Navigating through challenging waters while facilitating a training
class is the kind of adventure that I have grown to enjoy. This is
not to say that dealing with difficult issues in training is easy
or that we can follow any ready-made formula for how to deal with
them, but responsibly leading a group through difficult issues is
one of the most rewarding, humbling, and deepening experiences we
can have as trainers.
Imagine the following scenario
You have been contracted by upper management to teach a
communications and team building workshop to a group of disgruntled
union employees you have never worked with before. Morale is low.
The union is in dispute with management. People are being laid off
left and right, and there is a good chance that the plant will be
Or how about this one?
You find out minutes before you are to begin a workshop that one of
the attendees has just died. He was a longtime employee at this
company and well-known by the people attending your session.
Before you read on, take a moment to reflect on these situations
and similar ones you may have found yourself in. What would you do?
How did you handle the situation?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few guiding
principles I have found useful over the years.
Make no assumptions. Avoid making assumptions. For
instance, do not assume people want to talk about a difficult
topic. People may have already spent enough time discussing it and
may not view the training session as the appropriate time or place.
Avoid assuming you know how people feel. There will be a variety of
feelings. Avoid assuming you know all the details of a given
situation. Most importantly, do not assume you can either solve the
problem or change the way people are feeling. Remember that you are
there to teach a workshop that has specific learning outcomes. Ask
yourself: What do I need to do to stand the best chance of
achieving those objectives and make the most productive learning
Create an open environment of trust and
vulnerability. For people to feel comfortable sharing
what's on their minds, we must make them feel safe. If the group
does not know you, this can be a real challenge. You have very
little time to create an open environment. In all likelihood you
will have to find a genuine way of demonstrating some vulnerability
and sensitivity with the group. A short personal story well told
and well timed can be very effective. For example, in the first
situation from above, you might tell a short anecdote of a recent
experience that made you feel powerless. Maybe recount a humorous
but poignant customer service encounter. The combination of humor,
frustration, and the similarities of an emotional experience that
will resonate with their own is likely to loosen up a group. Don't
forget that our nonverbal gestures are as important as anything we
say. Be confident to act and speak extemporaneously. Canned
speeches and behaviors have the danger of coming across as hollow;
or worse yet, not genuine.
Validate emotions. Find ways to validate people's
feelings. There is a natural inclination to question feelings,
probe for reasons why those feelings are there in the first place,
or to offer explanations. However, none of these well-intentioned
solutions help the situation. Even negative emotions can be
transformed into potentially positive perceptions if we honor
people's feelings. Try to get people to speak more from their
hearts, emotions, and imaginations than from their heads. When a
person begins to explain her feelings she will usually start from
the head. The person is working from a mental transcript. Certain
words and phrases have habituated the person's thinking processes
and catalyzed her feelings. Act as a guide by probing the stories
and images behind these abstractions. Ask the person to provide a
narrative of events that have formed these thoughts. Allow people
to work off of one another. One person's telling of an experience
will trigger a story from someone else. Soon you will be in a
fertile field of imagination. We must be willing to invoke the
irrational in order to reveal the ironies, paradoxes, and
inconsistencies of our bold and deliberate rationalities.
Poll the group. Here is a technique I sometime use
at the beginning of a session to get a quick gauge on a group's
feelings. Ask everyone to take a piece of paper and write down an
adjective or two that describes how he is currently feeling.
Collect all the pieces of paper and read the words out loud. You
can also capture words on a flipchart. This has two clear benefits.
First, it allows people to express their feelings in a safe way.
Second, people will realize that others have similar feelings. This
can be a great way to lead into a discussion or decide to forego
one, depending on the type of responses you receive.
Be flexible with your timeline. Training sessions
are never long enough. Allocating time for topics other than those
on our agenda is bound to get us into time trouble. If you decide
to tackle a sensitive topic, be prepared to give it enough time.
Find other places in the agenda where you can cut. As long as you
manage expectations and let people know that certain items on the
agenda will not be covered, most people will not have a problem
with the changes. Be sure to point out the value of the discussion
and, if possible, relate it in some way back to the session's
Be opinion-less. While vulnerability may be
important to establish with a group, we must be careful to leave
our opinions and strong ideas at the door. Take the time to become
aware of your own feelings prior to a session. During the session,
watch and observe your own feelings, but be careful of how you
expose them. Remember that whatever processing of emotions and
discussion might ensue during a session is for the participants and
not for you. On more than one occasion I have had to catch myself
and refrain from expressing a strong opinion. This is not to say
that you should never bring your ideas or opinions to the group,
but do so with utmost care, caution, and respect for the group and
Back to our scenarios.
Let's take a moment and apply some of these principles to the
opening scenarios in this article. When faced with a group of
employees involved in labor disputes and massive layoffs, I made it
a priority to give people a chance to vent. I did not want to
silence their voices, and I did not want to shape or constrain
their feedback. My first job was to earn people's trust. I did not
want to take sides, but I also did not want to be perceived as a
puppet of management. So without letting the session turn into a
gripe session, I asked people to share their experiences.
I had an unspoken ground rule that I reinforced with my
facilitation behavior. Broad sweeping complaints were not allowed.
I made people share their personal experiences in narratives. This
allowed people to build a mosaic of experiences and feel validated
while minimizing the negative energy of editorialized attacks. Some
of the stories were horrific, so I had to be very vigilant about
not being pulled into them while still experiencing the stories in
a visceral way to gain people's trust and increase my understanding
of what they were feeling. The session became a safe place for
people to explore their questions about the future. I was careful
not to offer rosy visions or try to put a positive spin on the
situation. I just stayed focused on helping people voice their
fears and connect with each other.
In the second scenario (a sudden death of someone in the company
known well by members of the group), I asked the group for
permission to veer from our agenda. I carved out a piece from our
schedule and let the group design a mini-ritual to honor the
person. This turned into 45 minutes of testimonials. I gave people
a short break during which they could write down a few memories
they wished to share with the group. One person even went to this
person's desk and brought back some personal objects to share with
the group. The group decided to pass along some of the stories to
human resources and corporate communications to use in any of its
Difficult situations are inevitable in training. Our response to
them is less predictable. We need to be prepared to be open and
spontaneous. Keeping in mind these six principles will help you
handle these situations with professionalism and personal grace.