Tip #70: Managing Difficult Participants- The Rambler

Difficult Behavior: Has difficulty making simple, concise statements. Makes grandiose theories or complicates simple ideas with tangential ideas. Often confuses most or all of the rest of the group with his/her statements.

What a Trainer Can Do:

In front of the group:

Try to distill the key points from the person’s statement.

  • Summarize and recap the content points that were covered prior to the person’s statement.
  • When this individual stops for breath, express your thanks.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Set time limits for comments (as part of the original ground rules or to ensure that the agenda can be covered).
  • Diplomatically interrupt to refocus the person on the content.
  • When the person pauses for a breath, ask which part of the question s/he is discussing.
  • Say “Thank you, but let’s see what others have to say, now.”
  • Use gentle humor to refocus the person.
  • Listen carefully to find the relevant points that are made.
  • See if the person is willing to defer discussion of his or her question to a break, or while others are preparing for an activity.

What a Trainer Should NOT Do:

  • Show impatience.
  • Interrupt rudely.
  • Refuse to acknowledge the person’s desire to speak.
  • Make disparaging statements.
  • Allow the person’s monologue to confuse the group.
  • Engage in lengthy discussion of the tangent raised by the person.
  • Label the person in front of the group or in private to other participants.
  • Become busy and focus on other things rather than listening to the person.

Real Life Example: I was particularly challenged by a Rambler in a Train-the-Trainer workshop. She was distracted by a number of troubling things going on in her life and tended to preface everything that she said with a reference to these issues. This personal prelude was then followed by a very circuitous commentary. Since she was a very intelligent and astute person who truly wanted to learn the content, there were gems of insight as well as good probing questions embedded in her rambling discourse.

She was also a very deep and deliberate thinker, so she would make her comments just as we were preparing to begin the next module. This affected both our pacing through the content and, quite honestly, the patience of the other participants. This was a four day course and the content for each day was discrete and needed to be completed through application by the end of each day. Eventually, I could feel my own patience eroding and my anxiety mounting.

What ultimately resolved my tension was to spend time with her during breaks and after class, to give her the attention she apparently needed. If she raised her hand or began to speak when it was time for a break, I would indicate that we could continue our conversation or I would respond to her question during the break. If it was time for an activity, I would ask her permission to start the activity and then speak with her while the others began their work.

Although not a perfect solution, this three-pronged approach seemed to satisfy her need to ponder and my need to proceed.

Commentary: When confronted with any difficult behavior, we need to be able to step back and objectively assess what might be the root cause of the behavior. Why would someone ramble?

Some people tell stories that take a while to get to the point, while others tend to intellectualize and take the rest of us along on their stream of consciousness. In both cases, it is a matter of personality and communication style.

Sometimes, as in my example, the person is having trouble thinking clearly and expressing their thoughts in a clear and cohesive manner. And, again as in my example, sometimes the person is attention-starved and finds that being long-winded helps to maintain a (captive) audience.

In all of these instances, it helps to remember that their behavior is not intended to be disruptive, even if it challenges the trainer to stay patient and on track.

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