My Stories with Difficult Participants

Sensing and Preventing Trouble

As I entered the training room, and before starting the training session, I noticed that one of the participants who was seated third on my right side was speaking a bit heatedly with the colleagues sitting next to him. It seemed he was dissatisfied, perhaps about work, and I sensed he would be a troublemaker and could disrupt the training session when it starts.

Right before the training session started, and before even introducing myself or anything, I slowly stepped forward towards that slightly agitated participant who seemed like one waiting for an opportunity to pour out his anger and agitation in the form of negative words or actions. Once I reached him I stopped. I then looked to him with a smile and extended my hand towards him for a handshake while greeting him. He was taken by my unexpected behavior and suddenly smiled back and shook my hand while returning my greeting. He was surprised and flattered that I went to him in particular to greet and shake hands with him while skipping his other colleagues.

His state was instantly transformed.  He became calm and pleasant. He simply got all the attention he craved not only from me, the trainer, but also from his colleagues who witnessed the trainer shaking hands with him and greeting him exclusively even before the training started. That participant gave me no trouble at all throughout the training program. It was a simple preventative approach that helped keep the training session running smoothly and protected it from disruption from attention-seeking participants. That training program was for a group of employees of a corporate client.

I Asked Him to Leave the Room

I remember another story of another participant who was also calling for trouble from the time he entered the training room. It was during my early days in my training career. He came a bit late for the first training day. He missed the initial part where I had set the tone for the training and started to build a warm and informal relationship with participants. He acted in the peculiar way of a difficult student totally closing his ears to what the trainer is saying and pretending not to comprehend instructions given by the trainer. I kept using a flexible approach with him during the training days. It was a computer programming course I was delivering and participants were fresh university graduates.

One day despite my clear instructions not to do so, I found him indulging in playing a computer game at the back of the training room while the rest of his colleagues were focused on the training. I asked him quietly to leave the room. He was astonished as this contrasted sharply with my previous lenient behavior. He resisted at first, but then I calmly asked him if he had resigned from his job to attend this lengthy training program and he said yes. I told him that he is now neither working nor benefiting from the training so there is no reason for him to remain in class. He left the class embarrassed. I had kept my words to him private.

During the remaining days of the training program his behavior was transformed 180 degrees. He came on time, was not late after breaks and was well behaved throughout the training session. It is a rare thing that I would ask a participant to leave, but it might be necessary to take such an extreme measure if the situation calls for it.


A competent trainer must have a variety of methods to help him handle difficult participants preventing their negative behavior before it happens or dealing with it effectively if ever it takes place.

In what other ways can a trainer handle difficult participants?

Graphic Facilitation

What is Graphic Facilitation?

Graphic facilitation (GF) is the use of rapid drawing to communicate ideas visually to a group of people or to record ideas that a group of people are creating in a visual form. What makes visual communication superior is that it sticks to the mind more strongly, packs a lot of information into one single entity that can be absorbed by the mind in one go and that it creates connections between elements easily and clearly. Using drawings also makes concepts much clearer and reduces ambiguity.

Coffee Making Process

When I attended a 3-day graphic facilitation workshop the trainers asked each of us to draw the process of making coffee on an A3 piece of paper. After completing this activity we found out that each of us had a different view of the coffee making process. It meant something different to each one of us. From this simple activity we realized that such a simple concept as coffee making could have a different meaning to each of us. Putting it in drawing helped us realize that. Similarly, when graphic facilitation is used in meetings it helps clarify what the speaker means by his words instead of having each attendee in the meeting interpreting those words in a different way which can cause misunderstanding resulting in bad communication.

GF During Workshops

Likewise, graphic facilitation can also be used during workshops to boost communication, improve retention and enhance engagement. The trainer or facilitator uses rapid drawing while he is explaining concepts in order to make them clearer and easier to digest. The trainer may even encourage participants to use drawings themselves during activities such as group work presentations.

Graphic facilitation can also be used during conferences or unconferences to keep a visual record of what is being said during the conference sessions.

Visual Language


Graphic facilitation has its own visual language which is composed of a number of elements. Those elements attempt to answer the 5 basic wh-questions: who; where/ when; what ; how and why. Each of those questions has a specific set of drawings to answer it.


In addition to those 5 basic sets of drawings which answer the 5 main wh-questions, graphic facilitation also employs icons heavily. Again icons are drawn rapidly in order to communicate universal things such as “cell phone,” “laptop,” “Internet,” “Wi-Fi” and even abstract concepts such as “peace,” and “love.”


Moreover, visual metaphor can also be used in a drawing in order to enhance communication of meaning instantly as one takes a first look at the drawing. Finally, graphic facilitation employs the use of templates in order to make graphic recording faster and easier.


Graphic facilitation and graphic recording are techniques that can help boost communication among people during meetings, conferences and training workshops. If graphic facilitation was to spread among people and businesses a lot of deep problems that are rooted into bad communication would be greatly reduced.

