Training Delivery

by Terry Wilkinson

Dealing with aggressive behaviour

Although this is probably the behaviour that we trainers dread dealing with the most, in fact it is VERY rare! (Honestly!) Here are some handy tips for dealing with those RARE occasions.

Is it really aggressive?

First, and really important, is to be sure it is actually aggressive behaviour.

Maybe it is just someone who has a typically brusque manner and could do with better social skills. Maybe their behaviour is normal for them, but it cuts across your boundaries of what you consider acceptable, and as such you label it as aggressive when there is no such intent.

And if it is aggression, who is the aggression directed towards?

  • Maybe the person is struggling with the content, feels frustrated, and they are really angry at themselves, not you.
  • Maybe they have other things that they consider more important than the training and resent the time they are ‘wasting’. Their aggression may be directed to whoever it was who instructed that they must attend, not you.
  • Maybe they had some news just before they attended the training that has left them angry at a colleague or family member, not you.

Having said that, if someone is genuinely aggressive or angry for some reason, whether it is about you or not, you are at the front of the room and the most convenient target for that aggression in the moment, so you will need to deal with it.

Is it you?

You also need to be open to the possibility that someone in the group does or says something that triggers an aggressive response in you, perhaps because you don’t know the answer and don’t want to admit it, or because you feel they are have not been listening to you, or because they have not followed instructions, or because they keep interrupting and so on.

Inexperienced trainers can become aggressive themselves, particularly around areas of group control, and this can lead to aggressive behaviour from the group in response.

What to do

These tips can be used as stand-alone interventions, but for best effect you will need to use a combination of several, depending on the situation.

Stay non-defensive

Don’t try to personally defend the training, the company strategy or your need to be right. Manage your personal state in order to remain in a calm, flexible and resourceful place. There are tips on how to do this in the topic on NLP.


  • Get curious about what could be causing the behaviour.
  • Ask ‘What must be true in order for this behaviour to make sense?’
  • Look for the positive intentions of the behaviour.
  • Know that it is not about you personally.

Maintain relaxed body language

Show the group you are open to explore the issue.


  • Keep your arms at your sides, SMILE, sit down or, if you are already seated, lean forward, keeping your posture open.
  • Keep working on rapport.

Ask for more information

Ask probing questions to establish why the delegate is behaving aggressively.

  • Tell me more about that...
  • You obviously feel strongly about this, why is that?

Paraphrase what has been said

Paraphrasing key statements will show the delegate that you really want to hear them and understand their issue – when someone feels listened to, they usually calm down.


So I think what you are saying is... Is that right?

Empathise, don’t sympathise

Empathising with someone will help them feel understood, which will help calm them down. Sympathising, however, will only encourage a victim mindset and a moaning session.


So use ‘I can appreciate why you are really angry about this’ rather than ‘Oh you poor thing; no wonder you are angry’.

Show respect for the delegate

Remember to respect the person, even if you don’t agree with their point of view.


So ‘That’s an interesting point of view; what makes you think that?’ not ‘That’s a load of...!’

Bring the group in to help

When someone expresses a point of view aggressively, ask the others in the room what they think – using the rest of the group takes the emphasis off you and diffuses the situation.


Our worst fear in this situation is that the rest of the group will agree with them – they won’t (really) and if they do, the issue truly does need to be resolved, doesn’t it?

Take the issue off line

If one delegate is side-tracking the whole group and, after you have explored the issue, you decide it is not relevant to the rest of the group, then ask the delegate if it’s OK to talk about the matter privately later.


Time is ticking on here. Would you mind if you and I talk about this separately in the break?

Maintain the delegate’s self esteem

In eastern cultures, this is called ‘saving face’. You want to win your delegates over, but if you put someone down you have made an enemy who will be gunning for you, either openly or subversively. So always finish dealing with this type of issue with this in mind.


Try ‘So is it ok with you if we return to the agenda?’ or ‘Thank you for a great debate; I really appreciate you bringing the issue up’.

Ask for suggestions to resolve the issue

When you have established the underlying issues, take a problem-solving approach and focus on how they can be addressed.

  • So how do you think we could resolve this issue?
  • What can we do now so that you are OK to proceed with this training?

Offer to feed the issue back to senior managers

Often the underlying issue is not about the training, but the way it has been communicated (or not) or the way people have been selected to attend (told to go). Asking the group what message they would like you to feed back to the senior managers can be a good way of addressing the issue, allowing the training to proceed.