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Dealing With Difficult Participants

How to Take Control When Caustic Conduct Disrupts Your Group Exercise Class

True story: One August morning I was getting ready to
teach my first 6:00 am yoga class in a trendy Boston health club. The room was packed with a gaggle
of lawyers, agents and power brokers
anxious to breathe, stretch and sweat before heading off to their corner
offices downtown.

Halfway into class, as I was leading them through a one-footed balancing pose, a cell phone began ringing to
the tune of “La Cucaracha” in a piercing, high-pitched tone. A participant quickly reached for the phone clipped to his Spandex shorts . . . and actually answered the call! Right there in the middle of class, we were all treated to the following scintillating conversation: “Hello? Yeah. No, it’s OK, I can talk now. . . . I’m just doin’ some yoga.”

Talk about difficult participants! Seems as though lately there’s at least one in every group fitness class. It might be the egocentrist who has no qualms about repeatedly interrupting with questions or demands, or the technophile who—etiquette be damned—totes a handbag that emits more blips and bleeps than R2-D2. Maybe it’s
that classic double threat: the chatty twosome at the back of the room,
just too cool for school. The list goes
on . . . and on.

One thing’s sure: When rude or
selfish behavior threatens to disrupt a class, all eyes are on the instructor to
restore order and maintain a pleasant atmosphere for all attending. So what do you do? You learn how to master the fine art of handling difficult behavior, that’s what.

Nip It in the Bud

The best way to handle difficult behavior also happens to be the simplest: Keep it from happening in the first place. Often, a preemptive approach
is all it takes.

Try beginning your class with a friendly reminder to turn off all cell phones and pagers. I do this for every class, and it usually does the trick. Other times, you might post a sign outside class reminding participants to enter quietly if they’re late, not to bring in open containers, and so on. One especially nice and effective preventive move I use is to create a biweekly newsletter that includes news about
the club, various class-related tips and
a special section reminding everyone about class rules. My students appreciate the extra service, and I get to address different etiquette issues without singling out any one person.

Also, never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. There’s a space in my newsletter that I reserve for heaping praise on a different participant each month for his or her improvement in, or dedication to, my class. Other times, I give away a copy of the music
I play during class. Think it sounds
too simple or hokey? Try it; you’ll be amazed. If you praise participants when they’re good, making sure to do so in front of everyone else, you’ll have them competing to be on their best behavior.

After the Fact

Unfortunately, not all difficult situations can be cut off at the pass. Sometimes, you need to address the problems as they develop. When dealing directly with a difficult participant, keep a couple of things in mind.

First, understand that all behaviors make sense to the person who displays them. No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I think today I’ll behave in a way that makes no sense to me or anybody else.” Somewhere along the way, difficult people come to accept that their behavior is serving some purpose—whether it’s attracting attention, gaining control or simply blowing off steam. Difficult behavior is usually nothing personal against you as an instructor. It’s generally just a matter of someone being stuck in a poor pattern.

Now, we all know your job is simply to teach exercise, not to practice psychology. Nobody’s asking you to delve into your participants’ childhood memories to find out where their errant behavior began. You’re only concerned with where it ends: in your class. But by understanding the source, you may gain the sensitivity needed to handle each situation professionally and effectively.

Second, always try a nonverbal approach first, if possible. Many situations can be handled just fine without some kind of face-off between you and the participant. However, for those times when it is necessary to address a particular student after class, remember this simple formula: Respect, reflect, direct. Tempting as it may be, trying to fix a problem behavior by saying something like, “Listen, Buster, keep that mouth
of yours shut in my class!” is the verbal equivalent to pouring gasoline on the fire. Nobody likes taking orders, especially busy adults who are paying hard-earned money to attend your class.

Everybody’s a winner when an issue is resolved tactfully, and savvy persuaders know that the way to get a person to change is to show you are interested in his or her concerns (respect), demonstrate that you understand and sympathize with those concerns (reflect) and offer an alternative solution that appeals to the person’s self-interest (direct).

Start by asking an open-ended question. (Examples on how to approach different types of difficult participants are provided below.) Next, paraphrase your student’s answer and say that you are concerned and want to help resolve the issue. Depending on the feedback you get, you can then propose a solution. Make certain, however, that the solution includes a benefit to the participant. People rarely change their behavior unless they have an incentive to do so, so the alternative must be presented as somehow better than the original behavior. That’s why you should refrain from saying, “Quit yer yappin,” even when bad behavior seems to justify such a response. The fact is, you’ll probably have much better luck if you stress the benefit to the participant this way: “It’s been my experience that this workout is more effective when you focus intently on what you’re doing.”

Remember that your job is simply to provide a quality class to everyone who shows up. No more, no less.

Now let’s look at some common disruptive personality types and the ways you can take back control when they cause a commotion in class.

The Talkative Twosome

Ever get the feeling that your exercise room is being confused with a chat room? Nothing gets under an instructor’s skin faster than that back-corner clique that regularly hosts a tea party. This kind of behavior is not only wildly inconsiderate; it is often quite disruptive to those trying
to focus on the instructor. Fortunately, there’s a simple fix for putting a gag in the gab: As you teach, simply stand between the talkers until they’ve quieted down. Do this as often as necessary.

If repeated attempts fail to get the job done, it’s time to have a chat of your own . . . after class, of course! Start by saying something like, “I noticed you seemed a bit distracted today. Was there something about my class you want to talk about?” Then take the time to listen and to discuss any complaints or suggestions that come up. Finish by saying you’re concerned that, without the proper level of focus, your class could become less effective (or even dangerous) and you’d like to encourage everyone to work toward developing that level of focus.

