How I deal with disengaged and disruptive people in workshops

By request, this is an expanded and edited version of an answer I gave to a question posed in the Content + UX Slack community. Discretion means I won’t post the whole question or name the questioner, but the gist of the question was

How do you deal with people who keep emailing and messaging during workshops and people who engage negatively?

I’ve experienced this a lot. More than I’d like but enough to know it’s not me, it’s them. This means I’m able to be less emotional in my reaction, which in itself can take the sting out of the situation. Whether consciously or not, the disengaged and disruptive are trying to provoke a reaction that allows them to take the upper hand. Of course, sometimes they’re just plain unprofessional, in which case you might need to take a different tack.

Here’s some tactics I’ve used when facilitating workshops, leading meetings or giving training. If any of these have worked for you or you’ve got any others to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


Prevention’s better than cure if you can manage it.

Appeal to a sense of respect

When you’re running a workshop, you’re asking for participants’ brains and their time. Knowledge is precious. Time is precious. You’re asking for the most precious things you can ask of anyone. As a facilitator, it’s on you to run the workshop to get the most out of the time and to remind participants that it’s on them to respect that other people’s time and knowledge is as important as theirs.

Emphasising respect for each other as part of your introductory spiel can be useful because it helps to make the behaviour of people who aren’t participating fully or disrupting the workshop less about challenging the facilitator and more about them not being good colleagues.

Appealing to the group to respect each other’s time is also useful when you have people who aren’t sticking to the allotted time for tasks or breaks.

Set ground rules

Setting ground rules is facilitation 101 stuff but when you’ve had a good run of working with engaged participants, it can be easy to forget to set rules around using devices.

Example ground rules around devices

  • It’s ok to use devices whenever.
  • It’s not ok to use your device at all.
  • It’s ok to check for messages during breaks.
  • It’s ok to leave the room if you have to deal with something urgently.
  • It’s ok not to attend the workshop because you’ve got urgent business that means you would be constantly checking your device.
  • It’s ok to ask someone to stop using their device.

You’ll have noticed that mostly I try to stick to a positive construction – it’s ok to… – rather than saying, for example, ‘Don’t use your device outside of breaks.’

Why would you ever say ‘it’s ok to use devices whenever’? Well, I never have, but it could be a valid rule in some work cultures or situations (such as customer service reps being on call). Without wishing to state the bleeding obvious, you’ll need to structure your workshop to be able to cope with this, if this is the case.

I find saying ‘it’s ok to leave the room if you need to’ helps to establish the adult-to-adult relationship, as opposed to the parent-teacher vibe. I’ll often say, “We’re all adults and it’s not school, so if you need to leave the room to deal with a call – whether from your boss or of nature – you don’t need to put up your hand to ask for permission.”

Most of the time, I set the baseline ground rules before asking the group if there’s anything they’d like to adjust or other rules they’d like to set. I always ask the group for suggestions or validation because I want them to have some sense of ownership, which makes it more likely they’ll stick to the rules. It also makes any further reference to them by me more about reminding the group about their own commitments to each other, rather than me being a policeman.

I set the baseline rules first because if I get the group to set the ground rules first and they’ve missed ones out that I think are crucial, adding my own after they’ve done theirs feels more like I’m a teacher who’s set a task and had to provide the right answer. You probably get away with that in a training situation; when you’re there as a facilitator, less so.

Keep the ground rules visible

Putting the ground rules up somewhere in the room helps to establish them and gives you something to point to if you need to remind participants about them.

Be careful not to get too Big Brother about it.

Cure: course correction

Setting the ground rules and making sure everyone’s signed up to them is necessary but it’s not always sufficient. Some people just need a bit more persuasion.

Remind people about the ground rules at appropriate times

Having set the ground rules and made them visible, you can point to them to reinforce them. You could literally point to a ground rule as soon as it’s been broken, or you could wait till an appropriate time, like after a break when the workshop group has reformed. The latter approach is less likely to be seen as a direct challenge to a specific person’s behaviour but possibly at the expense of coming too long after the behaviour you want to improve.

Perform a health check on the ground rules

At a suitable time, ask the group how they feel the ground rules they or we – never I – set at the start of the workshop are working. Set the tone so the group know it’s perfectly fine to say some rules need amending and some need reinforcing. If there are people disrespecting rules around devices, either the group will out them or they’ll out themselves by saying they think the rule isn’t valid. You’ll be tempted to out the device addicts yourself either directly (not recommended) or obliquely. I think it’s pretty obvious when I’m being passive-aggressive so my own style is to have a discreet word in private instead.

