What to Do When You’re Stuck in a Really Bad Workshop

From Flickr user Frankie Roberto

With as much professional development training you get during your service term, it’s bound to happen, sooner or later.

Sometimes workshop facilitators, bless their hearts, fail.

Experts they may be, but their ability to convey their knowledge can fall flat if they aren’t well-versed in what their audience’s special needs are, if they appear arrogant, or if they are not experienced in front of a crowd.

In an attempt to be humorous— or to cover the topic in a way that even a child could grasp— a workshop presenter may even offend you. They may have grossly misrepresented the content of the workshop in its title and description. You may have missed some crucial piece of the bio that would have told you to stay far, far away.

As someone who facilitates workshops from time to time, and attends many, I’ve put together a cheat sheet with ideas for surviving a workshop that doesn’t meet with your expectations:

Keep an open mind; unless you are participating in a corps at mid-career, you may have a lot to learn —listen closely, follow up on references and resources mentioned during the workshop, and ask questions that help the facilitator make the workshops more relevant to you.

Workshop presenters usually try their best to help you discover relevant information, and they are probably not responsible if there’s a rule that forces you to be at the workshop. So cut them some slack.

If you find yourself in a workshop that really does need some improvement, be proactive (you might want to print this list out and keep it handy in your wallet — never know when you will need it):

  • If you notice that the rest of the crowd has also lost interest, or is about to start throwing tomatoes, attempt to be a good sport by raising your hand when invited to offer ideas, or to ask questions.
  • Make a game of it if you have to—it will keep you occupied.
  • Learn from negative examples—if certain workshop conventions bug you —say, the use of icebreakers—make a point never to employ those conventions during workshops you lead. If your facilitator is making wild assumptions about who is in the room, note the importance of researching the audience prior to your next speaking engagement.
  • Maintain your professionalism as much as you are able; resist the urge to write notes to your peers sitting near you. They may actually be getting something out of the workshop. (After the event ends, feel free to explore this very question with them.)
  • When you’ve reached the end of your rope, take a deep breath and try drawing a perfect circle. Really, try it.
  • Offer constructive feedback on evaluation forms; it really doesn’t help to adopt a nasty tone on these.
  • Approach workshop organizers about your concerns, after the event is over. Be kind.
    Volunteer to share your knowledge by facilitating your own workshop at the next event, or to organize an Open Space session.

When a workshop doesn’t go well, and you paid for it either with money or time away from your service site, all you can do is try to salvage some joy. Even if it’s just the thrill of achieving a perfect circle with your pen.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from Idealist.org.

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2 thoughts on “What to Do When You’re Stuck in a Really Bad Workshop

  1. These are great, practical tips for people at all stages of their education! Some presenters know they’re not meeting all needs, but it helps to remember that if I’m attending a workshop, I need to put out the effort to be engaged too.

  2. Exactly, Carly. As a presenter occasionally, I know I’d rather hear from participants what they need DURING the workshop when I can still try to offer that, rather than AFTER when it may be too late.

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