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Nightmare trainees by type - and how to tackle them

Matt Chittock

Bad apple trainees

Every so often a bad apple trainee can ruin a brilliant training group. From the ‘disruptor’ to the ‘slacker’, Matt Chittock gets expert tips on getting each type onside

Some days being a trainer seems like the best job in the world. With a room-full of fully engaged trainees even a session you’ve delivered hundreds of times before can feel fresh and exciting.

But every trainer understands the other days too. The afternoons that drag on thanks to trainees who can’t be bothered, care too much, or are going all out to impress the boss at the expense of the rest of the group. With these training types in mind we’ve compiled some of the classic problem trainees – and asked the experts how to turn nightmare sessions around.

The manager-pleaser

The manager-pleaser is so set on impressing their manager (and securing a promotion in the process) that they’re hogging the limelight and answering every question. Much to the annoyance of the rest of the group…

Business coach and change consultant Hatty Richmond says that taking the manager and the offending trainee out of the session can play dividends.

“I’d take time to talk to the manager, and the trainee, privately and ask them to tell us what’s going on and how we can change the dynamic,” she says.

“But it’s important not to do this in a patronising way – it has to be an equal encounter.”

Richmond says that by ‘’naming’ the situation, and acknowledging what’s happening in a gentle way, trainers can get the session back on track.

The introvert

As Susan Cain identified in her ground-breaking book Quiet, some people aren’t at their best communicating in a group session. Although they may appear disengaged, they might be looking for the right opportunity to contribute.

“The training environment is, almost by definition, geared towards extroverts,” says Richmond. “I would acknowledge what’s going on by building an exercise into the session in which the group self-select as introvert or extravert, based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Introvert/Extrovert dichotomy.

“I’d then encourage introverts to explain what it feels like – and what they need to have happen to be able to contribute.”

This can be as simple as encouraging quieter members of the group to record responses in group exercises, while providing their own input, and having another trainee share them with the rest of the session, or letting others know they need a bit of space to contribute.

The hogger

The type of trainee every trainer dreads – they’ve been in the company for years, and feel it’s them who should be delivering the training session, not you.

Chartered psychologist and training expert Doctor Peter Honey says that it’s often best to acknowledge what’s going on in the room – and then invite trainees to help come up with a solution.

“It’s worth telling trainees that you think the participation rate in the room seems uneven,” he says.

“By now you’ll know the people in the room who aren’t getting the chance to participate. So when you’re asking a question try making eye contact with them, which can help encourage them to take part.”

The disruptor

Rarer than non-trainers might believe – they none-the-less do turn up occasionally. Visibly disengaged and fed up, they can suck all the energy out of a training room.

As Richmond points out, a disruptor is usually acting out because they don’t understand why they’re there and how the training fits in with the organisation’s wider aims and objectives.

Honey says that it can be useful to see a disruptor as a chance to test your training skills and go all out to win them over by making the training entertaining and engaging.

“When I’ve dealt with these types before I’ve found that as soon as they see that there’s a point to them being there, that only they could do the learning, and that they need to meet the trainer halfway, they were better,” he says.

The slacker

Less vocal than the disruptor, but just as dangerous, the slacker stays aloof from the session whatever you try to do.

“I’ve found that the trickiest trainees aren’t the bolshy ones – but trainees who were apathetic. I often thought ‘well it’s up to me – I have to do the best to recover the situation’,” says Honey.

“It’s not a good idea to pick people and force them to speak. You have to suck them in.”

An exercise Honey recommends involves making a list of ten statements around the subject you’re training. Then ask people to agree or disagree with them and ask them to justify their choices. He says that by creating a bit of focused debate withdrawn trainees can get sucked into the session. 

However, before you go and try out some of these tips on your trainees there’s one key bit of advice to bear in mind. Honey considers it only a bit of an exaggeration that: “In the same way that there is no such thing as bad weather – only inappropriate clothing, there is no such thing as a tricky trainee, only incompetent trainers!”

So remember – if you’re regularly frustrated by your trainees it could be time to book a ‘train the trainer’ course for yourself.

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