How To Deal With Workshop Skeptics: 9 Rules for Successful Conflict Management

Here are 9 tried-and-tested strategies for effectively managing workshop skeptics, and even turning them into motivated participants.

If you’re ever in the position of facilitating a meeting or workshop, you need to be ready to deal with skeptics. 

Skeptics require a little (sometimes a lot) more convincing as to why your workshop is valuable, and you’ll need to work a bit harder to get them motivated. If they’re especially troublesome, you may also need to deploy some conflict management techniques. Oof! 

It sounds daunting, but let us reassure you: there’s no need to sweat the skeptics. With these 9 tried-and-tested strategies, you’ll be equipped to diffuse any potential scenes as they arise. Who knows, you may even turn your skeptics into workshop evangelists…

First, though: How can you identify potential troublemakers among your workshop participants?

Workshop participants standing a front of a whiteboard filled with sticky notes

What do we mean by “workshop skeptics” and how can you spot them?

Workshop skeptics are, quite simply, people who aren’t convinced about the value of the workshop you’re about to run. They either don’t buy into the whole workshop idea at all (“Couldn’t this have been a Slack discussion or an email?” they say), or they just don’t believe that this particular workshop will be worthwhile. Perhaps they don’t really understand why you’re holding the workshop in the first place, or why they’re on the guest list. 

Fortunately, spotting a workshop skeptic is easy. You’ll see it in their body language and their facial expressions (think head-shaking, eye rolling, raised eyebrows, and folded arms). And, if they’re not shy about their skepticism, you’ll hear it in their tone of voice and the things they say. 

Whatever their reasons, skeptics have the potential to disrupt your workshop or, at the very worst, to completely derail it. But that’s only if you’re not prepared to handle them—which you will be by the end of this post. 

So how can you effectively manage workshop skeptics, and even turn them into motivated participants? Here are 9 tried-and-tested strategies to see you through. 

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Turn Workshop Skeptics Into Motivated Participants With These 9 Strategies

1. Get the lay of the land before the workshop

The more you know about your workshop participants, the easier it will be to anticipate potential sources of skepticism and/or conflict. 

This is like user research. Consider who’s attending your workshop and where each participant is coming from. What’s their role in the company? What are their priorities, challenges, and concerns likely to be? Are there any delicate dynamics you should know about? What are their potential pain-points?

Ideally, there’ll be a stakeholder within the company who can help you with this. If not, try to get the lay of the land based on whatever information you have. 

The goal here is not to make assumptions, or to go into the workshop with a bias as to who might be a skeptic. It’s simply to have an idea of each participant’s role and to know what perspective they’re potentially coming from. This will allow you to be somewhat prepared should any issues arise. 

2. Set clear goals (and communicate them)

Nothing breeds and feeds skepticism like an unclear, undefined workshop. It’s essential that your participants understand exactly why they’re there, what they’re there to achieve, and why they, specifically, have been called upon to make a contribution. And they need to know this from the very beginning.

Make time at the start of the workshop to outline clear goals, and emphasize that the outcomes of the workshop will be turned into action points (more on that later). This will help to reassure your participants (and, in particular, your skeptics) that they’re not about to waste their time. 

And, if you sense some skepticism at this stage, don’t shy away from engaging. Ask the group if they have questions about the goals of the workshop, and if there’s anything else you can clarify before you jump in. This gives people a chance to air their concerns—and gives you the opportunity to address them before the workshop is underway. 

A workshop facilitator sicking a yellow sticky note on a whiteboard.

3. Ensure your agenda is watertight

If you’re an expert facilitator, it goes without saying that your workshop agenda will be airtight, watertight, and bulletproof. And, when it comes to dealing with skeptics, your agenda will help you stay in control.

Some participants may see the workshop as an opportunity to vocalize their concerns about a certain topic, even if that’s not the purpose of the workshop. If you have a skeptic in your midst who seems intent on saying their piece regardless, don’t be afraid to refer to the agenda (and the workshop goals) to steer things back on track.

For example, you could say something like: “That sounds like an important issue and it’s definitely worth discussing. However, I’d like us to stay focused on our goal of [XYZ] and stick to the agenda as closely as possible.”

The key is to keep the workshop on track without being dismissive of people’s concerns. We’ll take a closer look at how to do that next…

4. Use the Parking Lot Method

You want to keep the workshop on track, and you don’t want to give your skeptics too much of a platform. Equally, you don’t want to shut people down entirely and dismiss their valid concerns. 

