Practica: Dealing with participant resistance


Sometimes I’ve found if I ignore signs of resistance and just move ahead, seemingly reluctant participants get on board. Maybe it’s taking them time to wake up. Some are “naturally resistant" whenever another person is presenting and often give up the game after a short period of time, especially if others appear to be on board. It can also be that the material or you as a presenter have finally captured their interest.

I like the idea of least invasive tactics and working my way up the ladder of lesser to stronger interventions. However, just moving on is not a good idea if the resistance is disruptive for the group or persistent and distracting to you. As the presenter I have a great deal of responsibility that those that want to learn have a supportive environment. One option is to give feedback about the problem behavior.

Occasionally someone will give off a very strong message with negative facial expressions and body language. This can be tough if you are a presenter looking at such a person for 6 or 8 hours a day. Much of what I present is in leadership, communication, team building and culture change. So my giving feedback to a participant on body language is legitimate. Here is one example.

Frank was frowning most of the morning and would occasionally give off deep sighs. I wasn’t sure if other participants were noticing this behavior or were impacted by it, though I suspected this was the case, but it was certainly impacting me. 

On a break, I asked Frank if he had a few minutes and if he was open to a bit of feedback.  He said, “Sure." I asked how the course was going for him. Surprisingly, he said, "It's great and I'm getting a lot out of it.”

I shared that I appreciated him asking an initial question when I opened up the floor for discussion early on in the morning, because I felt it broke the ice for others.

I also said, “It seems to me that to me like you are frowning a lot of the time. I also can hear you sighing. I am finding it challenging to concentrate on my presentation when you do this. My guess is that our paths may not cross again, so how you are in this meeting will not impact your future. I’m wondering, though, if you do this at other meetings, for example at work as well."

Frank lifted his eyebrows in surprise and said, “You know one of my colleagues at work asked me not to come to his design meetings any more. When I asked for a reason he gave me some kind of excuse that didn’t make sense to me. Now, I wonder if it was my body language.  

I encouraged him to get feedback from that person at work. I also asked him if he were willing to experiment on trying to hold a neutral expression for the part of the time we were working together. He agreed. I then proposed that if his expressions and sighing were getting to me, I’d tug at my left ear and glance his way. We agreed to check in at the end of the day.

The class went so much better now that I was able to concentrate. There were only three times that I had to tug at my left ear. Frank told me that he now realized that when he is really trying hard to concentrate, he frowns. So, this behavior not only was not only impacting me but probably others at work. Addressing this was mutually beneficial.

So, here are the guidelines that I use when giving this kind of feedback:

  • Always ask for permission to give feedback first.
  • Find out how the workshop experience is for them. Don’t assume the person is intending to be difficult.
  • State the person’s behavior and its impact on you.
  • Ask if she or he would be willing to experiment with different behavior.
  • Contract to touch base at the end of the day to see how it went.
  • Help the participant apply what is learned at the workshop to their place of business.
  • Thank them for their openness.
  • Give positive feedback where appropriate.

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