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Putting baby in the corner!

Participants are not always positive, cooperative, or engaging. Occasionally, a participant has his own agenda or reacts negatively to other participants, and turns a good session into a bad one. Part of your job is to manage a participant who has gone over to the dark side in a way that brings him back into the fold but doesn’t detract from the session. There are three useful methods for dealing with a participant who begins to behave negatively. It’s key to address a disruptive participant as promptly as possible, because that person’s actions will quickly spoil the rest of the session.

Encourage self-regulation

The best way to deal with a disruptive participant is to let the group respond. It’s best if the participants provide encouragement or suggestions to address the issue. You can foster this by encouraging participants to address issues as they arise. Here is an example:

  • John: Well, that suggestion will never work! There is no point in us even discussing this anymore!
  • Facilitator: Joan, why do you think John thinks this wouldn’t work? What’s he seeing that would make your idea not possible?

Directing the issue back to a different group member forces the confrontation out into the open and allows all the participants to reach a resolution. It also avoids making you the bad guy who has to reprimand one of the participants.

Taking a break

Conversations can get heated when sensitive topics come up. Participants will have strong feelings and ideas about how they would address the topic and come to a solution. These strong feelings and ideas can easily turn a healthy debate into a bickering session. Before the session reaches a tipping point and turns into a fight, it’s a good idea to call a break and allow people to walk away from the conversation for a bit.

While the group is split up, you can have a private chat with participants who are proving to be overly negative or disruptive. Again, an example:

  • Facilitator: Joe, what’s going on? I can see you care a lot about this issue. What can I do to bring this conversation to some type of resolution between you and Janice?
  • Joe: She just doesn’t understand the direction I’ve been given by my directors. What she’s asking for would make it appear as if we’re taking a step back rather than a step forward.
  • Facilitator: That makes sense. When we get back together, let’s talk about that specifically and see if Janice can rethink her idea to address that concern.

Getting Joe away from the conversation was key to understanding what he is feeling and where his negative behavior was coming from. Knowing that it was making him look bad in front of his bosses helps you bring Joe back in, and progresses the conversation.


Eventually, a participant who continues to behave negatively and is disruptive to the other participants will cause the session to be a wash. If this happens, that makes the whole thing a waste of time, money, and manpower. You have to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and sometimes that means you have to ask a participant to leave. This is not fun, comfortable, or enjoyable. This can kill a certain amount of energy and flow in the session and it’s really hard to get it back.

However, there comes a point where getting the disruptive participant out of the room is more important than losing a bit of energy. The best time to ask a participant to leave is during a break. This gives that person a safe out (avoiding the embarrassment of being asked to leave) and it avoids you having to be the bad guy in front of the rest of the participants.

  • Facilitator: Hey, Andy, it’s obvious you don’t want to be here and you don’t see what we’re doing as valuable. Why don’t you let us wrap this up and I’ll send you the final notes and decisions that we reach. We can talk about it tomorrow maybe?
  • Andy: That works. I’ve got a deadline I need to be working on anyway.

The fact that Andy had a deadline might have been something that caused his disruptive behavior. He wasn’t seeing value in the session, and viewed it as a distraction from something he felt he needed to be doing. Having this side conversation gave Andy “permission” to return to work and removed his negative effects from the other participants.

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