How to Combat Silence in the Training Room

When I was a new trainer planning my sessions, I was always a bit concerned about putting in tasks that involved eliciting responses or encouraging a lot of open discussion with larger groups. In the back of my mind I always worried that my attendees would be reluctant to speak up in case they were wrong and or got embarrassed speaking in front of a large group of people. This concern increased exponentially when I knew a manager would be in the room with their staff. In my head I worried the only response I would get would be silence and the chirping of crickets.

While you’re always going to encounter noisy classes and quiet groups, there are ways to maximise the chances that you won’t just be talking to yourself. The following tips can help you to relax your group, and get them to be more confident when speaking up.

First, if you want them to speak, then you should make the effort to speak to them. In the five or ten minutes before the session, when everyone is arriving and starting to find their seats, you should be there welcoming, chatting, and making them feel comfortable. This is doubly important if you are running the session away from their office comfort zone. New places can be intimidating and a lot of people equate training sessions with going back to school, which they may or may not have liked! If you are still rushing about and doing last minute prep in the five to ten minutes before class, then you’re going to have to start getting there earlier; making your attendees feel comfortable with you is vital to them feeling comfortable voicing their questions and opinions.

Thank people for their participation by respecting what they have to say. All responses are valuable in training room. If you are not getting the response you want from your group, it’s because they either don’t understand what you want or they’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to teach them. Don’t get frustrated or scared if everyone in the room isn’t giving you the textbook answer, and don’t shut down the speaker. Welcome any response with positive feedback and use what is said as a guide – either it’s time to move on because they clearly get it, or it’s time to review because the group isn’t where you want them to be.

If people feel reluctant to talk in front of the group, get them to practice with someone else. There is nothing worse than being put on the spot and not having an answer; in some cultures causing someone to lose face in front of colleagues and their boss is an unforgiveable sin. If you have a quiet group that is reluctant to shout out, then give them a minute to talk about the question or hypothetical situation you’ve proposed with the person next to them. Give them a chance to have an answer before you call on them, so they feel more confident voicing an opinion. This goes double for role plays. Give the twosome a chance to practice, and then, if numbers permit, join them with another twosome to practice and critique before you get them to present to the class.

When people talk, make sure you listen and guide the conversation. Never shut it down completely. The worst thing you can do as a trainer is to shut down a conversation abruptly because it will discourage people from attempting to talk in future. It is especially embarrassing for the speaker when they are in a room with their superior. If you’ve asked a question and you’re getting responses, it’s your job to subtly and smoothly guide the conversation. This might be through targeted questioning, such as ‘That’s a great example, can you tell me more about X?’ or ‘This is great, but we’re getting a little off the topic, so can we go back to when Person Y was talking about X? Does anyone else have examples of similar situations?’ Always remember that you are the facilitator, it’s up to you to encourage discussion, allow it to flow when it’s constructive, and bring it back on track if you need to. If the conversation is taking over the training session, then a short reminder such as ‘This conversation is really interesting, but I’m going to have to ask if we can continue it at break time, because we really need to move on to our next activity’ is an easy way to make attendees and their ideas feel valued, but to move the group back on track.

Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. Why exactly do you want to get the class participating? Is it to get them to prove to you that they understand what you’ve taught them? Is it to get them to prove it to themselves? Is it because you are worried that you’re talking too much and you want to break up the monotony? If you are concerned that your questions are going to be met with silence, ask yourself how you can better target attendee participation. Professional training doesn’t favour the Socratic Method, so you might need to get a bit more inventive with your in-class assessments. Rather than eliciting responses, you might try putting five questions on the board to be discussed in small groups after a coffee break, or putting up a case study and then, after working through it, asking if other people have had similar experiences they can share.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you follow the golden rule of allowing your group time to process what you’re asking from them before putting them on the spot. In the real world people have time to absorb what is required of them before they need to present work. Your role is to make sure they have the skills and tools to do their job, not jump through hoops designed to trip them up. Once your attendees realise they are in a supportive environment where they are encouraged to speak up, you won’t have to worry about getting the silent treatment.

Do you have any tips for getting training attendees to participate? What are your go-to methods when faced with a quiet group?

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