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Dealing with Difficult Workshop Attendees

This blog post is part three of a series. Read part one, Planning and Organizing Workshops, or part two, Selecting Effective Workshop Tasks.
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No workshop will be free of disagreement, especially when there’s a group of designers or developers in the room. We are highly technical people, after all, and the internet is full of possibilities. It’s OK to disagree, especially when it means we reach cool new conclusions. The problem comes when arguments or difficult conversations prevent the workshop from continuing, or prevent attendees from participating. Let’s look at some indicators of coming conflict and how to diffuse it.

Things attendees do when stressed

When people get stressed out in group situations, there are a number of behaviors they display. Often these are unconscious reactions to a stressful situation, which makes it easier for the facilitator to identify these behaviors and redirect the energy to a more positive conversation or task.

  • Dominate the conversation. Attendees can sometimes feel the need to “prove” their worth or knowledge on a subject. This can mean they talk for long periods, ignoring other attendees and interrupting them to reiterate points.
  • Introduce unrelated topics or issues. When an attendee feels the workshop goals or tasks have not addressed their specific concerns, they will often attempt to reframe the conversation around what they think is important. For example, during a workshop focused on defining research methods, an attendee may start to discuss issues with marketing or brand strategy.
  • Withdraw and stop participating. Some attendees are not naturally vocal. Once they see the workshop environment is not conducive to them, they will withdraw and refuse to add anything unless specifically called on.

Tactics for dealing with conflict

As with all workshops you facilitate, the key is to listen for cues. It’s not about you, it’s about the success of your goals. Take a deep breath, and say that again. It’s not personal. The health and success of the workshop comes first. So, as facilitators, how do we deal with these types of disruptive attendees?

Let’s quickly restate our workshop schedule from the first post in this series, as this can help us with a few tactics:

Intro (5 minutes)

Task A: Defining the Research Problem (15 minutes)
Task B: Selecting a Style of UX Research to Conduct (20 minutes)
Break (10 minutes)
Task C: Conducting the Research (20 minutes)
Task D: Collecting and Sharing Data (10 minutes)
Wrap-up (10 minutes)

Use designers innate curiosity in your favor

Design workshops will almost always be about graphic or interaction work, and our practice naturally focuses heavily on exploration and examination. Restate the task goals to everyone, and ask some pointed questions that require creativity or curiosity to answer.

Imagine we’re conducting Task A, defining the research problem, and an argument is brewing. Let’s look at some of that language:

Let me jump in here for a minute here. Abdullah, it’s clear that particular UI issue is dear to you. Remember your goal for the next 10 minutes is to define the research problem. In order to do that, you will need to generate quite a few potential UX problems with our current site, not just one. Let’s go around in a circle, and each person state a completely new UX issue they have found. After a few rounds, we’ll have a good list. Understood?

Ask open questions that get to the root cause of the disruption

When the task you have set starts veering off into other operational discussions, like branding or development needs, there may be a legitimate reason this is happening. As the workshop leader, it’s up to you to find this out and reframe the conversation.

Imagine we are on Task D, trying to define ways to collect and share data, and the task has been dropped in favor of a discussion about poor data security:

Tola, mind if I ask a few questions? I know you have all mentioned data security a few times, and that seems to be the way this task is headed. We have about 10 more minutes to get some concrete plans down for sharing and collecting UX research data—can you tell me a little about how you feel those two are connected? What are some suggestions you have for focusing on the research data first, and once that is clear in your group, turning to data security?

Make the process of participation explicit

We have been focusing on design and UX teams, but in every workshop, regardless of the industry, there are those who have incredible insights. They just might not be comfortable voicing them freely. That’s ok. Every human, and designer, is different. But there are times when a withdrawn or reticent attendee at a workshop disrupts the tasks, as other attendees don’t know how to involve them.

In these situations, there are a few different ways to demand participation, but a common one is to give the attendee the task of documentation and synthesis. Let’s go back to that first task and see how this looks:

Carmen, you seem to be listening carefully to everyone’s ideas and feedback—can I ask you to be the team spokesperson and take notes of how your group defines the research problem? When you need some extra clarification on what someone says, I’d like you to ask one or two questions so you can get it accurately documented. Once we are done with the task, each spokesperson will present the results of their task, so keep that in mind.

In each of these situations, we’ve done something very specific. We’ve defined the task clearly for the workshop, so there is no ambiguity on what the “deliverables” will be. After that, we have identified potential problems before the end of the task, and called specifically on one of the attendees, asking them to modify their output or responsibilities in the task. That responsibility is framed as beneficial to the group, and can feed back into the final outputs of the workshop. Basically, always have a plan for when things go off the rails, and adjust accordingly!

There will be rare cases when interpersonal relationships or company politics are simply too great to overcome. Again, that is just part of being a human, and as designers and developers, we need to know when a challenge is just too great to fix. When you are confronted with one of these situations, it’s ok to call a timeout and do one of two things:

  • revisit the goals of the workshop and work with the attendees to create new ones that better reflect their concerns; or
  • acknowledge the conflict, call a stop to the workshop, and let everyone leave.

I have seen too many workshops falter and fail because the facilitator could not address and redirect the conflicts brewing in the room. It’s an amazing time for digital design, as tools and code for the web keep getting more powerful and diffuse. We are bound to have different opinions on how to achieve our team’s goals and build great new sites and apps. These arguments or difficult conversations can prevent our workshops from succeeding, or prevent specific attendees from participating, but when this begins to happen, successful facilitators help attendees refocus on goals and specific assignments to move the event forward.

About the Author

Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem is a designer, illustrator, and the founder of Pixel Fable, a collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories. For the past fifteen years, he has specialized in collaborating with clients across the world on flexible, impactful digital experiences. He is currently the Design Director at Constructive, a social impact design agency. Previously, he was art director at Cambridge University Press, where he led a global design team.

The child of a Nigerian father and a Dutch-American mother, Senongo grew up in Nigeria, lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now calls New York City home. Living in constantly shifting cultural and physical spaces has given him unique insight into the influence of culture on communication and creativity.

Senongo speaks at conferences around the world about cross-cultural design, digital storytelling, and transmedia. He loves any and all science fiction.

9 Reader Comments

  1. I really appreciate this series. It tackles a lot of the issues I’m learning to deal with regarding some of my new responsibilities. The most challenging part of running workshops I’ve found is getting people to stay on topic, and achieving balance in contributions. I think this will help.

    One problem not mentioned is getting overrun as the facilitator. Do you have any ideas for interjecting when there’s not a good opening (like when debates start to get loud), or is it just a matter of being forceful and interrupting?

  2. @Justin – thanks again for reading and commenting! You mention the issue of getting “overrun” as a facilitator, which is a very legitimate concern. Some things I might note to help in these situations:

    – remember in the other posts, we spoke about making the agenda clear, and communicating our goals clearly beforehand. Doing this helps set you up as an impartial voice, so being forceful and interrupting will be seen as “part of your job” and not rude.
    – using some casual attention grabbers, such as calling a “referee’s timeout” and making a T with your hands, cracking a small joke, waving your hands slowly and saying “Ok, OK, Ok…”, or even flicking the lights on and off, can be ways to break the tension and refocus attendees on you.

    If it happens once, you should always reiterate your expectations as a facilitator. Tell attendees that debate is good, but they need to be inclusive and keep a level tone, that sort of thing. Discussion is good, just make sure it happens on terms that will achieve the goals you set out in the beginning!

  3. Thank you Senongo Akpem for the Post . i’m new to your Blog . however I found really informative Knowledge i am facing. and Getting to know a lot of things.

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