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  • Francoise Gielen

How to deal with the most difficult participant in a group?

Updated: Jan 9

How to deal with the most difficult participant in a group?

Who do you feel is the most difficult person in a group you are leading/guiding? Is it the one who does not pay attention, distracted by technology? The one who disagrees with everything you say? The one who dominates the whole room? The one who is silent and aloof? Or maybe even a whole group shows up behaving like your worst nightmare… How do you deal with that ?

The ‘nightmare’ experiment

In our Facilitator Development Programme we experiment with facilitating these nightmares of ours. You get your colleagues to create the worst setting you can imagine and then we work with that. And oh yes, the role play becomes real play! I have seen it happening time after time. Let me share what happened to Carol, one of our participants.

Carol is an experienced facilitator with a spike on empathy, a servant mindset and very rich in non-verbal expression and energetic radiance. Disappointment is what she finds hardest to handle. She talks about a group which she expects to be very disappointed about leader Karl not joining her to co-facilitate. And the group having to put up with just her. She explains to us how to behave in the role-play and leaves the room to prepare.

Setting ourselves up for misery

The first round goes like this: Carol comes into the room very tense and looking down, does not connect to us and with a sad face shares Karl is not joining us. We easily join her in her depressed energy, respond with disappointment, she empathizes and expresses her own disappointment in Karl not joining and next thing we know we all swirl down a current of negative energy…. Carol is visibly struggling and starting to lose her composure. We disengage completely.

Ok, let’s retry.

The most difficult participant is you

Carol again leaves the room. As a group we start setting ourselves up for the next round. But somehow, we get into a super funny story. One of our team members shares about how he ended up on stage of his children’s primary school singing a song about roses in an X-mas choir. He shares in a hilarious way how embarrassing that was and he even includes actual singing. By now we are laughing out loud. We try to bring ourselves back to a serious mode to set the scene for Carol. But then we decide to leave our jolly state as is. Let her do the work of creating the scene of disappointment!

When Carol enters the room, she finds us happy and still chuckling. We greet her and take our seats; she sits down as well. And, to our surprise, here she goes again: with a very sad face she shares: ‘I got some bad news. Karl is not joining us today, very unfortunate.’ Once more she starts explaining how sad that is, how much he wanted to be here, that we will have to do without him etc. etc. Even though we are initially in a light and happy mode she manages to take us down. Even more than the words bad news, unfortunate, sad etc. her energy hits us and I can feel my smile fading away.

We take a pause from the process and share back to Carol how, in just a couple of minutes, our mood has turned from fun to negative feelings.

Suddenly she gets it. How she always prepares for the worst and in the attempt to ‘brace for impact’ slips into an energy which creates this worst outcome. Even when the circumstances do not actually ask for it. A classical self-fulfilling prophecy! Who needs difficult participants when you are the most difficult one yourself?

Setting ourselves up for success

She takes one last turn. The facts are still the same, Karl will not be joining today. And as the group really likes him, they will probably respond to that. But now instead of creating drama, she centers herself, focusses on what she can influence and comes in with a positive stance. We immediately notice the difference. She connects with us upon entering the room, and after creating rapport concisely and clearly brings the message. As some of the group respond that they will miss Karl, she facilitates a creative dialogue that leads to the idea to let him know he will be missed in a short video message. And then the group is ready to move along. This constructive start actually helps Carol to speed up and get into the work effortlessly.

‘The quality of the intervention depends on the quality of the inner state of the intervenor’

This statement of Bill O’Brian, late CEO of Hanover Insurance says it all. If you are not aware, the toughest participant in the group may very well be yourself. Hence why doing our inner work is paramount for us as leaders and facilitators. Self-awareness is the key to mastery, and not only in our professional lives. ‘Liberation Of Facilitation’ is a facilitator development programme which helps you to gain mastery, in order to guide groups of leaders in doing the same. Want to learn more? or contact Jeroentje van Joolingen via to explore further


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