How do you deal with a reluctant audience? A group may be reluctant because they are tired at the end of the day. Set in their ways. Overworked and underpaid. They may have been “volun-told” to attend your program or meeting. Whatever the reason is, some individuals just show up arms crossed and upset. So how do we deal with the consumers, critics, and even curmudgeons of the world? 

Let me first respond to this question by saying: it can be hard! And there isn’t always a magic bullet or a fix. Despite our many efforts to change the people around us, that choice is theirs and theirs alone. I’m not just saying this either. Even as a professional speaker and facilitator, sometimes a group really stumps me.

All that said, there is still plenty we can do to create a joyful learning culture where people want to engage and contribute. Below are four powerful tools to engage a reluctant group whether it is a meeting, workshop, conference, or other gathering that you are hosting.

1) State Your Intention

First, whenever I’m working with a reluctant crowd, I make sure that my intention is ultra, crystal clear—and others-centered. Very often we have intentions. Yet they are often focused on our goals or objectives. It’s rare that our intentions have “we” at the center. But even more rarely do we communicate those intentions to the people they affect.

The latin route of the word “intention” is “intentio” translates to mean “stretching.” I like this because I think a really great intention is like a rubber band or elastic that stretches over the needs of the whole. Others-centered. Focused on the “we,” not just the “me.” Examples could include: 

  • My intention today is for everyone to take away a learning that saves them 2 hours of wasted time this week. 
  • My intention for this meeting is to meet for purpose rather than for time and to end the moment we accomplish _________. 
  • My intention for this exercise is purely to laugh and get a bit of blood flowing to the brain late in the day. 

Want more on intent? This quick video will really help you get clear on your intention. 

2) Frame Learning as an “Experiment”

Second, I generally prefer to frame any exercise I’m about to lead as an “experiment.” My invitation to the group is simply to pay attention to what happens, what they notice, and dynamics in the room. This adds an additional, honest objective for the critics and consumers in the group.

If I’m trying to get a group to do a storytelling exercise with the photos and quotes on the We! Engage Cards for example, I’m acknowledging that this may be a stretch for people and inviting them to think about it as 10 minutes in a petri dish rather than some big lifelong change I’m trying to push on them. Just a quick experiment to do something different and see what you think. That’s all. 

3) Start with Small Groups

Depending on the size of the group, I always prefer starting with paired share exercises like a Question Swap or something like “Connection before Content” in groups of 3. As trust builds, group size can grow as well. I picked up this nugget from the founder of, Mark Collard. 

Smaller groups can feel more psychologically safe for people. I’ve also noticed that it prevents the critics in the crowd from promoting and spreading negative group think.  

4) Always Offer Challenge-by-Choice

Lastly, I always work hard to give any group “challenge-by-choice.” This simply means they get to choose at what level they engage. Often, there is not a choice to opt out altogether, especially in a classroom or work setting where you’d fail or get fired for just bailing altogether. 

This means we can deal with reluctance and resistance by suggesting multiple pathways to participation. For example, if you are asking everybody to participate in a group activity that gets people out of their seats, you can simply offer that “anybody who does not wish to engage is welcome to observe and the group dynamics, take notes from the sidelines, and report out what they noticed at the end.” 

In one-on-one and small group conversations, there are many more levels at which you can invite a group to engage as well.  

Lastly, a tip that a brand new mom of a one year old just shared with me. She said, “I noticed that the more I fight back and resist a dynamic, the harder it is to get through.” Sometimes just acknowledging out loud to the group that you notice resistance and that it is okay has a remarkably disarming effect. 


With gratitude,

Co-founders of We and Me, Inc.
Authors of the Connection Toolkit


No time for a workshop?

Use this FREE “Getting Started" Kit.

You’ll get a downloadable PDF that has:

  21engaging questions that build trust

  12 creative uses for the questions

  A link to video tutorials for group activities

  ✓ A 10-page excerpt of Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter by Will and Chad

You have successfully joined the movement of people around the globe filling their communities and organizations with conversations that matter! After you confirm your subscription, you'll receive a PDF with 12 powerful questions and some ideas on how to use them. #askpowerfully