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Dealing with Unruly Behavior

Meggin McIntosh

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I work extensively in the education market where I observe and contend with adult misbehavior that I never see in my corporate, university, or government audiences. I’m looking for ways that other speakers in the education field have dealt with unreasonable, unruly behavior.

— Julie Christiansen

For disruptive private conversationalists, I always begin by strolling casually over to where they are seated, and then standing in front of them while I continue speaking. If that subtle hint doesn't work, I may interrupt the pattern by asking one of them to answer a question that is intended for the whole audience/class. In the education setting, it is perfectly alright to just stop speaking and wait patiently with a smile on your face while the talkers finish their conversation. Typically, the rest of the class gets frustrated with having to wait, and will police the offenders for you. Worst case scenario, give everyone a break and speak one-on-one with the disruptive party or parties, and do the following:

  1. identify their behavior
  2. explain how it is disrupting the flow of the class or session
  3. ask that it discontinue
  4. state your expectations for acceptable behavior

The parties can either acquiesce or they can leave -- it's up to them. Either way, you can carry on with your class.

— Billy Simms

Just recently I went to a staff development program for educators. I was disgusted at the behavior of the participants. Educators are the worst!! I have noticed this during my 17 years as an educator. Teachers are always complaining that their students don't pay attention in class, yet they can't pay attention during staff development. The worst thing is when they are talking during the presentation.

Maybe you have tried everything known to mankind, but my advice would be (in no particular order):

  1. Stare at them until they pay attention.
  2. Speak to them during break and nicely ask them to pay attention.
  3. Speak to their superior.
  4. Agree on specific ground rules before you begin.
  5. Ask them to leave. That way, the rest of the participants will probably pay attention and you get rid of the troublemakers.
  6. Bonk them over the head with a baseball bat.

— Mina Bancroft

After conducting part of an in-service day seminar, I stopped the session and asked the faculty to look at each others' body language. They were sprawled, disengaged and sullen (and I was being brilliant!). I was once a teacher and I let them know that my students were not allowed to exhibit this kind of rudeness to me, not then, not now. We paused for a discussion of why they had assumed the posture of their students, why they and I deserved better and what to do about it. Several teachers remained withdrawn, but most perked up and commented they appreciated the nudge in the evaluations.

Teachers burn out...they start out enthusiastic and idealistic. An inservice day is supposed to reinvigorate them, but I think you need to go off the wall or very direct when you deal with this apathy. Maybe start with a memory of their first day of school as a student and as a teacher. Ask them to approach this session with you as openly and enthusiastically as they did those days. Have them draw a face on their tent cards with the way they looked then as a reminder. Have a sample posted on the flip chart with another picture of the negative. Then, when someone starts to slip, point to the negative picture. They reach the point they won't entertain anything new...a loss of neotony is one sign of depression.

Teachers need to be stroked...hard work, lower pay than warranted for the responsibility, the assignment to fix society, make up for negligent parenting and teach subject matter in overcrowded classrooms. Budgets are not mandated with the dictates of the state or federal government...just do it takes on whole new meaning....no money, but thou shalt do it any way.

I would end my presentation with a personal thank you to my teachers, named with subject areas...Mr. Borza at Lakewood High School in 1957, Cleveland, Ohio...world history, who made a tremendous difference to my life. I cannot thank any of them now because it's too late, so I thank you for the extra attention you give to that surly kid like me, who still needs encouragement but wouldn't think of saying thank you or even noticing that your effort is more than just nagging or hassling him. Tell them you know now and so you thank them instead.

All this comes under the heading of be real and honest with them, expect no less than their best and accept nothing less. The fact that I was once a teacher for 15 years may give me greater permission to do this.

— Barbara Hemphill

My worst experience was having someone put their head on the table and go to sleep. I called a break (unscheduled), and explained to the participant that her behavior was disrupting other people's learning, and asked her to leave! I am truly amazed at people sometimes!

— Susan Carter

I've been talking to teachers for a while now. Terrible audience -- I'm a teacher too and can say this!

When I start my speech I tell them I have "classroom rules" -- I make them funny, but then I've addressed the problems before they arise.

Rule 1: say whatever you want (heckle me); I'm a junior high teacher who has bottled up a whole lot of anger over the years, and I may just blurt it all out if you heckle me!

Rule 2: leave whenever you want to, but bring me a coffee first.

In the middle of my talk, I will stop and tell the person leaving -- "black please!" If you have different problems, make up your own fun rules. This at least lets you have some fun first!