Enforce and reinforce the ground rules

If you have a ground rule around not using devices during the workshop and it’s being broken, you need to get on it sooner rather than later.

A discreet word with people who are on their devices can be helpful. By doing it discreetly, you’re showing sensitivity and avoiding the risk of a confrontation in front of the group.

The nuclear option is to confiscate devices. Once, I literally had a box on a table to hold confiscated phones. In that situation, I was very much leading the team in a workshop rather than facilitating it, so I could get away with it. You will want to be very careful about how and when you do it yourself. Generally, I find it’s unhealthy when adults are in a parent-child or teacher-child relationship but I’ve experienced work cultures that really are as hierarchical as that and it might be that your group’s more comfortable with it than a peer-to-peer approach.

Direct action

If the subtle approach isn’t working, here’s a couple of things to try.

Speak directly to the people glued to their devices

When you’re talking the group, maybe you’re briefing or debriefing a task, it can be useful to ask a question directly of someone who’s on their device. You’re directly engaging with them. If they’re disengaged and don’t engage back, they’ll show themselves as rude. If they’ve been disengaged, they’ll get the hint that you’re onto them. If you handle this with skill, you’ll make them feel like they have a contribution to make and remain engaged.

Move around the room and linger near people on their devices

Standing or sitting next to someone who’s on their device either makes them get off their device or draws the room’s attention towards that person on the device. Either way, I’ve found this to be an effective tactic, made even more effective when combined with speaking to device addicts directly.

I once worked with a facilitator who liked to walk over to people whose attention needed perking up and accidentally-on-purpose bump into them or kick their chairs.

Acknowledging the issue

Sometimes you’ll get people who disrupt workshops by asking awkward questions, contradicting you and generally challenging everything you do.

Understand where they’re coming from

The first thing to do with disruptive participants is to try to understand why they’re being like this. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and starting from a place of assuming they don’t actually realise their behaviour’s disruptive or disrespectful is a good starting point.

A lot of the time, this behaviour’s a result of feeling threatened – the project you’re engaged on might change someone’s job in a way they don’t like, they want to work on something else, they were passed over for the lead role, they think they could do a better job, they’ve got a pressing deadline on another project, they’re having a rubbish time at home. Understanding the reason for the behaviour doesn’t excuse it but it can explain it and help you work out how best to deal with it.

You can choose to ask people directly what’s up with them – worded in a diplomatic way, natch – or get to the answer more subtly. Often the act of showing that you’re interested in them beyond trying to extract help with a deliverable can open people up and make them feel more inclined to participate properly. If the situation’s right, it might be worth giving some feedback about their behaviour. That’s a long write-up in itself but I try to stick to the template of “I don’t know if you realise this, but when you do X (e.g. come back 10 minutes late from every break), it makes me feel Y (e.g. that you don’t think the work we’re doing is valuable)”.

The parking lot

This is a classic technique that’s worth having as part of your standard workshop setup. Have a section of whiteboard or wall where you can post off-topic questions or comments. The physical action of writing things down and putting them somewhere shows you’re respecting the point without letting it derail you. Inviting participants to write questions down on the parking lot (or on Post-Its to stick on the parking lot) whenever they want can also be a good way of deflecting questions to a time when it’s more appropriate to deal with them.

It’s up to you whether you promise to come back to the parking lot. Your best bet is to say you’ll come back to it if you’ve got time (and then it’s up to you whether you manage the time to allow this) and if not, you’ll deal with the points after the workshop.

Dealing with it head on

If the points being made by naysayers are on topic, it’s actually worth dealing with them at face value. Just because they’re being delivered in an inappropriate way doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not valid. For one thing, the views inherent might be more representative of the group than you think.

A favourite technique of mine is to throw the question or challenge out to the group. That way the answer is owned by the team, not by the facilitator.

Sometimes you’ll get some people insisting, ‘But I want to know what you think.’ My answer is, ‘As the facilitator, it’s important I help you get to your answer as a team but I’m happy to share my thoughts after you’ve come to your own conclusions first’.

The nuclear option

I’ve never had to do this but there’s always the option of asking someone to leave if they’re not going to take part fully.

Photo credit: William Iven

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