How to deal with the disruptive participant

Once upon a time….That’s how a story begins, right? I have one I want to share with you. I’ve changed the names, but the situation is all to familiar. See if you can find yourself in this story.

Jill walks into the hotel conference room a little early. She wants to make sure she picks a good seat where she can see, hear, and interact with the presenters. The round tables are strategically placed three rows of three to allow for comfortable walking and viewing, 9 tables in all. Jill selects the front left table directly in front of the flip chart. She sits down to test her view. From her inside seat she can see everything perfectly. The other participants begin to make their way into the conference area, picking up their coffee and selecting their seats.

Once the meeting starts, the crowd settles down. Jill looks around at the others at her table, making eye contact and exchanging pleasant smiles. Everyone is quiet as the program begins. Jill is sitting with her paper and pen ready to take notes and give her undivided attention to whomever is speaking. Then, all of a sudden the person to her left leans over and whispers something into her ear, breaking her concentration. Jill just lets it go thinking it was a one time thing. Then, it happens again. Jill gives the persona a pleasant smile and tries to concentrate. This behavior continues through the entire first presentation! The person next to Jill is making comments, sharing insights, and sometimes making jokes. It is all too distracting and unprofessional from Jill’s point of view. Surely the presenter is also bothered by this inconsiderate behavior!

What should Jill do? How can she deal with the disruptive participant? How can the presenter deal with this disruptive behavior?

Meet Diana. She’s known by many names: class clown, the ADD kid, the disruptor (among others). She sees this story a little differently. For her, the conference is all about connecting, sharing ideas, and collaborating. How can you do that when you are sitting passivly, quietly at a table like you were in primary school? If it were not meant to be interactive, why would everyone need to be in the same room? We could have just read the presentation and been done with it.

Roles and Responsibilities for making the most of ‘the disruptor’:

1. Role: Participant. Responsibility: set expectations up front. Everyone is responsible for their own experience at a conference. It is not the responsibility of the facilitator / presenter to control the behavior of all of the people in the room. We are adults, not children. Take responsibility for your own experience by letting the people at your table know you will be concentrating on the presenter and ‘please excuse me if I don’t respond to your comments.’ Better yet, ask them to please not distract you as you need to focus.

2. Role: Facilitator / Presenter. Responsibility: set expectations and design for flexibility. The facilitator must take into account all of the different preferences for experiencing the event. Some people like to concentrate in silence, others like to share their ideas. Try to build in a little of every style. Also, if you know who the disruptor is at the start (see #3 below) then you can give that person an assignment of capturing all of their ideas and thoughts as they happen – to be shared with others at the designated time in your program. Providing a bit of structure while allowing for flexibility is an art form of the skilled facilitator.

3. Role: Disruptor. Responsibility: Managing your strength. Be aware of others’ reactions to you. Let people near you know your style. ‘Hi, my name is Linda and I’m a meeting disruptor. I am a connector. I use humor to communicate. I am looking for someone to share this experience with as it happens. If you do not want to be a part of this, let me know and I will either move to another table, or channel my creativity into another form of expression (most likely by tweeting my thoughts during the event).’

Which role have you played? Do you have strategies that have worked for you in the past? Please share your ideas, successes, and stories in the comments. We are here to learn from each other. Thanks for reading.