Disagreeing with Participants

Disagreement is a valuable part of education. Questioning theories and using the scientific method to prove or disprove a hypothesis moves us forward as a society. When we are in training, arguments can stimulate great conversation. Time permitting, you can use the boomerang method to get the entire class to express opinions when a participant disagrees with something you have presented. This can be an exciting way to learn from colleges who may have more experience than you with the subject at hand.

That said, what happens when a participant presents an argument that is flat-out incorrect? For example; one participant insists that up is down and one of your basic objectives is to talk about the fundamentals of the direction up.

The high road is not the easy one to take in this situation because the obvious answer is to point up and say “Look, there it is!”. However, sometimes education is as much about listening as it is about everything else that we do. Let’s look at a few things we can do when we encounter this situation.

Say “Tell me more about that”

Time permitting, give contrarians the soapbox they need to be heard, that may be all they need. You can open it up for class discussion or move on to the ideas below.

Yes, and…

In an earlier blog post, Brian discusses the value of the improv method of “yes, and”, where actors are told to always answer with yes, and. It is way harder than it looks, especially when you don’t agree. However, flipping the narrative with a simple “yes, and”, instead of our common go to words like “but, except, what about, etc…” can make a big difference in this situation.

Do not, under any circumstance, insult them.

In their own head, everyone is the protagonist of their story. The moment you insult them or tell them they are wrong, you are the villain in their story. Once you are a villain, you have lost them and the education is likely over.

Parking lot

Time tends to be an issue during classroom training. A flip-chart with a parking lot for questions or conversations that can take place later is a good idea for any training. In this situation, it is invaluable. After making sure you have clarified what they have said, suggesting taking this conversation off-line and maybe pulling in a few subject matter experts who can help answer questions.

How do you handle difficult arguments during training? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Disagreeing with Participants

  1. I facilitate sessions for some very senior folks, often with very strong opinions, so I appreciate this post and ideas! I’ve had some success adding a “there’s always something to learn and something to share” bullet point when covering class ground rules. Depending on the topic, if I get push back, I’ll circle back to this ground rule and broaden the conversation by sharing that the idea represents a different way to approach the topic and the goal could be to just try it.

    It’s critical, as mentioned above, to keep the discussion positive. I have to pay attention to my body language, however, since I can clearly be saying “Heck no!” without uttering a word.

  2. I often acknowledge that they have been heard (“I appreciate you sharing your perspective…”) and then offer others in the room to give contrary opinions (“Does anyone else have another perspective/experience that they would be willing to share?”). I find having other participants share their wisdom and reinforce the points being taught is very helpful in these situations. It eliminates any potential power struggle between the trainer and contrarian, while also empowering others in the room to be active in learning the content.

  3. I agree with the two methods above. I use them frequently. “Yes and”, doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with them but it is definitely leaving open the option that there may be more that you know going on. The tell me more about that option is a real rapport builder. You are trying to see someone else’s point of view. I’ve even had to get between two different participants that are disagreeing. When the standard tries at cooling down the situation didn’t work I did something I saw Zig Ziglar do years ago when he wanted to express true interest in what someone was saying. I knelt down on one knee. Before I could even say anything they both stopped talking and looked at me like I was crazy. After expressing to them that they both could be correct, poof, no argument. I’ve done that a few times. What an impact!

  4. Often times, I discover that empathetic listening reveals a deeper, more vulnerable reason for the heckler heckling. Gentle (Not submissive) responding helps heal a past wound and helps get the learner more committed to the learning available.

    • Good point, there could be a history where they felt slighted. I hadn’t thought of that. Empathy is very important as a trainer and sometimes difficult as so much focus is on us. It sounds like you may have a story, do you care to share?

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