How Do You Tackle Disruptive Influences During Workshops?

“Luba was sent to one of our early Power of Hope camps from a program for youth without homes,” says Peggy Taylor, co-founder of PYE and Young Women Empowered. “She was very tall and had a powerful presence. As the camp began, she leaned up against the wall, arms crossed, radiating a “show me” attitude across the group of youth and adults assembled on an outside deck. I immediately started looking for a way to draw her into the group. “When we got to an activity that required some vocal volume, I invited her to help me out. I whispered the instructions into her ear, and she belted them out to the 90 people milling on the deck. By the end of that activity, Luba was all in. She was enthusiastic and with her natural charisma, she played a leadership role the entire week.” Workshop leaders and facilitators often have natural concerns about dealing with un-cooperative or challenging behavior while they are leading a group, but as our network of experienced facilitators will tell you, this type of behavior is all part of the experience. “As a facilitator,” says Peggy, “it’s your job to guide and protect the experience of the whole group as well as the individuals. If one or two people are draining the energy of the group, you need to find strategies to amend the situation.” In the best moments, your intervention will actually bring energy and creativity to the group. PYE co-founder Charlie Murphy tells the story of working in a girls’ detention center in Idaho some years ago. He was strumming on his guitar trying to lead a song. In the back, one girl lifted up a sheet of paper with the word ‘lame’ written on it. “I don’t know why, but I thought it was funny,” says Charlie. “So I said to her, so you think it’s lame? What do you think we should be singing?” She thought for a moment and spit out her answer, ‘Desperado.’” Charlie tried unsuccessfully to pick through the song on his guitar.  “At our next meeting, this girl showed up with the music and lyrics for Desperado and we all sang it. And you know what, it was the perfect song for her and for this group.” Sara Kendall, a lead facilitator at Power of Hope, agrees that responding to the disruptive behavior in a way that acknowledges where that person is coming from can be a big help. “Ask yourself how this ‘disruptive’ behavior is serving the person who is ‘acting-out’.  Is it defensive? Is it bringing humor to the group? Are they actually being creative in a way that you could commend or comment on? Are they taking leadership?” “Refrain from trying to make things go your way,” says Sara. “Try not to criticize people who are not ‘conforming’. Instead, look for the strength in their behavior. This in turn will allow you to have an authentic appreciation of the person. Once you’ve reached that point, you can acknowledge the strength and then make a request that they do something a little differently in order to serve the group as a whole. Make sure your request can easily be fulfilled and provide reasons why you think this will be better for the group. Do not refer to your own notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior.” For Peggy, understanding the root of the disruptive behavior is key. “Often, the youth we see as “problems” simply need to be seen, acknowledged and listened to. It’s easy to get triggered by youth who won’t go along with the program. This can lead to frustration and anger on your part. And yet, engaging challenging youth is one of the most creative parts of youth work.” It’s also helpful to reflect on your own reaction to the behavior.  “I try to ask myself a couple of questions as a facilitator,” says Alex Michelsen, Program Manager at our UK partner LIFEbeat. “What makes the behavior so challenging for me, and what is it actually a challenge to?” “Asking why the behavior is so challenging helps me not to react to the situation in a habitual way. In my experience, a challenge can often be a test, designed to provoke an expected response. This response may then be used as further ammunition, often to ‘confirm’ that the world is a certain way. Identifying what you find challenging can help you to come up with a response that may not be the expected one!” “Questioning what the behavior is actually challenging helps me focus on what I’ve said or done that’s elicited the challenge. Naming this for myself, or even together with the challenger, helps me build rapport with the challenger – provided I do it from a position of empathy! In turn this helps me explore alternatives, again opening up the field of choice in MY relationship with them. For example, if I find that the youth is feeling too challenged by the activity we are doing, I might provide a way for him or her to opt for a lower level of creative risk while still participating, or to even just observe while remaining part of the group.” If you’re still struggling with challenging behavior, Peggy Taylor offers some handy tips to help you address the situation:

  1. Start your program with creative activities that engage the body and the imagination. If you engage your participants—body and mind—from the beginning, a lot of disruptive behaviors won’t even show up.
  2. Come up with community agreements together. At our camps, we share a set of community agreements and then we ask the youth and adults to add their ideas in. When everyone participates in forming the agreements, the group itself begins to take responsibility for the quality of the community. It’s no longer all on you. At the same time, once agreements have been made, you have something to fall back on. If a young person is causing disruption, you can have a side conversation about the agreements. “This is not what we all agreed to. What’s up.” is a more inviting conversation starter than, “Your behavior is causing problems…”
  3. Look for the strength behind the behavior. Yes, this person is causing disruption, but what strength are they exhibiting? The young girl with the “lame” sign was a person who was willing to tell the truth about her experience. When invited to come up with her own suggestion, she turned right around. When we see the strength behind the behavior, we get more engaged with the person and less triggered.
  4. Find a leadership role. With Luba, once she had a role in the group she felt safer and more involved. Coming from the streets, it was especially important for her to be seen as a valid person with a real contribution to make.
  5. If the behavior continues to get in the way of the group’s experience, give your participant some options and let him or her choose. Once again, this gives the young person the experience of coming from choice.
  6. If you have a young person who hangs back from participating, they may be scared and triggered. Offer them a role that might be less threatening. Say, for example, you are doing a theater-based activity. You might ask this person to time the activity for you and let you know when to call “Stop.”
  7. Above all, pay attention to these young people. Try to see what makes them tick. What do they want…and try not to take it personally! Once you do that, it’s all about you.

We would love to hear more about your experiences with working with young people and groups. If you have any further suggestions or ideas on how to address challenging behavior let us know by commenting here or visiting us on Facebook or LinkedIn.


Enjoyed that? You might be interested in these articles:

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 17.34.45
What is a social artist?
A social artist is someone who is part artist, part social-change agent, part facilitator and part visionary. The social artist draws on artistic practice, group dynamics and creative ideas to facilitate change.
Screen shot 2013-12-20 at 15.34.18What drives a social artist?
Watch this video interview with PYE’s Senior International Trainer, Nadia Chaney to hear her thoughts on social artistry, what it is and why it is so important in today’s communities.
Screen shot 2013-12-27 at 11.23.00
How do you start a social art organization?
To find out more about setting up your own organization we spoke to Ed Wade Martins, co-director of, an organization that uses creativity to raise awareness of today’s social and environmental issues.


One Response to How Do You Tackle Disruptive Influences During Workshops?

  • Thank you! I’ll just say it helps me to think of “challenging” as challenging your agenda/method or their part in it. could be helpful for you actually to have that honesty, and you can still challenge them as well to find a way to meet their needs and those of the group

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.