Dealing with Learning Resistance and Disruptive Learners

You know the look. Arms crossed. Slouched in their seat. Maybe even a furrowed brow. And you wonder is she going to be a silent resister? Or will she pounce at the first thing with which she disagrees? Will he shift and harrumph when his opinion differs from yours? Or is he going to freely share his negative opinions with others in his group? Will they try to discredit you by respectfully challenging you? Resistant learners can cause havoc in your training meeting in a variety of ways. Some may silently undermine your training with their body language and gestures. Others may share their negativity covertly, during small group discussions or breaks. Some may verbally challenge every point you make, or try to draw you into an emotional or heated exchange. All can disrupt your training by creating tension and negativity. Here are three actions to take to get through to resistant learners…

The Resistance Learner

  1. Create buy-in. Resistant learners can often be pulled into the training if you can engage them and help them understand how they will benefit. Most adult learners walk into a training session wondering what’s in it for them. If you answer that question at the beginning of the training, their resistance will start to dissipate and they will become more open to learning. Better yet, let your participants determine how they will benefit from the training. Help them answer the question of how they will benefit from the training. Set up the problem or situation and use a Q&A format, small group discussion, or activities to lead them to the appropriate conclusion. For example, post several flip charts with headings pertinent to your business units (Company, Customer, Employees, Managers, etc.) and give them a few minutes to think about how each area will benefit from the training outcomes. It’s not enough for you to outline the benefits. Their buy-in will be stronger if they determine the benefits instead of you.
  2. Confront the problem. If you know in the first five minutes that your audience is going to be a tough one, confront the problem head on. Say something like, “I know we have a lot of experience in this room. And I can tell a few of you think perhaps you don’t need to be here or that maybe there are more important things you could be doing right now, so this is what we¹re going to do…” Then creatively deal with their resistance. For example, flip chart all the reasons why they think they don’t need the training. Next, post a flip chart with the problems or training needs, as you know them and a third flip chart with the heading “Benefits.” Facilitate discussion around both lists taking care to ensure that your participants come up with the benefits of the training: benefits to them, to the customer, and to the company. Again, creating buy-in is important; but combining a discussion about benefits with the training problem and why they don’t think they need the training will help you win over a difficult group. Your honesty will likely affirm how they¹re feeling and help you get past their resistance. Another idea is to give each participant a blank piece of paper and a minute to jot down all obstacles in the way of their learning. After they¹ve finished tell them to fold it and put it in a pocket out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the training (or crumple and toss it in a wastebasket). The idea is for them to have a clear and open mind. Reiterate that that¹s the goal. Again, confronting them with your knowledge of their resistance affirms them and may make it easier to overcome it.
  3. Set the ground rules. If you are concerned that their initial resistance will impede participation or that a few participants’ negativity may adversely affect the entire group, facilitate a discussion around the ground rules for the meeting. Again, address your concerns head on.

For example, ask for a show of hands and say something like, “How many of you believe you have an open mind about today¹s training?” or “How many of you believe you don’t really need to be here?” Then, talk about the outcomes and explain that before you proceed, you’ll make them two promises: that they will leave with at least one thing of value and they¹ll have fun. However you must also explain that they have a responsibility as well. Then, flip chart answers to a question like, “What do you need to do to ensure a positive and fun learning experience?” Their answers become the ground rules for the training and the exercise should outline their responsibility for learning as well as alleviate some resistance.

The Disruptive Learner

But what about that one person you just can’t bring around? Or the participant who continuously challenges you? Here are a few ideas for handling these other types of disruptions.

  1. Talk one-on-one. If you have a participant who continues to cause problems in the workshop, try talking with him one on one during a break. See if you can elicit other underlying issues that may be causing problems. If you can’t bring him around, you can outline your expectations for his behaviors, including that he shows respect to you and the others who are trying to learn. Focus on his behaviors and how they are disruptive. Ask him if he understands why his behaviors are a problem. As a last resort, you may have to ask him to leave. If your training meeting is a short one and doesn’t include a break, you won’t have the opportunity to talk one-on-one. However, if the resistant learner is someone who attends your workshops regularly, you may want to talk with him to prevent problems in future meetings.
  2. Throw the challenges back to the group. If a participant continues to challenge you and it is detracting from the learning process, consider throwing the comment, question, or issue back to the group. Say something like, “Do any of you have any thoughts on this?” Or, “What do the rest of you think about that”

It’s better to let peers point out why the participant is off base instead of you. While this is an effective way for controlling a verbally disruptive participant, it can also backfire if the group is not on your side. You may find that there are others who think the same way and an emotional exchange may ensue. If that happens, consider calling a quick break to give you a few minutes to prepare. Then, try to turn the dialogue into a healthy debate. In the end, you’ll likely find that learning was enhanced by the discussion.

Michele Eby works for Media Partners as a writer and training advisor. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years.