So what can you do? Use the Parking Lot Method. Make them feel heard by capturing their concerns on sticky notes and, if time allows, genuinely try to address those concerns. For example, if you’re running a design sprint and one of your participants is worried about a certain idea not working, you can reassure them that, by the very nature of the design sprint, you’ll get validation from customers in a few days so the risks are actually minimal. 

If their concerns are beyond the scope of what you’re covering in the workshop, note them down anyway and suggest they revisit them another time, with the relevant people. 

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5. Gain their confidence

Sometimes people are skeptical when they’re dealing with the unknown. If you sense that you’re getting a lukewarm reception because people aren’t familiar with the workshop process or the reasons for doing it, it’s important to gain their trust and their confidence. 

Share what you know about the workshop you’re running: that it’s a proven method used by the most innovative companies out there, and that it’s known to get the kind of results your participants need. 

If you can, back this up with relatable examples of similar companies who have used and benefited from your method. 

Once you’ve instilled some confidence in your participants, they’ll be more open to contributing to the workshop and experiencing the benefits first-hand. 

6. Engage with skeptics directly (outside of the workshop)

If you’re running multiple workshops with a particular group, or conducting a workshop over several days, you’ll want to invest in getting skeptics on-side. If, during the first workshop, you identify a skeptic (or two), check in with them privately afterwards. 

This can be a simple message asking them how they found the workshop and if they have any concerns that you might be able to address before the next session. If you try this approach, be careful not to make it feel like you’re singling them out or chastising them in any way. There’s no need to share your own thoughts or observations; focus on asking them questions about how you can help them. 

Engaging with skeptics directly one-on-one can open up a productive dialog and encourage them to speak vulnerably—something they might not feel comfortable doing in a group setting. From there, you’ll have a much better understanding of where they’re coming from—giving you a much better chance at quelling their skepticism. 

Meeting facilitator standing a front of a glass wall filled with sticky notes and smiling

7. Encourage and value their contribution

We’ve all sat in at least one meeting or workshop and wondered why on earth am I here? I have nothing to offer on this topic. 

This may well be the case with your workshop skeptics. Perhaps they don’t really believe they should be there or that they have anything valuable to contribute, and this may manifest itself as a reluctance to participate. 

If you suspect that’s the root of some skepticism, make it your job to explain and reinforce why the group needs their valuable input. You don’t need to state this explicitly—you might just say something like “Casey, I would love to hear your thoughts on this coming from the marketing perspective.”

You can also subtly reassure them of their importance in the workshop by assigning them a specific role. For example, if you have people breaking off for smaller group discussions, you can designate them as a group leader. 

If you can encourage people to contribute and convince them that their input is valuable, it’ll be increasingly difficult for them to maintain the role of reluctant bystander. 

8. Ask probing questions 

One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with skeptics is having to think on your feet and field tricky questions you don’t know the answers to. If this happens, don’t let it throw you off your game. Respond with some questions of your own!

Probing questions are basically follow-up questions which ask for more detail—and they’re great for deflecting questions that may have been asked in an attempt to derail your workshop. 

Here are some examples of how you could respond with probing questions:

  • “That’s a really interesting question! Could you tell me what’s behind you asking that?”
  • “Do you have a specific situation in mind with that question?”
  • “What do you mean by that? Could you please elaborate?”

This not only buys you time to consider how to handle the situation. It also shows the skeptic that you won’t be fazed by their attempt to stir trouble. 

9. Conclude with action points

One of the biggest causes of workshop skepticism is a lack of clarity around the purpose of the workshop. And, more specifically, how the time spent in the workshop translates into real-world impact. 

As a facilitator, there’s a simple way to handle this. At the end of the workshop, compile and share the outcomes you were able to achieve as a group. Then, with the help of your participants, turn these findings into action points that can be implemented beyond the workshop. This demonstrates clear, tangible value—leaving nobody with the option of claiming the workshop was a waste of time. 

Bear these 9 tips and techniques in mind as you prepare for your next workshop and you’ll have skeptics on-side in no time. Ultimately, have confidence in your skills as a facilitator, take the reins in moments of conflict, and let your awesome workshop speak for itself. 

Want more tips for running an awesome workshop? Check out this round-up of our favorite icebreakers, and keep your facilitation nerves in check with these 9 strategies.

Emily Stevens