Business, Self-Help

How To Handle Difficult People In Meetings

Part 1. How to Manage Unproductive Behavior

It happens. You’re conducting a meeting and suddenly a small side meeting starts. Then two side meetings develop. Soon you have many meetings going at once, and all of them are out of control.

Or maybe someone introduces an unrelated issue. Someone else ridicules the new issue. Everyone laughs, except the person who mentioned the idea. Then someone insults the person who told the joke. Two people stand up and walk out. Others complain that the meeting is a waste of time.

So, how do you prevent things like this from happening?

Or how do you bring your meeting back on track?

Let’s begin with basic strategies for dealing with unproductive behavior in meetings.

Respect other people.

Always treat others with respect, even if they are doing things that seem wrong. Their “bad” behavior could be based on many things, such as a lack of skill, a misunderstanding, or a response to a threat. It could also be a simple mistake. Or maybe they’re expressing an indirect warning, complaint, or cry of pain. If you respond with disrespect, such as with a counterattack, you will make a bad situation worse. They will either retreat, which means they stop contributing to your meeting, or they will retaliate, which can escalate to an argument that ruins your meeting.

Ask questions.

Use questions to find out what is really happening. For example, if someone introduces a new issue, respond by saying, “That sounds interesting, and I wonder how that relates to what we are working on.” Notice that this is a neutral, gentle question. It is not a trick question like, “What are your trying to do, ruin my meeting?” and it is not a command like, “Hey, stick to the topic.” Hostile responses are bad because they put the other person in an awkward position, which always ruins cooperation.

Focus on the behavior.

Your goal is to hold an effective meeting — not teach lessons. If you attempt to punish people, through admonitions, ridicule, or threats, you will make enemies. In the short term, that can ruin the effectiveness of your meeting, and in the long term it can ruin your career. So, when unproductive behavior appears in your meeting, talk about the behavior. For example, if a side conversation starts, you could say, “We seem to have more than one meeting going on now, and that’s preventing us from working on the budget.”

Apply diplomatic courage.

Leaders project strength and confidence; losers project negativity and fear. Detach from the behavior that seems bothersome, realizing it is simply something that the other person is doing. Assume that there is no personal intent to hurt you. Just talk about what is happening and ask for what you want to happen as shown in the above paragraph.

Show what you expect. Be a model of effective meeting behavior. If it is your meeting, or if you hold a leadership role in your organization, realize that others regard you as the standard for their actions. If you arrive on time for meetings, others will interpret this to mean that they should come to your meetings on time. If you make positive, appropriate contributions in meetings, others will infer that this is what you expect from them.

Part 2. Multiple Conversations

Side conversations ruin meetings by destroying focus and fragmenting participation.

Here’s how to bring your meeting back on track when a side conversation starts.

Approach 1: Ask for cooperation

Start by asking everyone to cooperate. Look at the middle of the group (instead of at the people talking) and say:

“Excuse me (pause to gain everyone’s attention). I know all your ideas are important. So, please let’s have one speaker at a time.”

“Excuse me. I’m having difficulty hearing what [contributing participant] is saying.”

“There seems to be a great deal of interest for this issue. Could we have just one speaker at a time?”

These statements diplomatically acknowledge that a side conversation is occurring without naming the participants or putting them on the spot. Hostile statements, such as: “Hey you! Stop that!” will create hard feelings that undermine your effectiveness as a leader.

Approach 2: Change the process

If side conversations continue, change the rules to make cooperation more convenient. For example, you could use a speaking prop.

A speaking prop is an object that entitles the holder to speak. When the person finishes speaking, the prop is passed on to the next person who wants to speak. Possible props include a gavel, paper cup, or toy. If you are working on a controversial issue, select a soft object, such as a teddy bear or foam ball. It reduces stress and potential injury (if thrown).

Introduce the new process by saying:

“We seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for this issue. So, let’s decide that only the person holding the gavel (cup, teddy bear, foam ball) may speak. Is that okay?”

Notice this statement begins with a complimentary acknowledgment of the situation (multiple conversations) followed by a suggestion and ends with a request for cooperation.

Use these techniques to regain control of your meeting.

Part 3. Drifting Away From The Topic

We welcome new ideas, sort of. New ideas can lead to creative solutions, but they can be a challenge when they interrupt or distract from the current topic at hand.

Here’s how to bring your meeting back on track when some offers an amazing (seemingly unrelated) idea.

Approach 1: Question the relationship to topic

When new ideas seem inappropriate, say:

“That’s an interesting point (or question). And how does it relate to our topic?”

“Excuse me. We started talking about our budget and now we seem to be discussing payroll administration. Is this what we want to work on?”

“We seem to be working on a new issue. I’m sure this is important, and I wonder what you want to work on with the time we have left?”

