When expanding the coaching conversation beyond our individual coaching engagements to team or group coaching, many new and experienced coaches are concerned with facing difficult participants. For each one of us “difficult” looks a little different.
The idea of working with difficult participants is a perspective. It is important to remember that tricky issues will emerge in a group or team coaching engagement when people do not feel safe, valued or heard. This points to the importance of building trust and connection amongst your group members and spending time early on getting to know them.
Tip: A best practice around group coaching is to schedule a one-on-one fifteen minute call with each participant before the start of the program to learn more about them, what’s brought them to the program and what they want to get out of their work.
When dealing with difficult participants, there are several tenets we want to always remember in our work:
- Our clients are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. As coaches we trust in the ability of the clients themselves to be resourceful.
- Philosophically the client brings the expertise and capability needed. As coaches, part of our role is to help coaching clients connect with this wisdom, or access the wisdom themselves.
- Early on in the coaching engagement it is important to ensure that all participants understand their role in coaching.
And in particular as a coach or group facilitator it is important to keep in mind three other areas:
- First, it is important to meet people where they are. Consider each person’s motivation, how they prefer to communicate and be supported. At the same time, it’s important to ensure that the “greater good” and overall group needs are being met.
- Part of the learning process in a group or team coaching engagement is the self-awareness participants can gain around their impact on others. This also helps to shift what may be perceived as difficult behaviors.
- Finally, as coaches it is very important to explore with that person if they are coachable. Are they ready to take responsibility for their learning and action and change? If not, they may not be a good fit for the coaching process.
When working with a group or team, we are faced with a wide variety of personalities and personas, which does keep this work exciting. Throughout your journey of group and team work, you may meet some of the difficult participants listed below.
12 Types of Difficult Participants and What To Do With Them:
- The Shy or Quiet One
- The Challenger
- The Dominator
- The Unfocused
- The Superachiever
- The Center of Attention
- The Joker
- The Devil’s Advocate
- The Argumentative One
- The Know it All
- The Verbose
- The Sidebar
Let’s take a quick look at each of these difficult participants / personas who you may find challenging, and what you can do about them.
1. The Shy or Quiet One:
Coaching is a very verbal activity, rich with questions and dialogue. It is important to recognize that not all participants process in the same way. Those that are shy or quiet may benefit more from small group or paired work and individual reflection activities. Do not assume that quietness means lack of engagement. Include a variety of ways for participants to engage, reflect and learn.
2. The Challenger:
The Challenger may wish to challenge all that you say. As a coach, we need to continually reinforce that our role is not one of expert, in fact they are. This often switches the focus for the challenger to move to the “Know it All” Role (see below).
3. The Dominator:
It is quite common to have one verbally dominant person in a group. They will often let you know this in a pre-call. That’s a perfect opportunity to introduce the coaching skill of intruding, and letting them know that you will be jumping in and asking questions to help them get to the core of the story. Also, teach group members the skill of bottom lining (what’s the bottom line?) or laser speak (speak right to the heart of the issue) at the start and remind the group about this skill throughout your work. If someone continues to be dominant, it may be a good opportunity to break into smaller groupings whether you are in person or virtual.
4. The Unfocused One:
The unfocused participant may show up as someone who is inattentive and “wandering off”. It’s important to let people know where you are going. Provide an overview of the process and ask what they want to explore or get out of the coaching conversation. Also, is the client really coachable and wanting coaching?
We may sometimes have participants who just don’t know what they want. Providing opportunities for those people to become more focused include asking questions such as, “What are your key goals?”, “What do you need/want to do to get there?”, “What do you want to get out of the conversation?”, “What’s really important?” and “Where do you need to move the needle forward this week?”
5. The Superachiever:
The Superachiever can pose a challenge for some coaches as their endless achievements may cause concerns and feelings of inadequacy in other group members. It is important to reinforce with your group that everyone will be moving at their own pace within a group coaching process, and that “Wins” and Successes happen at different stages for each person. Having the Superachiever share what they learned from their experience can spark and inspire others with new ideas and insights.
