Overcoming These Six Barriers To Audience Resistance To Participation

Come Right In!

Even when you’ve adequately communicated the transition from passive attendee to active participant, some audience members will still resist.

You’re challenging their comfort zone of passively sitting in a lecture. You are now asking them to engage on a different level which requires being fully present and doing something. And you’re challenging their past school years.

Six Common Attendee Complaints To Participation

Here are six common attendee complaints (obstacles*) and suggestions for overcoming them.

1. I’m Not Doing This (Poor Habits Of Passivity)

After 12 years of school and possibly four years in college, we’ve trained audiences to adopt passive habits. Some of our attendees even call it “passive learning” which is an oxymoron as all learning is active. Many neuroscientists, including Dr. John Medina and Dr. Ruth Clark, have demonstrated that learning is a biological active process that occurs in the brain. Passively listening to a lecture leads to knowledge retention and learning as much as resting your head on a stack of books leads to osmosis (unconscious, absorption of the information through exposure). Help the audience understand that learning requires doing something such as thinking, talking, reflecting and taking notes.

2. I’m Not Responding So I Don’t Look Stupid

Many audience members do not like to be put on the spot to answer a question, role play or any other activity where they are suddenly the center of attention. Reduce this fear by allowing participants a free “pass card” that they can use throughout the entire session. Another method to reduce fear is to ask participants to discuss or role play in pairs or triads. This is much safer than a table of six, ten, twelve or the entire room.

3. I’m Looking For The Answer The Presenter Wants

Most adults automatically default to their school role of student and teacher when a presenter asks them a question. Instead of responding authentically, they start searching their brain for the answer the teacher wants so they can receive positive feedback. Ask them to respond in pairs first, and then debrief. That way they can feel safe and give the answer according to their knowledge and experience. Give positive reinforcement for all answers as well.

4. I’m Looking For The Right Answer Only

Audiences often feel that when faced with discussions they have to argue for only one position. Let them know that all answers do not fall into a black and white area and sometimes there may be more than one right answer depending upon the context. Discuss that a good technique is to argue for all sides and try different perspectives in discussions.

5. I Don’t See Any Value In This Discussion Or Activity

It’s important to help your audience understand why you have introduced discussions or other activities. Explain that they don’t retain information and learn without being actively involved in doing something. Let them know that if they see this information as valuable, it’s important to participate so they can remember and apply it.

6. I Just Want A Formula And Solution Now, Stop The Audience Activities

Often attendees will respond with, “Can’t you just tell me what to do and how to do it?” Respond with, “Yes I can but telling doesn’t lead to learning.” Education researchers like Svinicki and McKeachie (2011) have discovered that if presenters give audiences the solution or formula, they never understand why it works. They may apply it a couple of times and when questioned by others on why they’re using it, they can’t logically explain the rationale. Then due to pressure, they default to old methods and ditch the new solution. It’s like cramming for a test, they get the right answer for a moment but never fully understand it and eventually forget it.

*Some barriers identified by these authors, researchers and education professionals: Donald Bligh (2000), Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill (2005), D. R. Forsyth (2003), B. G. Davis (2009), Wilbert McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki (2011).  

What are some additional complaints audience members have about engaging in activities, discussions or audience participation? How have you overcome attendee barriers to audience participation?

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  1. Joan Eisentodt says:

    That’s it! Why I participate and always have. I wasn’t a passive student and didn’t get “that” far in school .. because I hate the passivity of college classes after highly interactive high school classes! The dorm discussions were so interesting – it was the ’60s and a time of turmoil – and the discussions in the dining hall and around campus. But classes? Feh! Thanks, Jeff .. no more therapy for me.

  2. thom singer says:


    Great points, but a mistake presenters make is to jump into making people participate before creating a relationship with the audience. When the feel connected to a speaker, and “like” them (by like I mean that feeling… not a Facebook thing), then they are more willing to join in the interactive activities. Once they trust the presenter and thus they will let him or her lead them.


  3. Sue Pelletier says:

    It’s kind of related to #s 1 and 5, but what I hear most is, “I came to learn from the experts, not the guy next to me.” I think the way to address it is as you explain for those, but do you have other suggestions?

    Another common complaint is that it’s exhausting to have a lot of interactive sessions in a row. And I agree! A big mistake a lot of organizers make is to cram a bunch of discussion sessions in with no reflection or just down time in between. I think the pacing has to be different, and the type of interactive sessions should be varied a bit too so it’s not a bunch of “Let’s now discuss at your table and report out at the end” sessions.

    Thoughts on pacing and mixing it up?

  4. william says:

    Hi Jeff, a nice tasty article and some great points and suggestions. We are asking our attendees to not just go back on years of schooling but years of attending similar events. There are a lot of learned behaviours there are we can’t be too harsh on our attendees. As you rightly said it is about addressing (and firstly identifying) the barriers and the points really help.

    I also really like Thom’s point about the “relationship” between speaker and audience being very important and I couldn’t agree more.

    One point I would like to add is the role of the environment. It is exceptionally difficult to have “creative” attendees in most of the event environments I see. If you enter a room with boring chairs, tables, a stage with a platform and a back drop the chances your behaviour is going to change are low. We have to create event atmospheres, experiences and environments which support learning and creatively. Almost all of the behaviours we crave from our attendees require then, in at least a small way, to be creative. And we have to support that creatively. So let’s be creative in our approach to not just meeting design but the design of the meeting environment and we will see those barriers crumble and those complaints disappear! Hopefully.

  5. […] Here are six common audience member complaints to resist participant centered learning and how to overcome them.  […]

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