Seven Strategies for Taming an Unruly Crowd

What happened the last time you gave a presentation or delivered a training session? Did people come in late or leave early? Tune out or fall asleep? Engage in side conversations or work on their laptops or phones? All these behaviors are annoying and unproductive, both to you and to everyone else in the meeting or presentation. How can you reduce the bad behaviors without being the "bad guy" in the room? 

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a team of seasoned training professionals who saw plenty of disruptive behaviors in their classrooms. Their strategies give you a chance to learn from highly experienced training experts. This is what they said:

1. Don't make assumptions. The guy falling asleep might have a sick baby at home. The gal checking her email might have been told to take care of customer needs at all times. The people chatting might be glad to see each other and have a lot to catch up on. In other words, it's not always about you. 

2. Don't start off heavy-handed. You want to create an atmosphere of trust, not intimidation. Suggest ground rules or class norms are there for everyone's benefit, and help to keep things running smoothly. Stress that you want everyone to have a productive experience. Ask at the outset for everyone's cooperation.

3. Watch out for sarcasm. "Did you have something to share with the class?" can easily sound sarcastic, putting the recipient on the spot. Trouble is, they might retaliate, and then you have an even bigger problem. Try sounding innocent if you can, as you ask: "Did you have a question?" 

4. Start with the most subtle intervention you can. For example, a long pause will often stop side conversations and general chatting. You don't need to comment, just go on when things get quiet. Steady, prolonged eye contact can have the same result, without the need to say a word.

5. Take confrontations offline, perhaps at a break. Instead of jumping on the offender, ask them what's up, or how they are doing. Notice open-ended questions like these require the recipient to offer up an opinion or reaction. Often, it's something innocuous like seasonal allergies or shift work making them sleepy, and often they will put on better behavior once you acknowledge their situation.

6. Ask questions instead of issuing ultimatums. “What do you think we could do to make this work for everyone?” “Would it be better if you left today and rescheduled at a better time?” “What do you think will happen if you keep showing up late every morning of class?” Try it; once again it puts the onus on them to come up with an answer, and gives them a way to save face.

7. Stick to observable behaviors, not motivations or interpretations."I see you don't want to be here" becomes, "Every time I ask a question you roll your eyes." It's so much harder to deny observable behavior. Notice the difference here: "Falling asleep in class is disrespectful." Instead, try saying "Your eyes were closed and your head was on the table for the last five minutes of class."

Staying alert for these and other classroom behaviors, and stepping in at the right moment with the right approach, will surely provide dividends for you and for your learners or listeners.