How to Keep Problem Participants from Derailing Your Group Sessions

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You’ve reviewed the objectives of your upcoming group session. You’re comfortable with the session’s objectives, topics, and activities. All is well, right? Not necessarily.

While you’ve done your part to prepare, you can’t predict how a particular group of dads will behave. Facilitators face dads who take over the discussion, question their authority, and take the discussion off-topic. Left unchecked, these situations can derail the learning of the entire group. So, how do you handle problem participants in a way that is respectful, but maintains the integrity of the group dynamics? Here are some effective approaches.

  • Set group norms – Take a few minutes during your first session to set the group norms. Have some non-negotiables (e.g. silence cell phones, no texting, no side bar conversations, and no “mom bashing”) and also give the dads an opportunity to make suggestions and additions. Letting dads set some of the group norms will give them ownership of the norms and increase their willingness to respect them. Once you’ve established the group norms, display them during each session, and use them to address problem participants.
  • Understand the different types of problem participants – There are five different types of problem participants. When you understand the behaviors and attitudes of each type, you’ll be able to spot the situations quickly and guide dads into more balanced participation. Here are the five types of problem participants, what to expect, and strategies to address them.
    • The Monopolizer – This dad takes over the conversation and doesn’t give others the opportunity to participate. One way to address this situation is to look for natural breaks when he’s speaking to redirect the discussion. For example, when the dad pauses, say, “That’s great insight, now let’s look at…” Or, you can break in and ask another dad’s perspective on the session topic.
    • The Disruptor – This dad will try to put your authority or credibility in question. The worst thing you can do with this dad is get defensive. Instead, thank him for being transparent and let him know you will speak with him outside of the group session. This discussion will reveal the nature of his concerns and actions.
    • The Distracted – This dad initiates side conversations, let’s his cell phone ring, or texts during sessions. When this happens, you can choose from several approaches depending on your personality and the situation: 1) Walk over and stand beside the distractor; 2) Ask the distractor to share what he’s talking about; 3) Refer to your group norms.
    • The Wanderer – This dad takes the group off-topic and down rabbit holes. The best approach for this situation is to establish a “parking lot.” This is a place (e.g. flipchart or white board) where you keep a list of topics that can be discussed at a later time. This allows you to cover the issue during a session that aligns with the topic. A word of caution – if you decide to use the “parking lot,” make sure you address everything on it before the program ends.
    • The Trash Talker – This dad “puts down” other dads in the group or “trash talks” the mother of his child. When this happens, emphasize this kind of talk will not be tolerated and reiterate the group norms you established. Be prepared to remove the dad from your group if he persists.
  • Be in the moment – The best facilitators are those who are fully present with their dads. They’re not thinking about the next thing to say, distracted by something that might happen, or worrying whether dads will participate in an activity. They are solely focused on the verbal and non-verbal cues of their dads. The ability to be in the moment will allow you to head off the problems above.
  • Facilitate with a co-facilitator – Having a co-facilitator enables you to rely on his or her strengths when it comes to problem participants. Your co-facilitator may feel more comfortable addressing a monopolizer where you may be better at addressing a disruptor. You and your co-facilitator can plan how you will work as a team to address these issues should they arise.

Dealing with problem participants in your group is daunting and uncomfortable, but is one of the most important responsibilities you have. Focusing on the above approaches will ensure a healthy group that embraces and applies your program’s goals.

To learn more about how to handle problem participants and other tools of effective facilitation, consider acquiring NFI’s Effective Facilitation Certificate™. I promise that you’ll become an even more effective facilitator after acquiring this certification. Click here to learn more.

Which of the problem participants is most difficult for you to handle?

What’s one thing you can do to better handle that situation in the future?

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