When is a star not a star?

Every trainer and educator has been there!

You’re delivering to a small to mid-size group and most don’t seem that engaged in the work. Maybe they’ve been coerced to attend, perhaps it’s not what they expected, or maybe you’re just not on form today, but there’s one person in the room, your life line, your saviour, your STAR. Every time you ask a question you see them beam with interest, keen to speak. You glance around the room, nope, nobody else has anything to say, so you invite them to share their thoughts. They are articulate, what they say is pertinent, it adds to the discussion and supports you to move the workshop forward, so forward you move, tick off that piece of learning and on to the next.

But wait, you’re a good trainer and are aware that not everyone is on the same page, so you check, ‘Is that all clear, does anyone have any other thoughts or questions?’. The silence is deafening, your STAR shakes their head, maybe a couple of others make little uncomfortable shifts in their chairs and you hear a couple of people give a muted ‘No’. OK, let’s just get through this, you may think, at least you’ve got your STAR.

But how helpful is this person actually being? Imagine that they weren’t there at all, what options would you have?

  • Keep plugging away, talking largely to yourself
  • Stop the workshop all together
  • Re-think your delivery approach
  • Re-consider the needs of the group and adapt the course content

If these are your options with a totally disengaged group, then these are also your options for a mostly disengaged group.

Of course the real problem with the ‘star’ is that they allow others to disassociate themselves from their responsibility to participate and support their own learning. Not consciously perhaps, but individuals in the group will begin to feel secure that they don’t need to step out of the comfort zone and speak-up, because the ‘star’ will do it for them.  This is a potentially disastrous place for your audience to be.  They are likely to get little out of the group discussion, get bored and ultimately switch off.  Before you know it you’re training to just one person.  The STAR, however wonderful it is to have them in the room, lends you a false sense of security. They may be your safety net, but they should never be your crutch. They may support you to get through the workshop, deliver the content and get out of there, but is just getting through the workshop really what you want to do.

So, never one to highlight a problem without practical solutions, here are my thoughts on handling this situation appropriately.

  1. The first step is to acknowledge this is happening.  Go on, admit it to yourself, this isn’t going as well as it might first appear is it!
  2. Affirm the ‘star’ for their enthusiasm and contribution
  3. Clearly state that you would like to give others the opportunity to voice their views
  4. Request to your ‘star’ that maybe they hold back a little bit to ensure others get a chance to speak
  5. State that you would be really keen to hear from some people that you haven’t heard much from
  6. Look around the room for someone that you haven’t heard speak much but looks like they might have something to say. Invite them to share their view, use their name
  7. Give lots of affirmation.  If this was clearly a struggle for them to speak in public, affirm that as well
  8. If there are still no volunteers to contribute resist the urge to return to your ‘star’. Even if they are squirming away, desperately biting their tongue
  9. Suggest that they discuss the next point in pairs or small groups
  10. After a brief time invite feedback on the discussion from each group. This way no-one is being pinpointed, and you are drawing out thoughts and opinions in a safer, more inclusive way
  11. Make a clearly controversial statement that most if not all in the group will disagree with
  12. Ensure that you focus any ensuing hubbub and comments back to the centre of the room
  13. If you notice any particularly extreme reactions from anyone go straight to them and ask them their thoughts, use their name
  14. After each ‘quieter’ person contributes make sure to validate their input.  “Thank you, that was a really pertinent point” or even just an enthusiastic “Exactly!” or “Spot on!”
  15. Keep this approach going until the group feels more relaxed and more people are engaged and being heard
  16. Make sure not to neglect your ‘star’ though. They will still be itching to speak, and you may need them later to help kick off another debate

Of course, you should also always try to ensure that your training is flexible and meets the needs of everyone. No matter how much support you give there will always be some that just can’t bring themselves to talk in a group.  Swapping between different delivery styles ensures you create maximum opportunity for everyone to feel engaged and involved, including the visual and kinaesthetic types as well.  Make time and space for all four of the delivery approaches below:

  • Maypole – the leader is the central figure and communication occurs from the leader to the member and from the member to the leader
  • Round robin – members take turns talking
  • Hot seat – there is an extended back-and-forth between the leader and one member as the other members watch and listen
  • Free floating – all members take responsibility for communicating, taking into consideration their ability to contribute meaningfully to the particular topic

Ronald W. Toseland and Robert F. Rivas, 2005

Remember disengagement is contagious, use every tool in your box to challenge it. Keeping every participant engaged and involved should be the first objective of every trainer.  Ultimately of course the responsibility and choice will be held by each individual, but it’s the trainer’s job to make is as easy as possible for them to choose engagement.


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