Recognising and responding to challenging behaviour

As a facilitator, one of the skills you will need to focus on is how to deal with negative or difficult behaviour within group settings. Hopefully, this is a rare occurrence but it’s a good idea to be prepared for those challenges when they arise. 

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What is challenging behaviour in a focus group?

Examples of challenging behaviour could include:

  • Dominating the conversation
  • Changing the subject back to what he/she wants to talk about
  • Aggressive speech or body language
  • Being generally disruptive
  • Refusing to participate
  • Being cynical and / or critical

Challenging behaviour - a man speaking to a statue

Set ground rules

At the start of the session, ask participants to come up with ground rules. These could include simple things like turning mobile phones to silent, no smoking, no speaking over each other, etc.

If participants are finding it difficult, you could use prompts to suggest appropriate ground rules and ask if people agree. General statements such as ‘respect each other” work well. If a participant becomes challenging during the session, you can refer back to these ground rules.

Sometimes it is better not to refer to them as ground rules as it can give a ‘school like’ atmosphere. An alternative could be ‘making the session work for us’. Always ensure that whatever ground rules are agreed that they are displayed in the room for all to see. It is also easier to refer back to them if necessary.

Setting ground rules should not just be used for situations where you’re anticipating negative behaviour, it is good practice to spend a few minutes at the beginning of every session to agree on an informal ‘code of conduct’

Manage expectations

If you’re doing any sort of participatory decision making with a group, it’s always important to be very clear about the aim of the session, what is possible and what is not.

Write the aim of the session on a flipchart paper next to the ground rules.

Again, if expectations are too high within a group discussion, you can remind participants of the aim of the session which was outlined at the start.

Stay focussed on the process

Your job is to remain focussed on the process. Try not to be mentally distracted by the person(s) who are displaying challenging behaviour and stick to your plan for the session. However, if someone is displaying challenging behaviour then there is always a reason and you should not ignore it.

Facilitator and flipchart

Show understanding

Part of your role as facilitator is to ensure that everyone is able to participate. If a sensitive or divisive issue is being discussed then it may be the case that some people will be angry or upset. You should be sympathetic, whilst remaining objective, asking questions to reach a solution.

If this behaviour becomes too much of distraction for the group then don’t be afraid to call a break. It will benefit everyone.

Move the focus away from their behaviour

If the person(s) are being challenging to the point where the session is going off-track and others are showing signs of being disrupted by their behaviour, then move the focus away from that person.

You can do this in a verbal and non-verbal way. Non-verbally, it is about shifting your attention away from the person, averting eye contact and physically turning away from them.

Verbally, you can highlight the fact that others have not yet had an opportunity to contribute and specifically ask quieter or less-vocal participants to give input, or, ask “what do the rest of you think about…” or “does anyone see this differently?”  then refer back to the original question or topic being discussed.

Move on - thumbs up

Change activities (to change the mood in the room)

Try a different method, consider a voting technique, if appropriate, or ask participants to write their views on post-its (give everyone just a few post-its, so they’re not able to dominate the exercise this way).

As the facilitator, summarise the discussion so far, then ask people for reflect on what they have heard and said for a few moments before resuming the discussion or moving on.

Reflect their statement back to them as a question

e.g. “it’s always like that?

People will often exaggerate their statements and stories when they’re feeling frustrated. Question them; try to get the person round to speaking about potential solutions to how their feeling, using the ‘managing expectations’ technique mentioned earlier.

This gives someone a chance to fully explain their viewpoint instead of just making unhelpful remarks. If they’re not able to give a reasonable answer: move on.


Call a break

If things are really heated, you could always call a break. Allow people time to chill-out or calm down, have a soft drink and return to the session with a more refreshed state of mind. Try a short positive exercise, ice-breaker or re-energiser before continuing with the session.

Ask the group for their view on the situation, then move on

Sometimes it’s time to draw a line under it, be assertive and say ” I think we have spent long enough on this topic now’’. Then, summarise the discussion and any actions agreed.

Do you have any experience with dealing with unhelpful behaviour in your role as a facilitator? Share your tips by leaving a comment.

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