The Conqueror

It happens: Some days, your class turns into
a game of world conquest, like the board game “Risk.” The person responsible for creating the combat zone is often the one who wants to plant a flag claiming a permanent classroom spot—and then defend it by any means necessary. I’ve even watched one participant stage a series of coups d’état during class, reclaiming “his” spot from an unsuspecting student whenever she left the room for some water! Having your own personal Napoleon Bonaparte in class can be a major drag for teachers and participants alike.

In some cases, this kind of territorial behavior has less to do with selfishness and more to do with class room acoustics, lighting and temperature, so first try to find out why the participant is so insistent on “owning” the particular classroom spot. (You may find out that the student has more devious reasons for staking that claim. I once had
a male yoga participant who insisted
on staying in the back of the typically all-female class, probably spurred on
by motivations that were less than gentlemanly!)

If there’s an opportunity to accommodate a participant’s special needs, then by all means find out what those are. Ask some simple questions like, “Are there any things about the room setup that you’d like to talk about?” Otherwise, it’s time to turn on the tact. Tell your participant that if he tries out the “view” from different positions within the room, the class will remain fresh and stimulating.

The Individualist

I’m all for encouraging people to carve out their own identities, but a participant who sweats to the beat of her own drummer can throw a real monkey wrench into your classroom flow. Your class doesn’t need two leaders. In fact, this can be especially problematic—even dangerous—when there are lots of beginners in class. Novices often try to mirror their neighbors’ movements instead of following the instructor.

If the offending party is at the front of the room, try working the sequence of class movements in such a way that the entire class turns around 180 degrees. That will position the individualist at the back of class, unable to lead as many other participants astray.

It is also helpful to address this type of wayward participant after class, if possible. Maybe she is having trouble understanding your instructions. Maybe the class is too basic or advanced. Try getting to the root of the problem and, if necessary, offer to work with the participant to find her a more suitable class.

The Johnny-Come-Lately

Your 10:00 am core-board class is packed to the gills. The music is bumping,
the sweat is pouring, everyone is in rhythm. All of a sudden, here comes
a latecomer bustling into the room, muttering, “S’cuse me, pardon me,” causing a commotion while scrambling to set himself up and dive into the
action. A latecomer is not only sure
to kill the flow of your class, but he
also poses a safety risk by jumping into advanced exercise routines without a proper warm-up.

The next time someone shows up fashionably late, try to get the rest of your participants involved in something they can sustain on their own. This
will give you enough time to casually make your way over to the offending party. Explain your concern that without a proper warm-up, the risk of
injury increases. (Do make sure your mike is turned off first!)

After class, try to get to the source
of the participant’s recurring tardiness. Heavy traffic getting to the club? Trouble leaving work on time? Confusion about the class schedule? Perhaps you can work with him to find a class at a time that’s a better fit.

The Complainer

“It’s too hot in here.” “Can we turn this music down?” “Speak up; I can’t hear you.” “Can we do something about these fans?”

Sound familiar? Some folks just don’t feel right unless they’re moaning about one thing or another. And, sooner or later, one of these folks is sure to find her way to your classes.

When she does, the first thing you need to do is to determine if her problem can be fixed quickly. Maybe the participant is cold because she’s standing directly under an air vent. Maybe she’s too close to the speakers to hear you well enough. Try to find out if
others in the room share the complainer’s concern. It just may be that
the room is too cold or too loud. If so, then, obviously, you need to make the necessary changes.

If, however, that is not the case, it’s time for a simple and polite reply, such as, “The temperature (or volume) will stay at this setting for today, but I’m more than happy to discuss your concerns after class.”

A complainer is actually fairly easy to deal with, because, after all, you already know what her problem is, because she’s told you. Almost always, helping the complainer to understand the situation is your best recourse. Saying something like, “Keeping the room temperature
down is essential for making sure you don’t overheat,” or “Having the volume at this level has been shown to keep participants ‘pumped’ during the workout” will make the benefits obvious.

The Technobuff

Remember my cell-phone-wielding yoga student? A phone or pager going off during class is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room; it’s simply impossible for everyone else to ignore. And the sad reality is that we can expect more examples of technobuffs misbehaving as cell phones become more pervasive in our culture.

When technology threatens the serenity and effectiveness of your class, damage control is usually your only
option. Your job in these situations is
to restore order quickly and efficiently.
By simply walking to the far side of the room when an offending phone rings, you can direct participants’ attention away from your digital delinquent as
he turns his gizmo off.

But what if your student actually
answers the call, as mine did? Many fitness clubs now have prominent
signs posted indicating that there are designated areas for cell phones. (If your club hasn’t taken this step yet, urge management to do so.) With
such a policy in place, you’re in a better position to approach the participant casually and say, “You might be more comfortable taking your call in the front lobby, where you won’t be distracted by the rest of us.”

Good Vibrations

Although difficult participants can be
a real problem, worst-case scenarios such as those described in this article can usually be resolved if instructors take control quickly and effectively.
It’s been my experience that problems rarely persist after I have spoken to the offending parties. Those who continue to present problems after you’ve attempted the strategies outlined here
become the responsibility of club management. (After all, problem members are probably casting their bad vibes on other members elsewhere in the club.) More often than not, the club’s general manager will have his or her own policy for addressing problem members. And you can rest easier knowing you did your best to rectify and control
the situation.

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