Dealing with difficult delegates at a conference or workshop

A man looking very bored and uninterested
Difficult delegates need to be tackled with great skill.

When you are chairing a meeting, leading a group discussion or workshop, you may be faced with dealing with a difficult delegate. Knowing how to recognise this and then correctly dealing with it is important for the success of the event.

In my experience, there are basically three types of difficult delegates you may have to deal with: 

Someone who dominates the group

This delegate will tend to talk too much and take over group discussions. You should:

  • Use your summarising skills to acknowledge what they are saying but to also take back control of the situation
  • Reduce the amount of eye contact with that delegate
  • Ask the delegate a factual question and then ask others for their input
  • Use closed questions

Sometimes you will have a delegate who likes to act as 'interpreter' for the views of the rest of the group by constantly telling you what the others think and answering for them. Here you should ask the participant who was interrupted what they think of the interpreter's summary of their answer. This gives the group the opportunity to speak for themselves.

What about the participant who keeps engaging in side conversations? Stop talking and wait for the side conversation to end. Very powerful technique! 

Delegate not taking part

If a delegate seems to be totally disinterested in the discussion and is doodling or looking out of the window, there could be many reasons for this. Some people genuinely think better when doodling, as this can be a remarkably effective way at accessing your subconscious. Drawing pictures gets away from words, which are left-brained and logical, and uses right-brained pictures to stimulate creativity. Remember Tony Blair’s alleged doodles at Davos in January 2005?

Others may be frightened of being asked a question. You should try to establish eye contact and give them an encouraging smile. Speak to the delegate during the break.

If a large number of delegates have switched off (normally after lunch!), try an “energiser” activity. High risk – make sure you have practised and have an escape route planned! 

Two or more delegates are in conflict

This gets tricky. Handle with care and make sure that you:

  • Don't take sides
  • Remind them of the areas of agreement
  • Draw attention to the objectives of the discussion
  • Use humour to relieve tension and defuse anger (have some prepared in advance)
  • Don't give your opinion on the argument. Stay impartial and try to use the other members of the group to get the discussion back on track
  • Summarise the points of conflict and in the event of no agreement, recognise both sides of the argument.


This page was last updated on Wednesday, 19th March 2008.