— Cath DeStefano

Suggestion: MetaCommunication. That is, communicate about the communication. Point out what is happening right then and there.


  • With a rude front desk clerk: Did I do or say anything that would cause you to treat me like this?
  • With a rude attendant: When you speak in that way, it (whatever effect it is having). Is that what you meant to do/create?

BUT the real reason I wrote, is that you confirmed for me a decision I made after being with only ONE education group. They were the rudest audience I had ever been with. Rowdy. Talking among themselves and not listening. JUST LIKE the students they complained about and yet didn't see themselves that way. OY.

I have never accepted another education group job.

— Pegine Echevarria

The behavior of the adults in the education market is an experience. They were my target audience once and I stopped marketing them. I found they behaved best with small group discussion, pairs and large group activities where they had to stand and interact which made them more involved with the program. The more interaction the more they behaved. Also incorporating humor keeps them engaged.

I have also spoken, individually, to those individuals who insist on knitting, sleeping, talking among themselves and being honest with them that they do not have to stay. Remember that you are in charge.

— Joel Martin

You've got to establish a context for behaving well.

  1. Be mindful of your language. Misbehaving is different from being rude.
  2. Honor everyone as responsible and committed to learning.
  3. Ask yourself what they "really" are saying by being rude. What's the message they are sending. Ask yourself, "Am I listening to them, encouraging their point of view, or is this some residual effect of a previous unsatisfactory learning experience."
  4. Make upfront "behavior requests" a "code of honor" or "ground rules" whichever term you prefer. Here are some examples: Be responsible for your own learning. Be on time. Respect everyone. Confidentiality. Adopt a learning attitude.
  5. Get agreement and buy in before starting! "Raise your hand if you will honor my requests."
  6. Don't assume you have it without some outward sign from all of your participants that they have given it to you. Make eye contact as you see their response. If they don't respond, ask why. Without this, in the future, the disrupter could say, "Well I didn't give you my word...I didn't say I would."
  7. Coach/facilitate/lecture from a place of giving and demanding respect. The rest of the people who are paying attention and contributing will resent your not taking charge of the "space". Why should they suffer?
  8. Use positive reinforcement for what you do want..."Thank you, great question." that kind of thing.
  9. Don't get triggered. Manage your emotions.
  10. What is also useful is to have someone they report to lead off the event and if they can, stay in the room to participate or observe.
  11. Then if worst comes to worst, invite this person to attend another event...ask them to leave.
  12. If appropriate, evaluations with space for comments also are good. When people know that you mean what you say and there are consequences for rudeness they will make different kinds of choices. Getting feedback is always a gift.

— Bruce Hale

I was speaking to an audience of educators in El Paso, and they grew increasingly chatty while I was speaking. After politely asking them twice to keep the conversations down, I finally stopped and said, "You know, the kids at the schools I visit behave better than you. I expect more from educators." A bit drastic, perhaps. But they shut up long enough for me to get through the rest of my talk.

— Mitch Krayton

I will say that adults are there at their free will. So use the group will to help with the discipline.

In the start of your presentation. establish rules of behavior you want for your presentation. Reward those who behave exceptionally well. Offer consequences, like asking them to leave, if they don't abide by these rules.

Take a vote of everyone by show of hands that they agree to do this. Majority rules and this influence alone will help.

Minor incidents happen all the time and can be brought out as an example with a touch of humor for the first violation. Take a vote of the rest of the group to determine how to handle major incidents. The group will is powerful and takes the burden from you to them.

You have to be strict in discipline (they all voted to abide) because if you don't enforce the rules, you have just given permission for everyone to break them.

So set the guidelines you want, reward for good behavior, have the group vote them off the island if they are bad.

— Rita M. Risser Chai

Here's something that worked for me at a steel mill where I conducted Respectful Workplace (sexual harassment) programs 4 to 6 times a week for 8 months. Everyone had name tents. In past training, they were forced to put first and last names on the tent, and if they said anything "bad" they were reported to HR. I told the first person who arrived for the training, "You can put any name you want on there as long as you'll answer to it when I call on you." People had names like Rambo — and that was just the women. I told that person to also put a number on their tent from 1 to 10 of how happy they were to be there at the training. They would say, "What will happen if I give you a 5?" I said, "I'm not telling anybody, I just want to know where I stand." The person would say great and put down a 3. We'd laugh and then I'd say, "Will you please tell everyone as they come in about the names and the numbers while I finish getting ready." As new people came it became this great joke. Inevitably someone would ask if they could put negative numbers and I'd say yes. After that, everything went great.

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