These statements greet the ideas with compliments and requests for clarification. This recognizes that the other person could believe the idea relates to the topic, which it may.

Approach 2: Place in the Idea Bin

Use an Idea Bin to manage unrelated ideas. And Idea Bin is a blank chart page posted on the wall with the title: Idea Bin. Some groups call it an Issue Bin or Parking Lot. The scribe writes new ideas on this chart page or the participants write their ideas on a note pad and puts it in the bin.

Direct new ideas to the Idea Bin by saying:

“That’s a great idea. Could you put it in the Idea Bin?”

When you plan the agenda, leave time at the end of the meeting to check the Idea Bin. You will find that many of the new ideas were resolved during the meeting.

I prefer to avoid working on new issues without learning about them and planning an approach. There is always more to know about a new issue. And sometimes they can be resolved without a meeting, or if a meeting is warranted, it may be a meeting with different people than the ones in the current meeting.

Thus, tell the group that you will contact those who introduced the issue and plan an approach for dealing with it.

Part 4. Quiet Participants

Sometimes you have people who appear to be spectators in a meeting.

There are many reasons why someone would decline to participate. For example, the person may feel reluctant to speak out, may disagree with the approach endorsed by others in the meeting, or may be tired.

And yet, your job is to put the participants to work.

In fact, an effective meeting depends upon fair and equitable participation from everyone. Here’s how to make it easier for quiet participants to contribute.

Approach 1: Encourage participation

When you notice a quiet participant, ask for contributions by looking at the person and saying:

“How do you feel about that, Chris?”

“What results do you expect from this, Pat?”

“Chris, how will this affect you?”

Sometimes a quiet participant will test the environment with a tentative reply or a minor, safe point. Respond positively and with encouragement to any response that you receive. Then probe further to explore for more ideas.

Sometimes you can encourage quiet participants to contribute by making direct eye contact, pausing, and letting your expression say, “What do you think?”

Approach 2: Change the process

Use sequential participation (a round robin) to collect ideas. This provides quiet participants with opportunities to speak. Introduce this process by saying,

“We want to hear from everyone, so let’s use a round robin. Who wants to start?”

Use these techniques to involve all the participants.

Part 5. Dominant Participants

Most meetings are attended by a giant. These are the people who dominate a meeting with big ideas and big voices and big talk.

While dominant participants contribute significantly to the success of a meeting, they can also overwhelm, intimidate, and exclude others. Thus, you want to control their energy without losing their support.

Here’s what to do-

Approach 1: Ask others to contribute

Asking quiet participants to contribute indirectly moderates the more dominant participants. Say:

“Before we continue, I want to hear from the rest of the group.”

“This is great. And I wonder what else we could do.” (Look at the quiet participants when you say this.)

Approach 2: Change the process

A balanced dialogue equalizes participation and sequential participation (a round robin) prevents anyone from dominating the discussion.

Approach 3: Include them in the process

Ask dominant participants for their support during the meeting. Meet with the person privately and say:

“I need your help with something. It’s clear to me that you know a great deal about this issue and have many good ideas. I also want to hear what other people in the meeting have to say. So, I wonder if you could help me encourage others to contribute.”

You can also retain control by giving away minor tasks. For example, dominant participants make excellent helpers. They can distribute materials, run errands, serve as scribes, deliver messages, post chart papers, run demonstration units, operate projectors, change overhead transparencies, act as greeters, and (in general) perform any logistical task related to the meeting.

Approach 4: Create barriers

Simply move away from the more aggressive participants and make less eye contact. If you are unable to see them, you are unable to recognize them as the next speaker.

Use this approach with moderation and support it with complimentary requests for assistance. Ignoring someone conveys disapproval, which could change a potential ally into an adversary.

Approach 5: One point at a time

Sometimes dominant participants will control a discussion by listing many points in a single statement. They cite every challenge, condition, and consideration known, which completely clogs everyone else’s thinking. End this by asking participants to state only one point at a time, after which someone else speaks. It is very difficult to monopolize a discussion when this technique is used.

Quiet participants often hope to be ignored; dominant participants want to be noticed. A quiet person may feel overbearing after making two statements in an hour. A dominant participant may feel left out after contributing only 95% of the ideas. You will be most successful moderating dominant participants by building bridges between what they want and what you need.

Approach 6: Interrupt with “excuse me”

Use the words “excuse me” as a wedge to interrupt a long monologue. It’s important that you say “Excuse me” with polite sincerity. For example, you could say:

“Excuse me, this seems interesting and I wonder if you could tell me how it relates to our meeting.”

“Excuse me, I’m sure this is very important and since we have only five minutes left for this issue, I wonder if you could summarize your main point.”

Use these techniques to hold effective meetings by moderating contributions from the more outspoken participants.

