How to Deal with a Reluctant Audience


  • Facilitation techniques
  • Dealing with a difficult audience
  • Making meetings more productive

Do you ever find yourself preparing for a meeting with a group of people who don’t necessarily want to be there? Maybe you need to deliver a formal presentation (perhaps with, Heaven forbid, PowerPoint). Or maybe you’re simply leading a group through a boring agenda.

Regardless, there are more pleasant things you’d rather be doing.

Chad Littlefield and Will Wise, co-founders of We and Me, Inc. (a consulting company focused on “creating connections that matter”), term this a “reluctant audience.” They suggest applying one or two tools that can be very helpful as outlined below.

But even before deploying these strategies, they suggest doing some mental prep work yourself in advance. In brief, you should consider that the group may be reluctant because they are tired and it’s near the end of a day. Others may be literally overworked and underpaid. Still others may have been “volun-told” to attend your meeting. Regardless, how YOU think of them will impact how you come across.

Can you create “a joyful learning culture where people want to engage and contribute?” Or will you just plow ahead and hope for the best? Why not give Chad and Will’s tools a try?

Here are the strategies:

1) State your intention. Make sure your intention is ultra, crystal clear and others-centered. Littlefield and Wise note that often we have intentions, but they are often focused on our OWN goals or objectives. Can you shift them to a “we” focus? For example:

  • My intention today is for everyone to take away an understanding that saves them two 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 our goal of _________.
  • My intention for this opening exercise is purely to laugh and get a bit of blood flowing to the brain late in the day.

2) Frame learning as an experiment. If you’re teaching or presenting an exercise, frame it as an "experiment." Ask the group to pay attention to what happens, what they notice and dynamics in the room. This gives any critics as well as consumers in the group an opportunity to engage more fully. It’s a hook.

3) Start with small groups. Littlefield and Wise note that smaller groups can feel more psychologically safe for people. They can also prevent the critics in the crowd from promoting and spreading negative groupthink.

4) Always offer challenge-by-choice. Here, Littlefield and Wise suggest allowing attendees to choose at what level they engage. For example, you can offer that “anybody who does not wish to engage is welcome to observe the group dynamics, take notes from the sidelines and report out what they noticed at the end.”

Lastly, they note that you may simply acknowledge out loud to the group that it’s a tough or boring topic — or that you notice reluctance or resistance. Tell them it is OK. This can be remarkably disarming. Honesty and transparency rule.

The next time you’re dealing with a tough audience, try one or two of these ideas. I have, and they worked.

Good luck.


Chad Littlefield & Will Wise (2019). How to Deal with a Reluctant Audience. We and Me, Inc. Additional resources at:

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