Unfortunately, there is no single, easy answer for dealing with difficult questions from participants who feel and act like prisoners. Handled incorrectly, they can destroy learning and results for everyone involved.
But that is where your skill as a facilitator comes in to help transfer new skills and knowledge from the workshop to the job for each and every participant. Difficult participants are often kept from learning new skills because of their negative attitude. It is your job to try to shift them from negative to positive so that they can join the rest of your group and learn what you have to teach to increase their performance.
Here are four techniques that work:
- Humor. Is there a light-hearted way to lessen the tension? Challenging questions or resistant participants poison the atmosphere and make everyone uncomfortable. If humor is a tactic you are comfortable using, try it to create an environment for learning, practice, and reflection.
- Redirect the question. Rather than try to answer the difficult question yourself, acknowledge that it is a “good question” and then send it out to the class as a whole. You can say that you have some thoughts on the subject but would like to see what others think first. Ask the group for their ideas and suggestions. This way you can involve all participants in a discussion of the situation and possible solutions; this way you are not the target or the sole expert. Insights from the questioner’s colleagues may lead you all to a more satisfactory answer than you would have been able to find on your own.
- Get them on board. Do what you can to persuade prisoners to come to your side. Certainly, you will avoid confrontation. But you can go much further in trying to establish a cooperative relationship. Use positive reinforcement whenever they participate in an exercise or lend insights to a discussion. Invite their help in distributing handouts or scribing comments on a flipchart. Only as a last resort should you speak directly of their disruptive behavior…and then only in private.
- Try to uncover the reason for their resistance. Once you understand why a participant is acting like a prisoner, you have an opportunity to gain their support. Is the content beneath their perceived skill set? Are they operating on overload and worried about falling further behind on the job? Was their commute especially nerve-wracking? Are they in danger of being let go? Have they just been chewed out by their boss? A little understanding goes a long way. And then you can try to show how the skills they will learn in the session will ultimately help them be more successful on the job.