Part 6. Deadlocked Discussions

This one creeps up on you. And if you let it continue, it will ruin your meeting.

At first it seems that the participants are working toward an agreement. They raise concerns. Then they explore the concerns. It all seems normal.

But it keeps going. In fact, it expands. And soon you have an argument where neither side will let go. Your meeting is now stuck in a deadlock.

So how do you fix it?

Approach 1: Form a subcommittee

Ask for volunteers from the opposing viewpoints to form a subcommittee to resolve the issue. This is a useful approach, because: 1) The issue may require extensive research, which is best completed outside the meeting, 2) The people who caused the deadlock will be responsible for solving it, or 3) The effort to resolve the issue will test its priority. That is, if no one wants to spend time finding a solution, then perhaps the issue (or at least the controversy) is unimportant.

Ask for a subcommittee by saying:

“There seem to be concerns about this issue. Rather than use everyone’s time in the meeting, I want a subcommittee to resolve this and report back to us. Who wants to be on it?”

Of course, if no one volunteers, that ends the deadlock. Then you say, “It seems that we lack support for this issue. In that case I want to return to our agenda. The next item is _________”

What else can you do?

Approach 2: Ask for an analysis

If a minority obstructs resolution, ask them to analyze the issue and propose alternatives. You can say:

“Some of you seem to view this issue differently. Could you help us understand your position by preparing an analysis of the issue with workable alternatives?”

As with a subcommittee, this approach will either uncover essential considerations or test commitment. In either case, it moves the deadlock out of the meeting so that you can proceed.

Notice that each of these approaches begins by acknowledging the truth, which is, a deadlock exists. Then it puts people to work on resolving the deadlock.

There’s one more point.

Leaders work in a world of gray. In this case you must allow some disorder and disagreement during the meeting as part of achieving a result. And you have to monitor the level of disorder because if it goes on for too long, you will have to intervene.

It’s like recognizing that your car is about to run out of gas. This means it is time to buy more, rather than sitting there, holding the wheel, pretending that everything will be okay.

Use these techniques to put your meeting back on track.

Part 7. Personal Attacks

You remember these people for the wrong reasons.

They are the monsters who hurt others with insults, ridicule, and sarcasm. They bully. They threaten. They attack.

And that ruins your meeting.

Personal attacks are unacceptable because if one person is being hurt in your meeting, everyone else feels it. As a result, the participants retreat into making safe and generally useless contributions.

So, how do you respond to attacks?

First, take a big breath. Grab your courage. And then use one of the following approaches.

Approach 1: Speak to the group

Respond to a hostile remark by making a general comment. Look at the middle of the group and say:

“Just a moment. Let’s pause here to calm down. I can tell we’re upset about this. And we want to find a fair solution for everyone.” (Take slow deep breaths and relax to model calming down.)

After saying this, pause a moment to let the group respond. Often, someone else will support your request. Then continue as if everything were normal.

Avoid looking at the attacker when speaking to the group. Making eye contact acknowledges and returns power to the attacker.

Approach 2: Explore for the cause

Sometimes people throw insults from behind an illusion of presumed distance. You can respond by calling for an explanation. In this case say:

“Pat, you seem upset with that.”

“Tony, you seem to disagree.”

“You seem to have reservations about this.”

I realize these statements may sound like naive responses to an insult. However, such understated responses improve the situation because they sound less threatening, feel easier to deliver, and preserve the other person’s self-esteem. Realize the attacker may have viewed the attack less seriously than it sounded.

These statements also transfer the focus from the target to the attacker’s feelings. And this is what you need to talk about to resolve the dispute.

After you speak wait for the attacker to talk about what caused the attack.

If the attacker continues with hostile remarks, interrupt with:

“Excuse me, we need to respect each other. And I wonder what makes you feel upset over this.”

“Excuse me, we heard that. Now, what makes you feel that way?”

“Excuse me, I’m interested in hearing what your concerns are.”

Approach 3: Call a break

If the first two approaches fail to end the attacks, then call a break or end the meeting. This will give you a chance to meet privately with the attacker, rewrite the agenda, rebuild communication, and (if appropriate) schedule another meeting without the attacker.

You could say-

“We seem to be at an impasse. I want to take a break, so we can calm down.”

“This hostility makes it impossible to get any work done. So, I’m adjourning the meetings. We’ll work on this later and then reconvene at another time.”

“We need to work on this outside of the meeting. So, let’s adjourn.”

Note that some people use anger to intimidate others into cooperating with them. If you adjourn the meeting, you will have to meet with the attacker to resolve the conflict.

Meetings are a forum for finding solutions, making decisions, and reaching agreements. When you apply these approaches to disruptions, you will maintain the productive environment necessary to accomplish your goals.

The Ultimate Persuasion Technique –

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