Emotions in learning Train the trainer Training delivery Training design

Struggling with Difficult Participants? Do This Instead.

A question that comes up often among trainers and facilitators, including during the Train the Trainer courses, is:
How can I deal (better) with “difficult participants”?

For example, what to do with those who didn’t want to be in the workshop in the first place?
How do you approach the talkative or dominant ones?
How do you engage the silent ones?

Practical tips and tools to deal with these situations are important – and I am sharing them on Train the Trainer, in other Trainers Toolbox blog posts and on Trainers Toolbox newsletter.

But today, I want to focus on the foundation: here is the best advice I can give you, and with which mot likely no other tips will be needed!

Design the start of the workshop in a way that will ensure that “difficult” situations don’t even show up!

Trainers often fail to realize one thing:
The best way to deal with “difficult” participants (or difficult situations, as I prefer to call them) is to avoid the difficult situations in the first place.

And that is actually easier than it might sound.


By “setting the stage” well, building the motivation and constructive, positive communication right from the workshop beginning.

How to Set the Stage Right for Your Workshop

How do you build the right foundations?
How do you start a workshop in a way in which most of the difficult situations won’t even show up?

It’s not a simple question (although often mistakenly treated as such) – there are many elements of a good opening.

Here are some examples of what you might include in your opening:

  • Discussing expectations and goals for the workshop,
  • Building a positive atmosphere and energy in the group,
  • Strengthening trust with the right sequence of questions and supportive body language,
  • Navigating the conversations in constructive, relevant directions, so attendees feel a sense of value and meaning….

and in many more ways.

But, “WHAT” is not the right question to start designing your opening with?

“What activities should we do, and in which order?”

That is the wrong question.

A misleading question.

A question that will take you in superficial directions, and right into a trap of opening space for later difficulties.

A much more relevant question when you start designing your workshop plan and the opening is WHY.

In other words,

  • Why are we doing the opening? What am I looking to achieve within the opening?
  • Why would these activities be a good match for this specific workshop, its contexts, and its specific learning goals? What is the role and purpose of this activity – how specifically will it move participants to feel, to act? And how will it shape their motivation & participation in the workshop?

In workshop design, the choice of the exact activities comes as a step after figuring out WHY.

Activities are WHAT and HOW to achieve something, and should not be the starting point of the workshop design.

Start with WHY, and everything in your workshop design jumps right to the next level.

WHY Opening Matters?

Let’s have a very brief look into the WHY of the opening.

Why are we doing Opening in the first place?
What are we looking to achieve in the first 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or the first hour of the workshop?

Here are some of the elements that you will most often want to achieve in your opening:
(Although the exact shape of this will – and should! – always depend on your learning goal!)

💫Motivate through relevance: Show participants why this workshop will be relevant for them in “real life”. This will positively impact their attitude towards the content and activities.
💫 Strengthen trust: Share meaningful things at the right level of depth & build vulnerability gradually and strategically. This will ensure openness and willingness to share.
💫Build a sense of belonging: Provide clarity and communicate positively to ensure everyone feels safe and is positive towards others (including the trainer). You will inspire them to engage more actively, both for their own learning but also to support each other.
💫 Engage through curiosity: Intrigue with new questions, include stories, examples, and ideas that will tickle their desire to discover more. Such tools make participants more active & engaged both mentally and in participation.
💫 Make them feel safe and create a positive atmosphere: Nourish a spirit of acceptance, appreciation, and fun. It will invite them to be outgoing and open throughout the rest of the workshop.
💫 Establish active participation early: Set the examples for the type of participation you would like to have. What happens in the opening will role-model the type of interaction and participation for the whole workshop.
💫 Balance between equality & individuality: For space to feel safe, in some bits of the workshop everyone will need to share and participate (and opening is one of those bits). Yet, in later bits, seek to empower them to give & take what they need instead of pushing them into the type of participation that you need from them (for example, allowing more reflection time and silence for those who need it).

When you create all these positive mental and emotional states in the group and individuals, and fire up the motivation, the question of how to deal with difficult participants suddenly loses its relevance.

