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How to facilitate ‘prisoner’ participants in a training


As trainers or facilitators, we don’t always get participants who are there of their own volition. Some are ‘sent’ by their managers and while some of these may enjoy the event, some may feel that they have been forced to attend and get resentful.

What do you do when you have participants who don’t want to be in your training? How can you facilitate them?

There’s a model for participants in training that loosely describes them as explorers, tourists or prisoners:

  • Explorers want to be there. They are internally motivated to learn and will participate, often enthusiastically.
  • Tourists are up for some fun. They will likely observe, wait and see, before they do anything else.
  • Prisoners do not want to be at the training but have been given no choice but to attend. They might be silent or sullen or even rebellious.

In this conversation with Caitlin Walker, I find out about five practical do’s and don’ts for facilitating a group with ‘prisoner’ participants. We also talk about the thinking behind these do’s and don’ts, from a Systemic Modelling perspective.

1. Don't spend all your time with the participants who like you.

Similarly, if someone says, “I hate this”, don’t spend all your time there either. And don’t let someone who is vocal and who may want to speak for the group, dominate the agenda

DO acknowledge and accept what each participant says, then go elsewhere to find out about something or someone else. For example, say, “And Tom hates this. And Sam doesn’t want to be here.” Then look around the room and ask, “And who’s different to that?”

THINKING: You’re there on behalf of the whole group, not on behalf of the people who like you, or the people who don’t.

2. Don't jolly, cajole or bully the prisoner participants along.

Caitlin says, “When you’re training or facilitating on behalf of an organisation, if you start to jolly them along, you’re immediately going ‘I want them to want this training’. And you now stand, in their eyes, as the person who commissioned the training or for the problem in the system. You now legitimately allow them to attack you.”

DO get interested in how come they don’t want to do the training, asking yourself, “I wonder what I’m not seeing that has to be there for what they’re doing to make sense.”

THINKING: You are there as an advocate for them and the company, and not just for the company. It’s about maintaining your own state and being present to what is, and not to what you think it should be.

3. Don't assume you know what’s going on for participants who are silent, frowning or glaring.

“If I decide they’re resentful, and my response makes that assumption, then I’m lost. Because if they’re not resentful, and I made that assumption, I now demonstrate I’m completely out of rapport with the group," says Caitlin.

DO ruminate: “I wonder what’s going on for them right now, and how their response is the most perfect response to what’s going on.” You could say, “I’ve heard from so and so, and this is what I’ve heard so far. And there’s also lots of silence. I’m going to find out from you, what’s going on for you?” (Look at all the participants generally as you say this.)

THINKING: If you think they are not OK, you’re going to be in the worst position to help them. And whatever assumptions you have about a participant’s behaviour, hold those assumptions lightly: “As a facilitator, it’s a fine line between OK, something is going on and I’m going to call it. Or something is going on and I’ve noticed it, but actually I don’t really know what it is. So, I’m going to keep an eye on it and I’m not going to call it yet.”

4. Don't pacify people or get involved in their objections for having to be there.

 And don’t get into any drama with them.

DO make the training relevant to them. Or be neutral about their objections, just accepting without persecuting or rescuing, or playing victim. Or accept and extend by asking, “And when you don’t want to be here, and we are here and this time has been booked in, what is the best use for you of our time together?”

In a worst-case scenario if nothing seems to be working, you might say, “I’m being paid to be here. And I can’t compel you to be here. So, if there are better things you’d like to be doing, you probably need to do that now.”

THINKING: You need to be an example of the behaviour you’d like them to have with each other.

5. Don't facilitate on your own if you can help it.

DO have a partner who has different patterns to you, who is able to step in and meta-comment or facilitate you and the group if you lose your state.

THINKING: It’s much harder to get out of drama with the group if you’re on your own. And having a partner whose patterns are too similar to yours isn’t useful because you might both be triggered by the same things in the group.

To hear more stories and find out more about the Systemic Modelling principles involved in contracting, watch the 25-minute conversation in the YouTube video below. And if you’d like to find out what to do if a participant remains silent after more than a few hours or days, watch till the end.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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