You can’t please everyone. Get used to it.

During my workshops on participant-driven and participant-rich events I’m often asked “But what do you do with people who won’t participate.”

When we explore what’s behind this question, we find an assumption that if we don’t get everyone at our event participating we’ve failed in some way. Coupled with this assumption is a fear of how some attendees may respond if exposed to an event environment that’s different from what they habitually experience.

Yes, there will nearly always be attendees who, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to participate. And their reasons may be totally legitimate—I remember one attendee who completely clammed up midway through a workshop and we eventually discovered that he had just heard that his best friend had been lost at sea. Then there are people who are scared of being judged by their peers on what might come out of their mouths; people who arrive at events exhausted, unable to expend any more energy than necessary; people who are sure that they learn best listening to lectures rather than conferring with their peers…

Some people, when gently encouraged and supported to try participating, discover that it’s actually not such a terrible experience…in fact they quite like it! Often they become the biggest cheerleaders for increasing the amount of participation in events.

On the other hand, some people will probably never be convinced. In my experience they are a small but always-present minority (around 1 – 2% at my conferences).

But we cannot censor the use of participation-driven and participation-rich event designs because a few attendees are uncomfortable or resistant to them. To do so is to penalize the majority of attendees who benefit greatly from the opportunities they receive to create the event they want and to learn about what they want to learn from their peers during the event.

So the next time someone tells you that “some people won’t like” the participatory event design you’re championing, point out that the tail may be wagging the proverbial dog.

Because the danger of being fixated on creating an event that works for everyone, is that you are likely to end up with an event that works for no one.

Photo attribution: Flickr user meredithfarmer

7 thoughts on “You can’t please everyone. Get used to it.

  1. Adrian,
    From a point of view that has not experienced one of these participant-driven events, I can see some people not participating. Not doing a participant-driven event for this reason is assuming that everyone is satisfied by the “standard” event.  Also, feel some people may not be as participatory as most but still get a lot out of this type of event by listening more.  I am looking forward to experiencing such an event sometime soon.  Thanks.

    1. Robert, you bring up a point that I didn’t cover in this post – attendee participation isn’t, of course, a yes/no activity but is graduated along a spectrum of response. Some people may participate a lot, others less. The Conferences That Work design introduces attendees to the benefits of participation, and then lets people respond with the mixture of listening and participation that fits with their individual needs and comfort level.

      If you want to attend this kind of event, I think there’s a perfect match for you: Event Camp Washington DC, November 4-6 at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia. We will be revealing the details over the next few days, but it will include one and a half days of the Conferences That Work design.

  2. Excellent post, Adrian. I just wrapped up facilitating 3-days of interactive sessions at a conference. We did plenty of brainstorming and while most people were actively engaged, there was one person who sat with her arms crossed. 

    As a facilitator, it’s hard to keep from abandoning the other 99 sheep to go rescue the lost one. Made a couple of attempts to bring her into the action, but no change. Finally realized that short of handing her a stack of money, this person wasn’t going to budge.

    1. Oh Donna, have I been there! Yes, my first inclination is to rescue the standout, to wonder what I’m doing wrong. (And it’s worth checking, of course.) Over the years I’ve got better at making that judgement call about where to place my attention in group work. But it’s still tough!

  3. Great post, and I completely agree. When did it become necessary to have unanimous agreement with everything that’s done? Completely unrealistic, of course, yet that’s what many event designers/facilitators strive for and beat themselves up for when it (of course) doesn’t happen. Robert has a good point too. Participation comes in all forms and it’s dangerous to make assumptions. And I think we also have to recognise that we facilitators are human too, and we have feelings and they can be hurt. So it’s not just a one way street. Cheers, Viv

    1. Viv, I like your reminder that “we facilitators are human too”. We need to know and honor our own boundaries, even if, at times, this occurs at the expense of others’ experiences.

  4. interesting, one can never know what one is thinking, but I think it’s important to continuously observe the body language of the room, and change accordingly to fit the needs of the room as the mood changes, as a presenter keen senses to micro-expressions is key, if in doubt, certainly intuition is telling you something, make change, you can’t stop what your doing and ask people cause that’s not what they came there for,(survey after? forget it!!), Remember it’s your show, if they had the same skills, they’d be doing the same, that in it self stands for something!! 🙂

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