Workplace Safety

Expert Advice on Handling Difficult Trainees and Questions

Q. What can trainers do to manage difficult participants and difficult questions during training?

A. Difficult trainees include hecklers (particularly in large groups) as well as those who “for whatever reason have totally shut down and make it obvious” by not participating and sitting with their arms folded during training, says Veronica J. Holcomb, president of VJ Holcomb Associates (, a leadership development, coaching, and training firm in Staten Island, New York. Still other trainees talk incessantly, which is a much more common problem, she says.

Sometimes difficult trainees are trying to play a game of “one-upmanship” with trainers, according to Holcomb. However, she cautions against trying to show participants that you are more knowledgeable than they are. “Certainly, you never should take them on. You should not work to show them you’re smarter,” she emphasizes.

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“These people are vying for attention, so I really just try to give them what they want,” Holcomb says. For example, she gives difficult people opportunities to be team leaders, calls on them a little more frequently, or invites them to come to the front of the room to write something on a flip board. “It seems to calm them down,” she says, adding that in extreme cases, it is sometimes necessary to pull disruptive persons aside during a break and talk to them.

Trainers who conduct internal training have the advantage of either knowing participants—or having access to those who do. So Holcomb recommends getting a list of participants in advance when possible and asking the supervisor or manager if any participants are likely to cause problems during training.

Difficult questions can sometimes pose problems for trainers as well. Holcomb recommends trying to anticipate questions in advance and preparing responses to them. “Write down all of the questions that you anticipate people will ask, and write down all of the questions that you dread they will ask,” she says. “Practice responding out loud because training is a very different skill set than Q&As.” A question-and-answer format requires that trainers are able to synthesize information quickly and be brief in their responses.

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