The only use of an obstacle is to be overcome. All that an obstacle does with brave men is, not to frighten them, but to challenge them.

Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)
28th President of United States

What is a disturbance? We could see it as an emotional reaction to something, which doesn’t run as you had planned it. They are caused by a number of factors. Let’s have a look at dealing with disturbances.

Technical

If one of the participants is having problems seeing, hearing or writing then that is a technical issue. Interruptions from multimedia, computer or sound system should be dealt with promptly. While you take care of the problem, you could ask the participants to have a short break.

Dealing with disturbances. Eliminate the cause.
Don’t waste time and ask for help!

Otherwise, ask for help while you continue with your moderation. You could ask the hotel or seminar venue personnel to deal with it — or even the participants. This is the kind of situation in which having an assistant at your side to take care of the problem is very useful indeed.

There is almost no need to mention that other challenges — like not a broken marker pen — can be solved easily, assuming that you have at least some basic back-up options — in this case extra marker pens. If you consider this a disturbance, then you only have yourself to blame for your lack of preparation, which could have been avoided in 98 per cent of cases.

Organisational

Many possible and seemingly impossible things may happen during a workshop. Most of them, if not all, can be avoided by proper preparation and communication. It should be clear, for example, that a participant can not just bring his friends to join for a couple of hours of a two-day workshop. If it is a closed workshop, with registered participants, you will have to politely remove the interlopers from the room.

Food isn’t served on time? Have you shared the programme with the hotel? If this is the case, you should just continue with the next session or do an energising game, which will give your audience a break until the food is ready.

Participants are standing at the airport without pick-up? For this, as every other problem you will face, you need to be flexible and come up with solutions in real time. In this case, you could suggest that the participants take a cab and get a bill, which can be reimbursed.

For all challenges that you face, it is advantageous to have an assistant who can jump in while you continue moderation. If you don’t then you will have to ask the hotel staff or call your office. For this kind of problems you shouldn’t involve the participants.

If you have to deal with something bigger on an urgent basis then you could give some group work to keep the participants busy for an extended period.

Audience

Disturbances from one or more of your participants are the highest priority problems. This kind of problem can mostly be excluded through proper preparation. As many so-called disturbances refer to the needs of participants a good way of predicting what might arise is to consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This will allow you to create an environment where the risk of disturbance is minimised. For dealing with difficult participants have a look here.

Basic needs

Air

We need oxygen-rich, fresh air for concentration and energy. If the ventilation system is not working properly ask for it to be repaired or change seminar rooms. If not, schedule more breaks and open the windows. Also, the room temperature should be comfortable for everyone.

Physical needs

It should be within the verbal rules and regulations that everybody can excuse him- or herself to go to the washroom. If you notice that more and more people are leaving for the toilets then have a break — even if you haven’t scheduled it — as this creates unrest.

Water

Make sure that water is always available. Coffee and tea should be there at least in the formal breaks. Some of us need it desperately!

Food

Common wisdom suggests that the better the food the better the morale of the participants. But sometimes I wonder whether this is always the case. I have seen some seminars and workshops where people overloaded their plates and were hardly able to follow the after-lunch session due to postprandial sloth.

You should test the food at least once before you book the venue in order to check the quality and hygiene of the restaurant.

Security

In some countries, for a bigger conference you have to arrange security, especially in case you are inviting high-profile guest speakers. Most importantly, this creates a feeling of safety in the audience and fosters an atmosphere of security, well-being and trust.

First of all, the group should be sure of everyone who is amongst them. They should be certain that they will not be disturbed by any outsider nor by a waiter who is likely to leer at female participants. It is your responsibility as the moderator to act. If an outsider comes in and sits down, you need to let him know in a friendly way that only registered participants are welcome and that you will be happy to invite him to one of the next seminars.

The seating arrangement is also important. If participants are sitting with their back to the door they won’t feel comfortable. Either change the seating or block the view of the door with boards or furniture. Try to make a cosy little nest.

To encourage participants to speak from the heart, trust is indispensable. Explain the Chatham House Rules at the beginning and make it clear that it is everybody’s responsibility to apply them. Explain that failure to stick with the rules might turn against them. The same goes with photos and footage. If photos and films are taken please clarify what can be uploaded on the Internet.

Furthermore, you should be clear on when people should or should not take their belongings with them. For example, if you lock up the room during lunch breaks — or if a waiter is going to remain there as guard — then participants can leave their bags inside the room.

Social Needs

Getting the right mixture for the audience is important for enabling a suitable social atmosphere where participants find like-minded people with whom they can exchange ideas in a free and frank manner. If people are too different and have nothing in common this will hamper the formation of a positive group process.

Also a good gender balance will create a slight creative and positive tension between male and female participants.

On the other hands, couples or siblings could turn out to be problematic as they know each other too well. That could result in internal tensions being imported or lead to a situation in which they don’t dare to open up too much in the front of each other. It is not necessarily the case, but it might be better to invite them to different workshops.

Esteem

It’s not only up to you as moderator to announce the basic rules but also to enforce them. This means equal rights of participation. Also validate every contribution from the participants, and build up their confidence with positive and constructive feedback. The aim is to create an atmosphere of mutual esteem. Any violation of these rules should be dealt with in a transparent way.

Self-Actualisation

A positive workshop environment will enable everybody’s self-actualisation: prejudices are abolished, facts count, and high values practiced within the group. Interactive sessions, group works and single performances allow the real actualisation. Spontaneous ideas and input will follow.

If you are able to satisfy all of these needs you will have the perfect workshop environment and there shouldn’t be any so-called disturbance from the audience.


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