How to deal with your own pitfalls as a facilitator or trainer?

‘Shit happens!’  This is a quote from one of my colleague trainers/ facilitators,  that I still keep in my mind when I have had a difficult workshop or training. There are occasions when we as trainers/ facilitators are triggered or put off by a difficult group of participants. While reading the book ‘Good for the Group – Five mirrors for blind spots – The first self-help book for trainers’ written by Karin de Galan, I was both inspired and triggered to reflect on my own learning stage as a facilitator/ trainer. Last year I remember,  I had a participant in my workshop who kept complaining about his director after his director had left after a debriefing of 45 minutes. I tried my best to have his colleague managers to address  his own behavior, but it failed.  After this, I somehow frooze and was not able anymore in discovering ways to find meaningful contact with him and to re-energize the group. I remember, I felt one week very bad about this experience!  ‘Shit happens!’  But it was a learnful situation, since it helped me to reflect with colleagues and to re-look at my strategies what I could have done differently.

After reading Karin de Galan’s ‘Good for the group’  my perspectives on how to deal with difficult people has widened.  Something inside myself was emotionally triggered and therefore I was not able to deal with the situation. Now after reading the book,  I realize that I was afraid for looking for personal contact and address his feeling in the workshop under four eyes.   Realizing this event, I now more focus on checking people ‘s feelings one-to-one during a workshop,  if I feel that there might occur some resistance with the participant.  In most cases, my assumptions are not always valid and mostly there is something different happening with the mood of the difficult participant.  Sofar, the one-to-one talks have helped me to get these participants with a new mood and new energy back in the group process.  I feel now able to deal with my own uncertainty as a facilitator, but still see a lot of space for improvement. Karin de Galan’s book ‘Good for the group’ is a very helpful tool in this.

Karin de Galan is mentioning five models on how we can deal with a difficult situation, when we as facilitators are emotionally triggered or put-off in an event :

1. Fight, flight, freeze
Somebody might criticize your training as a boring event!  You might be judged as a boring person, too serious, not bringing any humor to the group.  This remark might be a trigger and as a trainer/ facilitator you might respond on three different ways.  Fight stands for arguing and disagreeing in words with the participant.  Flight, stands for not dealing with the remark. You avoid the comment and continue to do the training as you had planned. Freeze, stands for a disconnection between your head and your body.  You get a black out, are triggered by feelings you had in the past and are not able anymore with the situation in the ‘here and now’.  You take the criticism very personal and are dramatically hit by the response. You start to doubt about yourself. 
How can you deal with signals such as fight, flight and freeze?
Go from fight to curiosity. Ask questions to discover more about the other’s remarks.
Go from flight to courage. First recognize and admit your fear. Challenge your fear and take a step towards the other(s) and make a meaningful contact.
Go from freeze to feeling. Take a walk and create time to feel what you feel. If you don’t know the answer, admit this to the group. It can be a big release.  Or plan for a coffee break and use the time to re-focus your session. Both actions can contribute towards increased safety in the group.

2. Transactional analysis
Transactional analysis (TA) is another important tool on discovering your own pitholes as a trainer/ facilitator. TA is developed by the Canadian Psychiatrist Eric Berne, MD (1910 - 1970). The emphasis in TA lies on communication between people and transactions.  At any given time, a person experiences and manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Typically, according to TA, there are three ego-states that people consistently use:
Parent: a state in which people behave, feel, and think in response to an unconscious mimicking of how their parents (or other parental figures) acted, or how they interpreted their parent's actions.
Adult: a state of the ego which is at the level, where the person take full responsibility for his own behavior in the ‘here and now’. Learning to strengthen the Adult is a goal of TA. While a person is in the Adult ego state, he/she is directed towards an objective appraisal of reality.
Child: a state in which people behave, feel and think similarly to how they did in childhood.  The Child is the source of emotions, creation, recreation, spontaneity and intimacy.
According to Eric Berne, if people communicate, there are transactions. Your behavior as a trainer can trigger a participant to behave as a child, since your behavior can for example remind him of his authoritative father.     How do you respond?  Do you reinforce your behavior?  Or do you ask yourself a question first? How do I address this person?  You observe, feel and before you fall back in an old routine, dig further on how you can communicate at adult level.
These transactions regularly take place in training or facilitation events.  And if triggers have not been resolved from the past,  communication with a difficult participant can trigger your pitfall as a facilitator/ trainer. Therefore, the transactional analysis is a very helpful tool in discovering on how you can change undesired transactions into adult-adult communication patterns.

3. Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)
Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) deals on how to break through circles of negative behavior or interpretations.  RET has been developed by Albert Ellis. His theory is based on how people interpretate a situation, the belief they have about the situation and on how they deal with the situation. Albert Ellis stresses that it is important to verify your belief by asking feedback or explanation from the other person or other people.  Because asking or verifying is the clue towards adapting your beliefs about a situation. Karin de Galan mentions 5 patterns, which can be pitfalls for a trainer/ facilitator; 1. The perfectionist;  2. The love junk; 3. The low frustration tolerance person; 4. The moralist; 5. The disaster thinker.  Karin gives some practical examples on how the RET helps to adapt beliefs and have a new perspective on communication with a difficult participant.  One of the examples that confirmed my development as a trainer,  is that you can not please everybody.  There are situations that I have to play the role of a strict timekeeper in the training.  For some people the time is never sufficient and still want to continue to ask questions, despite the fact that the majority of the group needs to go for a break. For a long time, I felt guilty I had to cut off people by the end of a session.  Feedback has learned me that strict time management keeps the group fresh and energetic and that I have to accept that I can not please everybody in a training.

4. Transfer and contra transfer
Your behavior can trigger an extreme negative or positive behavior with the participants, since your presence can remind them from their childhood. The transfer that will take place, is that somebody might judge you as an arrogant person, since it reminds him of his father.  Or somebody, might admire and fall in love with you and only might judge you through positive means.  In this case, every critical remark to this person, will be judged as a rejection.  Transfers can take place at any moment, at any time.
The pitfall is that you reinforce the transfer of behavior to yourself the contra transfer;   If somebody admires you, you might start to think you are an excellent and perfect trainer.  The danger is that you lose contact with the group and not be open for critical feedback.  If somebody, might think you are arrogant, you might downsize your self-esteem and feel bad about yourself. 
How do you prevent a contra transfer?  Take care of yourself and be aware of your own strengthes. If you are confident about yourself, you are less sensitive to criticism. So know your weaknesses and take feedback not personal, but see it as an opportunity for growth.  So create a growth mind-set and ask for feedback and on how your participants prefer to learn.

5. Cognitive dissonance
The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ has been introduced by Leon Festinger. According to him, when a situation of tension occurs between the reality and our self-image, a situation of ‘cognitive dissonance’ is created.  An addicted smoker might not be open to admit that smoking in un-healthy, but will refer that his grandfather became 87 years as an addicted smoker. So he will say it is not dangerous.  ‘Cognitive dissonance’ deals with justifying of a situation which might be unjust. If the criticism from outsiders increases, you might start to criticize yourself.  A trainer might express; ‘You see, more people in the group say I am not good in facilitating role plays, so I am not qualified to do that!’  Self-esteem is dramatically lowered in this case.
However the behavior is not effective, since it doesn’t learn anything. Learning becomes possible, if you don’t take criticism as personal but consider it as valuable input for learning and improvement. Similar on how to deal with transfer and contra transfer, you need a growth mind-set and be open to ask for feedback.

Keep the black sheep on board
One quote that caught my attention in Karin’s book ‘Good for the Group’  is that you have to keep the black sheep (difficult people for a group) on board.  If they drop out, after that somebody else will take over this role.  The function of a black sheep is that is shows and stresses the diversity of a group and it helps to challenge the group to reflect on critical questions or different behavior.  The presence of such a person helps to increase the safety in a group. 
Summarized, Karin’s book ‘Good for the Group’ is worthwhile reading for every trainer and facilitator. It contributes towards the personal growth as a trainer/ facilitator.

Training ‘From dysfunctional towards productive behavior in groups – tools for the facilitator’
In 2013 and 2014 Chris van der Sanden and Simon Koolwijk will conduct the training ‘From dysfunctional towards productive behavior in groups – tools for the facilitator’.  This is a training or trainers, facilitators and managers with advanced facilitation skills. They will definitely highlight the strategies as have been mentioned by Karin de Galan in their book, but they will also address how to recognize dysfunctional behavior in groups and which tools to apply in transforming dysfunctional behavior towards productive behavior in groups.  Read more about this training at From disfunctional to productive behaviour in groups:  or ask for more information from Simon Koolwijk, e-mail.  


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