3 ways to deal with participant hackers (like a slacker but worse) or ‘What I learned from having our website hacked’

You know your day is not going to go well when it starts off with a phone call from a client saying:“Uh, er, is your website supposed to have a picture of people with guns on it?”

Turns out our website was hacked, which, apologies to regular readers, is why there was no blog post on Friday.  Instead of our regular homepage readers were ‘treated’ to a black background with a picture of people in green pointing guns at the reader.  Nice.  Not.

(And no, the above picture isn’t the image the hacker used.  I didn’t want to give the hacker the privilege of appearing on my blog.)

Because you, my dear reader, are never far from my mind, I wondered how I could turn this frankly incredibly annoying situation, into a blog post.  So here goes, 3 ways to deal with participant hackers.

The dictionary defines a computer hacker as ‘someone who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data’. I have a more decisive description.  A hacker is someone with far too much time on their hands, who has the morals of a toilet bowl, who chooses to use their powers to make other people’s lives a temporary mess.

A hacker participant then is someone in your training workshop who, despite your best efforts, despite your setting the best laid sumptuous smorgasbord of learning opportunities, chooses not only to disengage but tries to take the whole group with them and show you up in the process.

A hacker participant is different from a slacker participant.  A slacker is someone who’s not into the learning but who’s not disruptive either.  A hacker participant on the other hand is truly disruptive to the group and can suck the learning out of a workshop like a lemon press on a hot sizzling day.

Ever had one hacker participant?  In my decades of training experience I’ve had a few and I always find them fascinating, like a rare breed who’s just been discovered.

Here’s how to recognize when you’ve got such a specimen in your workshop:

  • they talk over you and everyone else
  • they’re rude and sometimes even obnoxious
  • they make everyone in the room uncomfortable
  • they’re a bully

Here’s what to do if you recognize said specimen in one of your groups – try and figure out what their motivation is:

  • do they think they’ve nothing to learn from you and the group?
  • do they not like you?
  • are they there against their will (only attending because the boss said so)?
  • are they actually insecure but trying to cover it up by false bravado?

Finding out what’s motivating them can help with figuring out how to proceed.

My overall guideline is to match force with force.  That is, if they are brash and loud then my reactions will tend to be on the bigger, brasher side.  If they are quietly sucking all the enjoyment and energy from the room, then my reaction will tend to also be on the quieter side.

With that in mind here are three tips for handling hacker training participants … because handle them you must.  The group is looking to you for action.  When one participant is negatively affecting the whole group standing idly by is NOT an option.

  1. Stand close to the hacker and use bigger body language yourself.  Stand with your feet further apart and put your hands on your hips from time to time.  It’s a rare participant that will keep making rude comments when the trainer is standing close to them.
    • Example: I was leading a training workshop with a high powered group of executives and one participant kept cracking rude jokes in an attempt to garner attention and make the workshop go off track.  By standing behind him (while he was seated) and continuing to teach, it didn’t long at all for him to shut down.
  2. Take them aside at break and speak with them.  You just never know what’s up in the life of a hacker and sometimes a gentle nudge can get them back on track or at least neutral enough that they’re not affecting the whole group.  Share the responsibility for learning with them – ask them what they need to make the experience a positive one.
    • Example: I was teaching a workshop to a large group of people and noticed that one woman wasn’t participating at all.  I sat down with her  and quietly asked her some questions, including what I could do to make the experience better for her.  She was one unhappy person.  Nothing was right, nothing could be right and everything was garbage.  Okay, fair enough.  While I really wanted to say ‘why are you here, how come you don’t just leave?’, I thanked her for her input and went back to the overall group.  Sometimes you can’t make things right but it’s good to show you’re concerned and make an effort.
  3. If they’re really obnoxious, call them out in front of the  group.  If a participant is being rude to you in front of the whole group then more drastic action is called for.  I match power with power.  If someone’s acting big and puffy then I do the same.
    • Example: I once did a workshop starting at 4am (yes 4am) for shift workers in a high tech industry.  I said hello to a fellow as he walked in and asked if he’d just been exercising (as he was wearing shorts).  With his back to me he made a disparaging comment about my age.  Matching force with force, and knowing all eyes were on me and that this was the first of a series of workshops and if I didn’t do something that’s all anyone would talk about, I said something he wasn’t expecting in a loud voice so everyone could hear ‘I’m so glad you mentioned my age, I just turned 40 and it’s great.  The only thing is I’m not getting gray hair fast enough.  Love gray hair, wish I had more.’ I saw him literally stop in his tracks, pause and then continue on to his seat.  He wasn’t rude after that.  While I can’t claim to have just turned 40 anymore, I can claim the technique worked like a hot damn.

So hacker, whoever you are, thanks for the opportunity to look at hacker training participants as the muse for this blog post.

If you have any techniques for dealing with hacker participants I would love to hear them. Bring ’em on.


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4 Responses to “3 ways to deal with participant hackers (like a slacker but worse) or ‘What I learned from having our website hacked’”

  1. gwendolyn alley Says:
    November 29th, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Great suggestions Lee-Anne! Standing near the hacker works great I’ve learned.

    Another trick that I bet you know is this: a simple but genuine smile can be an amazingly disarming tool!

    I teach writing to college students. I usually have at least one student in each class who is convinced he/she knows more about writing than I can ever teach them. While I wish they would drop, they usually stick it out (seems I’m better than the other teachers).

    I just keep smiling and keep the “hacker” students from distracting the ones who are there to learn.

  2. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    November 29th, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Gwendolyn- great ideas. It’s the little things that sometimes can make a huge difference- like a disarming smile.

    It’s rare but when I have someone who’s really disruptive and affecting the whole group, and nothing else has worked, I find it can make for an interesting learning opportunity unto itself. Of course it depends on what topic you’re training but if it’s anything human resources related (communications, conflict resolution, teambuilding, diversity, cultural intelligence etc.) it can make for a very interesting discussion with the whole group.

    I also find knowing my conflict resolution style helps – knowing that conflict to some degree is inevitable when working with groups.

  3. Dolly Hopkins Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Good turning it around Lee-Anne I like how you were able to address your problem so that it could support others with there problems and provide solutions.
    (nicely done)

  4. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks Dolly- that means a lot coming from the Queen of turning things around to support others. Any lessons learned you can pass along to others?

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