6. The Center of Attention:
It can be common to have someone who wants to be the center of attention. There are several roles you can invite them to participate in – time keeper, flipcharter, note-taker. Some of these roles will “give them the spotlight” and fill the need of being seen. This is also a rich area for exploration in an individual coaching conversation with them. Coaching Questions to ask them include, “What’s important about being seen?” and “What impact does it have on others?”
7. The Joker:
Humour can provide lightness in the coaching process. Again, it’s a rich perspective to explore with the group. Where could the group infuse some humour around the issues being explored? What needs lightening up? Sometimes, the joker may take humor to the extreme so be aware of the impact it is having on the group. Also, ask the joker to consider what impact they are having on the group.
8. The Devil’s Advocate:
The Devil’s Advocate can take us into the rich terrain of perspectives. Their voice is a great reminder that there are many different perspectives which exist in groups and in a team. What is the flip-side? What important issues does the Devil’s Advocate point to?
9. The Argumentative One:
Some difficult participants may want to argue for argument’s sake. Great questions to ask might include, “What’s at stake?”, “What’s the request behind your complaint?”. Another tack is to defer the issue being argued about to the group – what do others think? Do they agree with the issue being raised/item being challenged? Is this something that needs further discussion? If a number of people agree then it may merit further discussion, but if no-one else thinks it is important then the group can move on.
10. The Know It All:
Coaching rests in the belief that our clients do know it all! Questions to be exploring with the person who feels like they “know it all” include, “What are you so passionate about proving?”, “What makes you unique?”, “What do you have to offer?” and “How can you share your expertise in a more positive fashion?”
11. The Verbose One:
Verbose, or very talkative participants may also show up within your groups. These difficult participants often self-identify and mention this when you first connect with them, perhaps at your pre-program one-on-one.
As coaches it is important to let the group know that you will be providing the space and opportunity to hear from everyone through the conversations. As with “The Dominator” it can be very useful to introduce the entire group to the coaching skill of “bottom-lining”, “laser speak” or “head-lining” where people are encouraged to get to the core or “essence” of the story. Also very helpful to share with the group is the coaching skill of “intruding” or “jumping in”.
12. The Sidebar:
Although it may be more frequent in a workshop or larger groups, the “sidebar” conversation occurs when two group members have their own conversations while others are trying to speak. If an open invitation to share with the group or a glance over and making eye contact does not move the sidebar conversation into the wider group space, physically move yourself to stand near where the conversation is happening. Be genuinely curious, and invite the sidebar pair to share with the rest of the group.
Questions for you:
Now that we’ve met these different personalities and behaviours, here are some questions for you to consider:
- Which difficult participants are going to be a challenge for you?
- Are they really that difficult?
- What’s the perspective you want to hold?
- What can you do to support the unique needs of each one of your group members?
- What conversations are you looking forward to having?
Contributing Author: Jennifer Britton, MES, CPCC, PCC has been a group facilitator since the late 1980s. Her work with groups has taken her from the wilds of one of Canada’s most famous provincial parks, to Corporate Boardrooms in New York, Toronto, London, to the rivers and jungles of South America, and UN regional offices. Passionate about helping others excel in their work with teams and groups, Jennifer is the author of Effective Group Coaching (Wiley, 2009) and From One to Many: Best Practices for Team and Group Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2014). In addition to offering ICF approved Continuing Coach Education (CCEUs), she also is the creator of the Conversation Sparker Cards ™. For many more tips, audios and ideas visit the Group Coaching Ins and Outs blog and GroupCoachingEssentials.com.
If you liked this article about difficult participants, you may also like:
- 10 Easy Questions to Get a Talkative Client to the Point!
- Add Group & Team Coaching To Expand Your Practice! also by Jennifer Britton
- Coaching Tools 101: 5 Coaching Tools You Can Use for Awesome Workshops