Where else do you think graphic facilitation can be used?

Optimize Last

Drawning Students in an Ocean of Alternatives

When I started delivering computer training I used to provide students with several methods by which they can accomplish one task right from the start. For instance, when I was teaching them Microsoft Word I told them that they can perform the cut and past operation through the Edit menu or through right clicking on the selected text and using the context menu or through the shortcut keys Ctrl+X and Ctr+V. I thought back then that providing studetns with a lot of information was a good thing. I thought that providing them with all the alternative methods for accomplishing the same task was clever. After all, it helped show off my knowledge as an instructor. Most of all, I thought that providing them with the shortest and fastest method was a good thing that they needed and liked. It was not until later that I discovered that all those beliefs I used to hold on to were totally baseless.

Taking the Long Road

I noticed later on through observation that when you start teaching someone something new, he does not mind to learn the lengthy multi-step method of performing it. He will have patience in carrying out multiple steps and performing the action slowly as long as he manages to accomplish it at the end. His focus at that time is on being able to accomplish the task and not on how to accomplish it in the fastest way possible. For instance, if we go back to our cut and paste example, a new learner would be satisfied to learn the Edit menu method for performing cut and paste even though it is not the fastest method available for carrying out such an action. He will not mind the slowness of the process nor the multiple steps involved in doing it as long as he will eventually be able to accomplish this task which he did not know how to accomplish before learning the long method.

Sense of Achievement

When he actually manages to accomplish it with his own hands he becomes really excited and greatly satisfied even though an experienced user may look at such action as trivial and not deserving such heightened feelings of satisfaction and sense of achievement. At such stage, the new learner will not be interested in learning the many other methods to accomplish the same task, and even if he was, it is not a good strategy to bombard him with the other methods right from the start. Using Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V shortcut keys to perform cut and paste may be quicker and more handy yet using the Edit menu is easier on the new learner’s brain and his memory. The instructor should choose the easy-to-remember method to teach at the beginning and not the one that provides the highest performance.

Parallel Parking

Although the example I have given here is about cut and paste yet the optimize-last concept should be used when teaching just about anything and not just things in the realm of computers. Let’s say you are teaching someone how to drive. When teaching him how to park the car parallel to the pavement it is best to teach him at first one method only for accomplishing this task and to select the method which is clearest and easiest to follow not the one which is fastest and shortest.

Optimize Last

The other methods by which a task can be accomplished may be mentioned by the instructor later but not before the student has achieved mastery of the first slow method through lots of repetition. At that time only can he be appreciative of the time savings the shorter method can provide and the fewer steps it involves.

What examples other than learning to use computer programs and learning how to drive a car do you think the optimize-last method can be applied to?

Discovering the Virtues of Documentation

Neglecting Documentation

During my early days at university I still held tight to the notion that it is best to focus and concentrate on what is being said during a lecture and not to bother writing it down. I thought that writing down what I was listening to would decrease my concentration and understanding of what was being said. My avoidance of documentation was not only for words spoken by others but even my own thoughts. I believed that since the thoughts have been produced by my own brain then my mind will be able to reproduce them again and I would never forget them. It was not until I started practicing shorthand during the second semester of my third year at university that I started realizing the true benefits of documentation.

Old Beliefs Shattered

I realized that writing each and every word the professor uttered during the lecture, in shorthand, actually helped me focus more on what he or she was saying and helped me understand the lecture more deeply. That was contrary to my previous belief where I thought that writing down what I was listening to would decrease my concentration and comprehension level of what was being said. Another limiting belief I had, which was also shattered, was the one about memory. As I reviewed the transcript of whole lectures before my exams I discovered that I would have forgotten so much of what had been mentioned in those lectures had I not written everything down in shorthand. Again this contrasted sharply with the belief I had been holding on to which made me think I would be able to recall most of what has been said during a lecture if I concentrated deeply enough on listening to what the professor was saying during the lecture.

Extreme Documentation

Shorthand helped me abolish my beliefs related to documentation of what others were saying. I also discovered the virtues of documenting my own thoughts. I was surprised to find that some of the ideas that were coming to my mind, and I thought them to be novel, actually had come to me years earlier. Had I not documented them by then I would have never realized that the same ideas keep reoccurring to me with me getting the impression each time that I have just managed to stumble upon novel ideas! This strong revelation made me appreciate the virtues of documenting my ideas. I even went to an extreme in such direction as I tried out the GTD (Getting Things Done) system in which I wrote down whatever I needed to do. I even took this a step further and tried out the PoIC (Pile of Index Cards) system to record all my thoughts! It was fun and useful to try out such interesting systems.

