Navigate Typical Challenges

There are a number of situations that occur during workshops that might be tricky to navigate. While these situations are often perceived as challenges, they can also be opportunities for learning.

The below list of common challenges in a workshop helps you think about some of the more typical situations in advance and provides options for out to approach them. It is important to recognize, that there are many possible effective ways to successfully address these situations, and there are other successful ways of dealing with these challenges that aren't listed here.

Click on the challenge to see suggested approaches to dealing with it.

The group is silent and unresponsive

  • Use an icebreaker.
  • Break the group up into smaller groups.
  • Check for understanding by saying, “can anyone summarize or paraphrase the main point of the article?” or “can anyone remind us of the connection between the last element and this one?”
  • Ask people to respond in writing.
  • Ask to hear from a segment of the room.

One or two participants dominate the discussion

  • Move around the room; sometimes just moving closer or farther to certain participants conveys the message that you are interested in participation from everyone.
  • Give dominant participants roles to keep them busy (e.g., if using group work, ask people who are generally active participants to take more background roles like notetaker or timekeeper).
  • Use phrases such as, “let’s hear from someone who hasn’t contributed yet” or “let’s hear from this side of the room.”

The discussion turns into an argument or disagreement

  • Use phrases such as, “let’s slow down a moment” or “let’s move on.”
  • Try to move around the room and position yourself between the participants that are having the disagreement. This can be an effective non-verbal cue to the participants to come back to the group discussion.
  • Try to depersonalize positions of disagreement that have emerged and bring other participants into the conversations by saying, “we’ve heard perspectives A and B, how else might one think about this question?”
  • Help participants find common ground: “I hear that you both care deeply about…, but you have strongly divergent ideas about how to get there.” Consider asking the group, “what do these perspectives have in common? How do they differ?”

The discussion goes off track

  • Give criteria for responses (i.e. ask specifically for examples or for just one response per group).
  • Ask for clarification.
  • Seek agreement on what should not be discussed by asking the group, “does this topic merit its own separate discussion?”
  • Write the participant’s idea on a post-it and place it in the “parking lot” – a designated space for keeping track of all general ideas. At the end of the session, ensure that you make time to address each of the items and ask the group if questions still remain.
  • Invite people to come and see you afterwards, and/or email you.

One participant is being disruptive, not on task

  • Move toward the participant while continuing to talk to the group as a whole.
  • Try making friendly eye contact with the participant.
  • If you have established guidelines, gently remind participants that the action (e.g. interrupting, ignoring the conversation, showing disrespect) is not appropriate in the context of the guidelines the group has agreed to.
  • Try not to get rattled—take a deep breath, allow some silence, and then respond. This gives you some time to plan a response that models for the participants how to handle a difficult situation.

Biased comments arise

  • Resist the urge to be a bystander when biased comments arise.
  • Speak up promptly and if you feel comfortable doing so, explain that the comment is offensive or insensitive.
  • Let your participants know that discriminatory remarks are unacceptable

You don't know the answer to a question

  • Thank the participant for asking the question.
  • It’s okay to admit that you don’t know. You might say, “I’m not sure about the answer to that. I’ll have to get back to you” or “that’s an interesting question. What do you think?”
  • Write the participant’s idea on a post-it and place it in the “parking lot” – a designated space for keeping track of all general ideas. At the end of the session, ensure that you make time to address each of the items and ask the group if questions still remain.

You make a mistake

  • If you’ve made a mistake with, for example, the content you provided, acknowledge the mistake, and/or apologize if you feel comfortable.
  • All facilitators will make a misstep at some point. Try to see the humour in the situation - treating yourself with compassion also models for participants that they can safely take risks and make mistakes.

You make an offensive statement

  • Sometimes you might say something that a workshop participant perceives as offensive. The first step is to apologize.
  • If you are not sure how to proceed, tell the group that you need some time to reflect on this situation before responding directly. If you feel comfortable opening up conversation, don’t attempt to justify your statement or clarify your intentions. Your goal is to apologize. You might say something like, “I’m very sorry that I’ve said that. I realize that it was inappropriate and offensive.”

Some participants don't feel comfortable or are unable to participate

  • Recognize that participation looks different for everyone. It’s possible that a participant is engaging in a different but equally valuable way.
  • If you initiate an activity and a participant notifies you that they cannot participate, explicitly apologize and ask if there is an alternative with which they would be comfortable.
  • If you notice that a participant is consistently disengaged, privately ask them if there’s something you can do that would better facilitate their participation.


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