When you build this kind of trust and the right foundation for open yet positive communication, they will be part of “your team”.
Meaning, even when they disagree with something you share, or if there is a moment when the process of learning is not optimal for them, they will seek to resolve their need together with you instead of turning it into a problem.

Moment to reflect:

  • Which of these goals for the opening you might have been neglecting in your workshop?
  • Which of them would you like to strengthen?

How Can We Do This? How Can We Build That “Perfect” Opening?

First of all, it’s not about making it perfect – it’s about making it effective and ensuring that we achieve our goals – without stressing ourselves with perfectionism.

Methods are numerous.

You could do things such as

  • Round of check-in to include everyone actively right from the beginning
  • Meaningful, goal-oriented icebreakers (please make sure to make them engaging, smart & meaningful!
  • Nothing ruins the mood for the session like a boring, million times seen, and useless icebreaker.)
  • Building curiosity and getting attention with an interesting story, intriguing question, or a thought-provoking puzzle/problem
  • Focusing on people connecting and deeper get2know if a stronger level of trust is needed for this specific workshop
  • Introducing an agenda in a way that builds motivation and interest
  • Asking for their goals & expectations (as long as you don’t make it boring and energy-draining, but goal-oriented: is it about building connection? Or building curiosity? Or perhaps you use expectations as guidance as to which topics you will give more space?)
  • Creating a contract.

That doesn’t mean all of these need to be included in the opening. In fact, if you include all of them, the opening will probably end up being lengthy and tiring and boredom will start to sneak in.

Choose in a goal-oriented way!

There are a million ways to do each of these steps well – and exactly the creativity and uniqueness of each workshop is what makes workshop design so much fun.

I would even dare say that there are too many methods available – which can create confusion for a trainer seeking to “tick all the steps”.

As you also have limited time for your opening, and limited time to truly capture their attention, you can’t do everything in the opening.

Yet again: it’s not about “doing it all” and “ticking all the boxes”.

Instead, it’s about achieving the goal of the opening, as well as making the opening aligned with the goal of your workshop.

So instead of doing it all, you want to always make the most impactful choice for that specific group and that specific context.

For example, you can build motivation through relevance by using any of these approaches (not all!):

💡 Talking about the benefits of the tools that we will cover

💡 Storytelling a powerful example that shows the importance of this topic

💡 Demonstrating one of the best short tools right at the beginning to show its usefulness

💡 Facilitating the conversations between participants about what is the importance of this topic for them

💡 Creating an active task, case study or puzzle which will make them discover (ideally with an element of surprise) how those skills that they will learn today make a difference
… and many more ways.

That means that no two openings will be the same (hopefully 🙂).

Too Long to Read? Summary of the Main Points!

I hope you are taking a lot of ideas and insights from this article – but just in case you got lost in details, here is the main point:

To do openings well, do not follow a “checklist of activities”!
Instead, follow the logic of WHY are we doing these elements in the opening.
Ask “What am I looking to achieve and create in this group?”
And only then “How will I do that?”

Looking to deepen your learning about workshops, and to put it in practice?

Creating an impactful start and setting the right foundation for deep insights is one of many topics we cover on Train the Trainer.

Train the Trainer shows you all the puzzle pieces of making the workshop amazing.
And it does so in a practical and immersive way, with a lot of ideas, active experiences, and feedback.

Most importantly, at Train the Trainer you train to approach all training situations starting with “WHY”.
“Why are we doing this, and what are we looking to achieve?”, instead of blindly choosing activities or following step-by-step models.

If you are looking to bring your workshop and trainings to a whole new level – this is the right time to join!

Moment to Reflect:

  • What difficult situations in training are you “afraid” of? What do you need to build and focus on in the opening to avoid these situations?
  • What do you think is the key to a great opening and to building the right foundation?
  • What else might your opening be missing? Which of the elements discussed in this article you might be neglecting?

For more tips, insights and reflection on your workshop design, join the newsletter!

P.S. And yes, we also talk about how to deal with difficult situations in training within Train the Trainer.

While a great opening will do 80% of the work of avoiding such situations, you still want to be equipped for the other 20% of situations. But more on that in another blog article.

No Comments Found


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.