12 Types of Difficult Participants in Group and Team Coaching & How to Deal With Them | By Jennifer Britton (UPDATED)

3 Difficult Group Participants

When expanding the coaching conversation beyond our individual coaching engagements to team or group coaching, many new and experienced coaches are concerned with facing difficult participants. For each one of us "difficult" looks a little different.

The idea of working with difficult group participants is a perspective.

It is important to remember that tricky issues will emerge in a group or team coaching engagement when people do not feel safe, valued or heard. This points to the importance of building trust and connection amongst your group members and spending time early on getting to know them.

Tip: A best practice around group coaching is to schedule a one-on-one fifteen minute call with each participant before the start of the program to learn more about them, what's brought them to the program and what they want to get out of their work.

When dealing with difficult group participants, there are several tenets to remember:

  • Our clients are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. As coaches we trust in the ability of the clients themselves to be resourceful.
  • Philosophically the client brings the expertise and capability needed. As coaches, part of our role is to help coaching clients connect with this wisdom, or access the wisdom themselves.
  • Early on in the coaching engagement it's important to ensure all participants understand their role in coaching.

And in particular as a coach or group facilitator, keep in mind these 3 other areas:

  1. First, it is important to meet people where they are. Consider each person's motivation, how they prefer to communicate and be supported. At the same time, it's important to ensure that the "greater good" and overall group needs are being met.
  2. Part of the learning process in a group or team coaching engagement is the self-awareness participants can gain around their impact on others. This also helps to shift what may be perceived as difficult behaviors.
  3. Finally, as coaches it is very important to explore with that person if they are coachable. Are they ready to take responsibility for their learning and action and change? If not, they may not be a good fit for the coaching process.

When working with a group or team, we are faced with a wide variety of personalities and personas, which does keep this work exciting. Throughout your journey of group and team work, you may meet some of the difficult participants listed below.

12 Types of Difficult Group Participants & How to Handle Them

Let's take a quick look at each of these difficult participants / personas who you may find challenging, and what you can do about them.

See the 12 Different Types of Difficult Group Participants in a fun infographic >>

1. The Shy or Quiet One

Coaching is a very verbal activity, rich with questions and dialogue.

It is important to recognize that not all participants process in the same way. Do not assume that quietness means lack of engagement.

Those that are shy or quiet may benefit more from small group or paired work and individual reflection activities. So include a variety of ways for participants to engage, reflect and learn.

2. The Challenger

The Challenger may wish to challenge all that you say.

As a coach, we need to continually reinforce that our role is not one of expert, in fact they are. Note: this often switches the focus for the challenger and they may move to the "Know it All" Role (see below).

3. The Dominator

It is quite common to have one verbally dominant person in a group.

They will often let you know this in a pre-call. That's a perfect opportunity to introduce the coaching skill of intruding, and letting them know that you will be jumping in and asking questions to help them get to the core of the story.

Also, teach group members the skill of bottom lining (what's the bottom line?) or laser speak (speak right to the heart of the issue) at the start and remind the group about this skill throughout your work.

If someone continues to be dominant, it may be a good opportunity to break into smaller groupings whether you are in person or virtual.

4. The Unfocused One

The unfocused participant may show up as someone who is inattentive and "wandering off".

It's important to let people know where you are going. Provide an overview of the process and ask what they want to explore or get out of the coaching conversation. Also, is the client really coachable and wanting coaching?

We may also sometimes have participants who just don't know what they want. Providing opportunities for those people to become more focused include asking questions such as:

  • What are your key goals? What do you need/want to do to get there?
  • What do you want to get out of the conversation?
  • What's really important? and
  • Where do you need to move the needle forward this week?

5. The Superachiever

The Superachiever can pose a challenge for some coaches as their endless achievements may cause concerns and feelings of inadequacy in other group members.

It's important to reinforce with your group that everyone will be moving at their own pace within a group coaching process, and that "Wins" or successes happen at different stages for each person.

Having the Superachiever share what they learned from their experience can spark and inspire others with new ideas and insights.

6. The Center of Attention

It can be common to have someone who wants to be the center of attention.

There are several roles you can invite them to participate in - time keeper, flipcharter, note-taker. Some of these roles will "give them the spotlight" and fill the need of being seen.

This is also a rich area for exploration in an individual coaching conversation with them. Coaching Questions to ask them include:

  • What's important about being seen? and
  • What impact does your need to be seen have on others?

7. The Joker

Humour can provide lightness in the coaching process. Again, it's a rich perspective to explore with the group:

  • Where could the group infuse some humour around the issues being explored?
  • What needs lightening up?

Sometimes, the joker may take humour to the extreme so be aware of the impact it's having on the group. You can also ask the joker to consider what impact they are having on the group.

