Two members of the group are chatting away to each other. One participant has so much to say that nobody else can get a word in. The discussion is threatening to veer off in a completely unexpected direction.

No, it’s not all sunshine and roses in workshops and seminars. Sometimes you need to take charge and act quickly to get things back on track. And for that you need to come up with the right words. Fast. This article is intended to help you do just that, so that you can deal with these situations confidently.

But remember: the behaviour that you find unacceptable could be completely acceptable from the participant’s point of view. So you need to hit the right note. Aim to keep your remarks light and friendly, but firm.

Ensuring a focussed atmosphere

Even the most motivated and attentive participant can be distracted at times. Perhaps they’re sitting next to a colleague who they haven’t seen for a while and are eager to catch up. Perhaps a matter mentioned in the workshop reminds them of something they’ve been meaning to talk to a fellow participant about. And if their smartphones are still on all sorts of distractions can be carried into the seminar room.

Often a look is enough to remind participants that their behaviour isn’t acceptable. If not, be sure to say something before you become annoyed or the work of the whole group is disturbed.

If two participants are chatting:

  • Could you save your conversation for the break, please.
  • I think it would be more useful if we spoke to the group as a whole rather than having separate conversations
  • We’ll have a break in about half an hour. If you could just keep your discussions about the topic until then please.

If someone is using their phone:

  • We didn’t agree any specific rules about smartphone use at the beginning, but I’d prefer you to turn it off in this phase of the workshop.
  • Would you mind putting your phone away, please. I’d like to have everyone’s input on …
  • I’d rather you didn’t use your phone now. We’ll be having a break in around an hour.

Making sure everyone is heard

There are always some people who play a more active role than others. In international groups the differences may be more marked due to what participants are used to in their home countries. So some people will be quicker to give answers than others. Some people may talk at length or interrupt others. These participants are often very motivated and engaged with the topic, so you don’t want to demotivate them, of course. But whether due to weaker language skills, their quieter nature or cultural reasons, some participants may need your support to make themselves heard.

 If one participant dominates a group discussion:  

  • Thanks, Paul. Can I just stop you there? We’re running out of time and I’d like to hear what the others think.
  • Thank you. Given what you’ve said, what do you suggest? Just one sentence please.
  • Thank you very much for your input. In just one sentence, what do you recommend?
  • Thank you, Frank. There were some very interesting points there. What do the others think? [Then repeat the original question or ask a specific question following on from what Frank said.]

If one participant interrupts:

  • One moment please. Can I just finish what I was saying. I think it’ll answer your question.
  • Just a minute, Susanne. I’d like to hear Peter out.
  • Can I come to you in a minute, Susanne? I’d like to go round the table and collect everyone’s opinion.

Staying on track

Discussions that wander off topic, individual participants who would like to deal with a topic in more detail than you planned – those are situations which can occur in any workshop or seminar. But I think that when the workshop is in a foreign language, it’s even more important to provide a very clear structure. You can use the following phrases, for example, to make sure everyone gets the most out of the training. 

If the discussion is losing focus:

  • I think we’re getting side-tracked here. Let’s focus on …
  • We don’t need to go into the details now. Let’s concentrate on the big picture first. So back to the original question … [repeat question].
  • This is an interesting discussion, but we need to be careful not to get off the point.

 If one participant wants to go into more detail than planned: 

  • I’m not sure how interesting this point is for you all. Who would like to go into more detail? Could you raise your hand, please?
  • As this topic doesn’t apply to everyone here, I suggest we talk about it in more detail in the break.
  • Actually I planned to only touch on that topic here. Perhaps the two of us can talk about it in more detail at lunch?
  • We’re a little short of time and that issue isn’t important for everyone. I think it’s best if the two of us talk about it in the break.

Referring back to the ground rules

By the way, if you agreed on ground rules at the beginning of the seminar and what a participant is now doing contravenes one of those rules, you can deal with the situation quickly and easily by saying one of the following, for example:  

  • At the beginning of this workshop, we all agreed that …
  • Can I remind you of the rules we laid down yesterday morning?
  • If you remember, one of the ground rules set at the beginning of the seminar was …

To make sure you’re not at a loss for words if one of these situations arises, learn a few phrases beforehand. And practise saying them in a natural, friendly way. Then you’ll be able to act calmly and appropriately to get things back on track.


This is Part 5 of a series of articles written for the magazine Training Aktuell. As trainers are increasingly required to provide workshops and seminars in English for  international groups, this series aims to provide useful phrases and  helpful pointers. 

Part 1 looked at introductions, Part 2 at phrases for presenting the agenda and agreeing ground rules, Part 3 at organising group and pair work and Part 4 at collecting the results. 


Posted on Nov 9, 2017 in for trainers
Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more