For all of you that facilitate workshops on a regular basis: you know it’s not always easy to manage a group. There are a variety of problems that might occur due to the composition of the group, dominating individuals, difficult behavior and other causes such as mentally absent folks. I sometimes find it hard to manage such challenging situations, and therefore I wanted to share some tips that have help me tremendously throughout my career so far.

Let’s take the hypothetical situation that you are running a workshop, with an ‘annoying’ participant (Let’s call him Mark for now). He or she disrupts the workshop by either dominating it, being aggressive, initiating in 1-on-1 conversations with others or just generally causing you problems in doing your job.

What can we do about this? Let’s look at 5 tips that I apply and have worked for me in the past.

The 5 Tips to handle difficult workshop dynamics

1. Use non-verbal communication
Around 90% of our communication is non-verbal (i.e: body language + the way you use your vocals, not what you say). That leaves very little for the actual content, only around 10%. With other words: the way you engage with others and approach them, is often way more powerful than what comes out of your mouth. You need to be aware of this use it to your advantage.

Some examples how to use non-verbal communication:

  • Seek eye contact with the individual when talking
  • Walk towards him, while keeping eye contact
  • If the person is in the back of the room, give parts of your talk in the back of the class to draw attention
  • Raise your voice
  • Touch his or her table (when in a group exercise) or even lean over that table to impose your presence

2. Level your game
Being formal might be the primary, default way to go when you’re giving a professional workshop. However, when you feel the audience is informal, and the ‘trouble causer’ in particular is acting very informal, don’t be afraid to level your talk to his. For example, you could be more direct and upfront (without being rude), make more jokes, or show empathy;

“Listen, I know you guys are tired and want to have break, so let’s get this over with so we can all have a coffee.”

I ran workshops with sailors, car engineers and hairdressers, and for each your need a different tone of voice. Don’t be afraid to drop the corporate talk and get down to earth.

3. Pause your voice
This helped me a lot! The only thing you have to do: keep a 4 seconds pause in your voice, and watch how magically everyone keeps quiet. It’s a golden tip that a lot of elementary school teacher use to capture their kids’ attention.

4. Involve or confront him/her
If things get more troublesome, don’t be afraid to call out somebody directly. This can be done by:

  • Asking the person a direct question related to the subject (when he/she didn’t pay attention, you’ll make sure that next time he will!). I use this a lot for people looking on their phones while I’m explaining something.
  • Call out the person in front of the group. As this quite confrontational and direct, I can assure you that it will have an impact on the person (and the group).

    “Hey Mark, can you please pay attention? This is an important part of the session and I’d like you to participate”.

5. Gently kick him out
As a last resort, you can actually kick the person out. This will have a major impact on the group and therefore should only be used as an ultimate tool, when nothing else works. Choose your words wisely, don’t just ask him/her to leave the room. Depending the on context, you can say different things:

  • When constantly on the phone:

    “Hey Mark, if you have to make a phone call or need to arrange something important – which I understand – can you please do that in the hallway so that I can continue the session with full attention?”

  • When having too many 1-on-1 conversations:

    “Hey Mark, if you need a private conversation with your group member, could you please have it outside this room?”

I once even kicked out a professor that invited me to give a talk, because he was having a 10 minute conversation with one of this students. They weren’t talking about the weather or Sunday’s football match but actually having a constructive talk about the student’s work. I turned to them and said:

“Sorry to interrupt, but it seems like you’re in a deep discussion about the assignment. Would you mind finishing it on the hallway? That way you don’t have to whisper”

The professor later told me he didn’t mind my action at all and actually really needed this talk with the student. All good, no one hurt!

Of course, be careful who your kicking out. If it’s the CEO or a Senior Manager, it could damage your relationship. Also, since you often don’t know the reason why somebody is mentally absent or distracted, use this tip only scarcely and when you’re sure it’s for the best. Maybe this person just lost his grandmother or is dealing with a very difficult work situation.

This is not a sexy topic and I hopefully you never have to turn to such measures, but you’ll certainly come across these situations if you run workshops on a regular basis. Keep it up and good luck! Now get out of here!