8. The Devil's Advocate

The Devil's Advocate can take us into the rich terrain of perspectives. Their voice is a great reminder that there are many different perspectives which exist in groups and in a team. Consider what is the flip-side of this? What important issues does the Devil's Advocate point to?

9. The Argumentative One

Some difficult participants may want to argue for argument's sake. Great questions to ask someone argumentative might include:

  • What's at stake?
  • What's the request behind your complaint?

Another tack is to defer the issue being argued about to the group:

  • What do others think?
  • Do they agree with the issue being raised/item being challenged?
  • Is this something that needs further discussion?

If a number of people agree then it may merit further discussion, but if no-one else thinks it is important then the group can move on.

10. The Know It All

Coaching rests in the belief that our clients do know it all!

Questions to be exploring with the person who feels like they "know it all" include:

  • What are you so passionate about proving?
  • What makes you unique?
  • What do you have to offer? and
  • How can you share your expertise in a more positive fashion?

11. The Verbose One

Verbose, or very talkative participants may also show up within your groups. These difficult participants often self-identify and mention this when you first connect with them, perhaps at your pre-program one-on-one.

As coaches it is important to let the group know that you will be providing the space and opportunity to hear from everyone through the conversations.

As with "The Dominator" it can be very useful to introduce the entire group to the coaching skill of "bottom-lining", "laser speak" or "head-lining" where people are encouraged to get to the core or "essence" of the story. Also very helpful to share with the group is the coaching skill of "intruding" or "jumping in".

12. The Sidebar

Although it may be more frequent in a workshop or larger groups, the "sidebar" conversation occurs when two group members have their own conversations while others are trying to speak.

Be genuinely curious, and invite the sidebar pair to share with the rest of the group.

If an open invitation to share with the group or a glance over and making eye contact does not move the sidebar conversation into the wider group space, physically move yourself to stand near where the conversation is happening.

Questions for you

Now that we've met these different personalities and behaviours, here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Which difficult participants are going to be a challenge for you?
  • Are they really that difficult?
  • What's the perspective you want to hold?
  • What can you do to support the unique needs of each one of your group members?
  • What conversations are you looking forward to having?

See the 12 Different Types of Difficult Group Participants in a fun infographic >>

If you liked this article about difficult participants, you may also like:

Jennifer Britton

Contributing Author:

Jennifer Britton, MES, CHRP, CPT, PCC, is the author of seven books and has influenced a generation of coaches in the realms of team and group coaching. You may have read her writing, including Effective Group Coaching (Wiley, 2010), the first book in the world to be published on the topic of group coaching; From One to Many: Best Practices for Team and Group Coaching; or her latest, Reconnecting Workspaces: Pathways to Thrive in the Virtual, Remote and Hybrid World (2021).

Since 2006, Jennifer's Group Coaching Essentials and Advanced Group and Team Coaching Practicum programs have become known as the must-do training in the area of group coaching. Focused on providing coaches with best practices in designing, marketing and implementing group coaching, these programs have helped thousands of coaches launch their own group and team coaching programs in a wide variety of settings (public, corporate, non-profit). Together both courses are approved for 18.75 ICF CCEUs. These are the first two of 10 course pathways leading to certificates in Group and Team Coaching.

Potentials Realized's ICF-CCE programs are geared for aspiring group and team coaches, especially those wanting to work toward the New Advanced Credential in Team Coaching (ACTC) with the ICF.

Also check out our neuroscience course for group and team coaches (NLE-A), Team Coaching Essentials  and ACTIVATE Your Team and Group Coaching Superpowers. Prefer podcasts? Listen in to the Remote Pathways podcast, which explores the many different pathways to remote work, business and leadership.

Learn more about Jennifer & see all their articles here >>

Image of 3 Difficult Group Participants by Edel Puntonet via Shutterstock


  1. Leah

    This is really fantastic information, thankyou for sharing it. Im looking forward to getting my newletters up and running so that I can do the same thing. Cheers, Leah

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Leah, thank-you for taking the time to comment - and I'm so glad you found Jennifer's article helpful. She really knows her stuff! Good luck with getting yourself up and running. Warmly, Emma-Louise

  2. Ann-Marie

    Thank you for this most comprehensive article. I did a workshop and found it pretty smooth. However, as I started the second one I met much resistance. Or, what I thought was resistance. I searched online and found this article and identified every personality described in this writing in my workshop. It saved the day for me and I now conclude that they were very successful encounters which would not have been as successful as they were any other way. Thank You.


    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Ann-Marie, I am so glad you found this article on difficult participants in groups helpful! I will be sure to let Jennifer know 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise


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