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Preparing for patterns

Handling a diverse group of participants can be planned for, and you can make it part of your process no matter the type of session you have to manage. Even though each person’s personality is unique, they generally fall into one or more personality patterns. There are many patterns out there, but it’s important to have a handle on a few common ones that have a negative influence on a session when they show up.

Mr. Personality

This person has so much charisma it just oozes out of him. People naturally gravitate toward people like this and tend to follow their lead.

Imagine having Bill Clinton, known for his extreme charisma and attention-grabbing personality, in a session. Keeping and maintaining the focus of all the participants is going to be impossible. Not only that, but any participant who would like to get a little attention is going up against a juggernaut and the valuable information she wants to share will never be heard. The best approach to take with Mr. Personality is to turn him into an asset rather than a distraction. Funnel the facilitation cues and motions through him, such as getting him to kick-start a group activity rather than doing it yourself. This removes his participation from the overall session, but capitalizes on his charisma and charm so the rest of the participants remain focused and engaged.

Teacher’s pet

All she wants to do is help. Yet sometimes, her help is the last thing you need.

Every facilitator needs a helper, and it’s a blessing when that helper is one of the participants. Sometimes though, having a helper can be the most unhelpful thing imaginable. A participant who eagerly attempts to help you rather than engage in the session might be feeling out of place. She may not be comfortable with what is being asked of her, and avoids the activity by trying to assist with it.

Occasionally, the helping participant can have an ulterior motive. In her head, she may think she could be a better facilitator than you are, and she may want to take control of the session. In essence, she is being a usurper. No matter what her intentions may be, you need to direct the helper back to the task at hand and retain control of your session. If reinforcing her in her role as a participant by pulling her aside during a break does not work, then as a last resort you may need to remove her from a session.


He keeps going on and on and on and on. You hope he will eventually get to his point, but it becomes pretty obvious that it’s not going to happen.

In most sessions, having participants talk is a good thing. It’s a sign of a successful facilitator when the ideas being shared lead other participants to contribute their thoughts. Unfortunately, this environment is the perfect camouflage for the Chatterbox. A Chatterbox is a participant who gives the appearance of contributing to the conversation without actually ever saying anything of value. This behavior stems from wanting to feel knowledgeable about a subject or not wanting to be left out by the group.

You can easily turn a Chatterbox into a normal—value-creating—participant by challenging the participant to explain what he means. If ignorance is the source of the ramblings, the group will likely pick up on it and bring him up to speed. The group doesn’t want to leave anyone behind, so they will self-regulate and make sure that doesn’t happen.

The quiet one

This participant sits in the back and tries her best not to be noticed. She has something to say, but just assumes someone else will say it for her.

Some participants have a hard time speaking up in a crowd. This is normal, especially for people who could be classified as introverts. An introvert ends up telling an observant facilitator a lot, though nonverbally. These nonverbal cues are opportunities to engage her and to allow her to share her comments, suggestions, and ideas with the group. It’s vital for you not to forget, or unintentionally ignore, a quiet participant. You’ll find that introverts typically have some of the most insightful things to say. If they are ignored, they may not speak well of you when feedback is collected after the session. Try directing questions to a quiet participant, or asking her to answer or respond to another participant’s last comment. If done in a very friendly and approachable manner, these are great tactics to get her to break out of her shell a bit and become more engaged in the session.

Bone picker

This is someone who shows up to push an agenda or tear down other people’s ideas. He’ll disagree with every suggestion or comment that gets shared, but never provide any alternatives or suggestions of his own.

Not every person who shows up to a session is there to be a positive contributor. From time to time, a participant will show up with an agenda to simply pick a bone about the topic being discussed. There are two courses of action you can take with an intentionally disruptive participant. The most productive method is to encourage the group to self-regulate the negative participant. This can be accomplished by directing the negative comments and ideas back to the other participants to challenge or discredit. At times, getting the other participants to do this can be a challenge, especially if the negative participant is of high rank or influential in the company culture.

The only option left to you, if self-regulation doesn’t work, is to kindly ask the negative participant to leave the session.

The boss

Everyone has a boss, and this person is the boss, or holds a higher rank than the other participants. She can make people nervous, and less willing to share.

The Boss, especially one who’s high ranking and carries a lot of influence or simply thinks they do, is one of the hardest personality types to deal with in a facilitated session. One of the major risks with The Boss being present in the room is that any progress or boundary-pushing ideas can get killed by a single comment. Participants who are used to having authority over the other people in the room can have a hard time letting go and letting ideas flow and gestate. The Boss also may be privy to information that makes a new concept or suggestion impossible to implement. If she shares that with the group, the flow and energy of the group is disturbed.

Handling The Boss is best done before a session starts. Ask your sponsor or host if any of the participants are authorities in the organization. Take the time to meet beforehand and explain the ground rules and the purpose of the session. During this conversation, it may become clear that The Boss’s presence in the room would be counterproductive, and she will excuse herself from the activity. It’s important to schedule an immediate follow-up to go over the initial results of the session and collect her feedback privately.

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