issues they want to cover on the board or summarizing the discussion on the board as it proceeds. Stopping and asking a participant to summarize where the discussion is at the point it appears to go off track may also help.

The participant who verbally attacks the facilitator:

When participants argue for the sake of argument, facilitators might lose the battle if they are drawn into it.  Participants who verbally attack facilitators often want attention, so simply giving them some recognition while firmly moving on often takes care of the problem. If participants are simply trying to embarrass the facilitator, they may seek to make him or her defensive with such comments as, “How do you really know that…?” or “You’re not really saying that…?” Such questions can be handled by playing boomerang. The facilitator might say, “What I’m saying is…, but now I’d like you to share your perspective.” Turning the question back to that participant forces him or her to take responsibility for his or her opinion.

Additional strategies to handle these situations include:

1. Confrontation

Facilitators can confront the questioner with their reactions to his or her behaviour. “I am uncomfortable with your questions and remarks. What I really hear you saying is, And I would like to hear…”

2. Active listening

Facilitators can paraphrase the message they heard and check out the accuracy of their assumptions before responding.

3. Locating

Facilitators can ask the participant to explain the context behind the question.

4. Deferring

Often, the best strategy is to invite participants to come up after the session and arrange for a time to talk about the disagreement further, and then move the discussion on to another topic.