Keeping a Notebook

As I started delivering training, I kept a notebook in which I wrote down my observation including both positive and negative things I have observed after delivering each training course. This was the single most important activity in my training career that helped build my experience as a trainer. Each time before delivering a new training course I looked into my notebook revising the points I had written earlier in order to up my performance. I was being surprised by the points I found and how I would have forgotten them had I not written them down. Not having written them down would have made me rediscover many of those learnt lessons each time I delivered a new training program.


Changing my old negative beliefs about documentation has helped transform my life in a positive way. The quotation I had once read which spoke about the importance of documentation sums it all up. It says: “A short pencil is better than a long memory.

Have you ever tried looking through old notebooks of your writings and discovered interesting things in them or was surprised by your own earlier writing? Tell us about such experience of yours.

Design Thinking

Yesterday I attended an introductory session about design thinking at icecairo facilitated by Daniela Marzavan from Design Thinking at HTW-Berlin. The session was incredibly amazing! It blew my mind away. I realized how deeply experienced and competent the facilitator was and how amazing design thinking was within the first few minutes of the session.

Shuffled Name Tags

As we entered the training room we were given name tags. The interesting part is that name tags were shuffled on purpose and each participant taped a name tag of another colleague on his/her shirt! I was puzzled by this at the beginning but only realized the reason behind it when later during the training each participant was asked to speak to the person who has his/her name tag glued to his/her shirt.

Equilateral Triangles

Another interesting activity was when Daniela asked each of us to mentally pick to other colleagues. She then asked us to all stand up and try to silently form an equilateral triangle with those two other participants we had silently picked. We kept moving and moving without being able to achieve this. Reflecting upon this experiential exercise we discovered that the reasons behind its not working were: lack of communication and hidden goals among others. We were not working together as a harmonious orchestra but rather as isolated entities. It was also interesting to find out that one of the participants admittedly changed the two participants he had silently picked during the activity in an attempt to make the equilateral triage goal achievable!

Participatory Approach

Daniela also pointed out that design thinking favors a participatory approach where participants get to speak and participate rather than having a public speaker taking charge of the session and controlling it as that would lead to a loss of most of the talent of participants. Daniela kept relating interesting stories she experienced herself about this and other principles she was relating.

Materials Fostering Creativity

Another interesting concept Daniela mentioned was how the use of new materials can foster creative thinking and help us think out of the box. For instance, participants can be given Plasticine, Lego or other fun material to use in order to help them think in more creative ways. This helps them tap into their childhood creativity and is quite fun at the same time.

Team, Place and Process

Daniela mentioned that in order to undergo successful design thinking there are 3 elements to it, namely: an amazing team, the place and artifacts and the process. She spoke about each of these 3 elements in some detail.


As for the place, Daniela gave two interesting examples. She said that a productive meeting can take place while walking! Another interesting example she gave was holding a meeting while lying down! This arrangement would make participants not able to see one another and therefore listen more attentively to each other as we generally tend not to listen to one another well.

Idea Ownership?

I really liked the concept of “no individual ownership of ideas” that Daniela mentioned. This is a really tough concept to implement as we have been brought up in our traditional competitive education to try and hold tight to our own ideas and ask for credit for such ideas. In design thinking, ideas are owned by the whole group and not by a single individual. Ideas are continually built upon by team members.

Ask “Why?”

A really interesting concept Daniela mentioned was that in design thinking we ask “why” rather than just asking “what”. For instance, if I client asks us to design a shelter, we don’t just go about asking him what type of shelter he wants but rather ask him why he wants to build such a shelter. I really appreciated such a concept as at resonates with my idea about designing training programs where I find it much more effective to ask the client on why he wants that particular training program rather than just asking him about what wants to have in the training.

Feasible, Viable and Desirable

As a reality check, Daniela mentioned that what we aim to achieve through design thinking should be feasible, viable and desirable. A ‘solution’ that is not technically feasible is certainly not one we should be pursuing. A prohibitively expensive solution that is way over budget is also not one to go for. And of course the solution we come up with must be one that is desirable by the client.

Development of Design Thinking

Daniela told us that design thinking went through 3 phases. During the first phase design was concerned with designing a better product such as for instance a better mouse that would be more usable. The second phase was more comprehensive and advanced and was concerned with the design of total experience. Designing a museum for instance lent itself nicely to such kind of total experience design. As for the third even more advanced and more comprehensive phase it is transformation design. In transnational design one focuses on changing mindset to effect change in a large ecosystem such as a supermarket chain or a whole city by placing interventions at specific points. Such change would take long to materialize and should be sought in small steps.

Desired Outcome

Another activity we did was pairing up with a partner, exchanging introductions to know more about our partners and then listening to one thing our partner is not happy about and the desired outcome he or she wishes for. Each pair were then asked to stand up ‘on stage’ and introduce one another and the mention the problem and desired outcome of each other.

Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking Process

The session yesterday was just amazing. It made me really appreciate what design thinking has to offer for us. It sounded like a practical down to earth system for finding solutions and coming up with effective practical designs.