Whether it’s a small group meeting or a training session, facilitating a learning event requires commitment and patience because training is about teaching new skills and concepts. When all the preparation has been taken care of and the D-day arrives, every trainer looks forward to a hitch-free training session where objectives are met, and trainees are impacted. However, things don’t always go the way we plan because there are a million and one challenges that can arise. When they do, it is your responsibility as the trainer to take charge, manage the situation and ensure the training is not ruined.
Below, I’ll share with you some common challenges I encounter during training sessions and tips on how to handle them.
1. Wrong audience
A few times, I have walked into training sessions to encounter a completely different set of people from whom I imagined I would be training. Many times, the audience is mixed and not everyone is at the level of knowledge I planned for in my agenda.
In scenarios like this, it may seem quite easy and convenient to just move on with the plan (especially when it’s not your fault), but heading in that direction would be counterproductive and you may find out at the end of the session that you have just wasted your time and those of your trainees.
Although It is important to understand your audience demographics and tailor your content accordingly, it is even more important to know when to change directions and quietly set your carefully planned agenda aside because your expected audience has changed.
To manage such a situation, you may want to take a short break to review your agenda. Decide which objectives can still be met, and which ones need to be changed. For a more knowledgeable audience, you can skip the introduction stages such as the definition of terms and concepts and focus more on idea generation, brainstorming, experience sharing, and case studies. For a less knowledgeable audience, you may want to do the exact opposite and dedicate more time to the definition of terms, clarifying concepts and sharing your own or other relevant experiences.
The ability to be flexible and manage unexpected situations is a core skill for trainers and facilitators.
2. Gearing off course
Sometimes in the course of training, participants bring up topics that are unrelated to the subject and expect answers. A good number of them may have even decided to attend the training simply to get solutions to nagging problems and not necessarily to learn. This can be a tricky situation for facilitators and after falling into this trap a couple of times – I learned a few things.
First, if the question is one that can be easily answered, please do so immediately. However, if it is related to the topic being discussed and would come up later in the presentation, you can place it on hold by noting it down on your flip chart and bring it up later. The toughest of all is if the topic is not part of your training agenda, but it’s causing the trainee some distress or frustration. I would recommend that that you find out what the underlying cause is and why the participant believes you are in a position to answer the question, then dedicate time to address it one-on-one with him/her (preferably at the end of the training).
Remember, you are in charge and it is your responsibility to accomplish the goals that have been set out for the training; Hence, it is important to constantly remind the class of the learning objectives as outlined in the agenda so they remain focused till the end.
3. Juggling Time and Flexibility
Every now and then during training sessions, very engaging topics emerge. Knowing when to pause for discussions around that subject and when to move on to the next topic can be quite a challenge. This situation is a lot easier to handle if the agenda and the allotted time for each item have been previously shared with the group. All you may need to do as the facilitator will be to remind everyone that time is running out for that topic and you need to move on. Considering the importance and trend of the conversation, you could also ask them if they would be willing to spend additional time on it but be specific on the extra time allotted. Many times, it is worthwhile to let trainees explore and brainstorm on ideas that could break down barriers and benefit future activities.
4. Conflict and disagreement
I have long learned that conflict and disagreements are a part of the learning process and rather than hope that I don’t encounter them in training sessions, I expect them and plan how to handle them well ahead of time. Many times, disagreements arise because of varying perspectives on the same subject. Conflict, however, is much deeper than disagreement and may either stem from a previous unresolved disagreement or a cultural difference. Both incidences usually result in one or both parties raising their voices or displaying other forms of anger including attacking the character of the other party involved.
As a trainer and facilitator, I have witnessed some disagreements in my sessions and a few conflicts too. Three strategies I have consistently and successfully employed are:
1) Identify the source of disagreement or conflict. Sometimes, from the source, both parties realize that there isn’t really a problem and a simple clarification settles the matter.
2) Take a break and ask both parties to express their frustration/perspectives. Repeat it to ensure you capture it correctly then ask both parties individually how they would like you to resolve the issue. This helps you understand what resolution means for each party and enable you to come up with a win-win situation.
3) In extreme conflict situations, you can ask both parties to leave the class/group and schedule a separate time for conflict resolution.
No trainer hopes to deal with this kind of situation, so I advise you to consider proactive measures to minimize them. One of such measures is setting ground rules (and repercussions if necessary) at the very beginning of the session so you can always refer to them when the need arises.
5. Side Talks
As trivial as this may seem, it could pose a big challenge for trainers. When participants are not paying attention to the subject being discussed, it distracts the group and even you, the trainer because the room becomes divided. Side talks if not apprehended on time, have the potential of taking over the conversation such that some members of the group may even begin to feel excluded from the ‘illegal’ conversation.
One of the most effective methods I employ to curb this is standing near the conversing individuals. Many times, they get the subtle hint that they are disrupting the conversation and their conversation ends. When this does not work or the persons involved keep going back to their gist, I ask one of them if they have a question or an idea they would like to share with the class.
In extreme cases, side-talks may mean that they trainees are tired, so I call for a 5 minutes break and ask everyone to sit in a new seat with a different person framing it as a networking opportunity. This usually works because most side talks occur when people sit with their friends or people with whom they’ve had some sort of previous connection.
6. Technical Glitches
Imagine this scenario; A date has been set for your training, the content is planned out, and all the logistics have been taken care of. You get to the venue, meet with expectant participants and begin. 15 minutes into the training, the projector goes off and is not coming on. What will you do?
There are several things you can do e.g. stop the training, get help, try to fix it… or move on like nothing happened, right? Whichever decision you make (good or bad), you can agree with me that this situation is quite distracting and can destabilize your training delivery. Another example is a situation where the electricity goes off. It can be tough to explain certain topics or concepts which are based on audiovisual representations.
These experiences vary so there’s a no size fits all approach. However, irrespective of the way you choose to handle it, ensure it causes as little disruption as possible. Take a break if you need to but keep the participants informed of the challenge and the progress on its resolution. This will reduce restlessness and enable them to make good use of the downtime. If you can, look for an activity such as a breakout or brainstorming session to keep them busy and learning.
7. Lack of Participation
Often as a trainer, you encounter situations where you are not getting the expected response or any response at all. This can be quite discouraging and may leave you wondering if you are making any sense at all. You may even resort to ‘forcing’ information out of the trainees by putting them on the spot. Sometimes, candidates may be sitting in the training session hearing, but not listening which simply means that they are unable to interpret what you are saying.
When faced with this scenario, I know I am either not connecting with the audience at their level or maybe it is just time to take a break. Often, this can be dealt with by personalizing the content, asking open-ended questions or coming up with a reward system for participation.
If it is just one or two participants that are not participating or seem detached, it may be a good idea to check with them during a break if they have any concerns or questions. Bear in mind that people process information differently and while some people are outspoken, others are internal thinkers. (Watch out for my next article on different types of people in every training group)
A few additional tips to deal with this are:
a) check in with people who have not contributed to the discussion to ensure they are following before you move on to the next topic.
b) Incorporate a question and answer session at the end of your sessions and leave enough time for that.
c) Design and distribute feedback forms at the end of the session
d) Provide resources for follow up studies (e.g. online courses, handouts, further training opportunities).
I wish you a hitch-free training session!