Handling difficult people in meetings

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Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2021

I know, I know; running meetings is such boring stuff… not sexy at all. But….

I have on numerous occasions taught facilitation skills and there was always real interest in tricks and techniques for handling [difficult] people.

Firstly, I’d like us to think in terms of ‘difficult behaviours’, not ‘difficult people’. I realise that some people are more challenging than others, but what we need to be able to do is ‘manage’ some of their more trying behaviours, not them as people. After all, people hate being ‘managed’ and if they feel you are doing this they tend to behave worse, not better.

Secondly I would like us to realise that ‘prevention is almost always better than cure’. What I mean is that there are many things that can help people behave better in meetings, as opposed to behaving badly.

So let’s start with prevention. Here are a couple of strategies that will help you stop some typically difficult behaviours from emerging and disrupting your meeting.

#1 Prevention strategy – Set your meeting up properly to maximise its focus.

This is important because people start becoming disruptive the more a meeting feels like time is being wasted. Therefore, make sure you communicate the purpose and objectives of the meeting before and at the start of the meeting. Set realistic time targets and clear outputs for each part of the meeting. If you exceed your time targets, don’t assume it’s ok – consult with the group. [You may want to read BOOST your team meetings]. Last, try to plan how you can use a variety of activities to keep everyone engaged in the meeting. For example, can you break the meeting into sub-groups at some stage so that everyone has to contribute?

#2 Prevention strategy – Agree/remind some ground-rules or expectations

People often find meetings frustrating because a) a few noisey people dominate and b) some people are there in body only while they spend time working on other things, texting, sending emails and even answering phone calls.

I try to set the tone early. I like to give confidence to the participants that I will be running the meeting so that everyone benefits from the time they are contributing.

As part of this, I remind everyone the need to focused and will ask the group what is needed to make sure that can happen. If any of the following things aren’t raised, I will ask the group if they are ok with:

  • turning off or putting away phones, laptops devices (you may have to suggest that actions and agreements will be provided at the end of the session)
  • not doing other work at the same time (e.g. answer emails, texts, phone call)
  • me interrupting to help keep us stay on track
  • monitoring their own air time to allow and encourage others to contribute.

Once the meeting is set up well, we hope that most of the difficult behaviours won’t emerge, but some do anyway.

Here are some of the difficult behaviours I see time and again and some of the techniques I use for handling them.

Difficult behaviour #1 – Interrupting or talking over.

If I see this happen in a meeting, I try to take control early to make sure people won’t be interrupted or talked over as the meeting goes on. So if I hear someone getting interrupted, I ask both the original speaker and the interruptor quickly to stop. Then I tell the interruptor I will come right back to them, and then ask the speaker to finish.

Now to be effective in doing this, there are a couple of skills to master.

  • Use your body and arms, hands and your focus of attention to stop the conversation quickly in order to get control.
  • Go out of your way to make sure no-one feels like they are being scolded or that their view is less important. I tend to do this by a quick smile and making sure the interruptor is given time to share their comments next.

Difficult behaviour #2 – Multiple conversations at once.

Again, if I see this happen in a meeting, I try to take control early to make sure people see that having multiple conversations is not helpful to a successful meeting. So if I hear a separate conversation starting up, I ask the speaker to ‘can you please hang on a minute’, turn towards the others in conversation, and stop talking until everyone becomes aware of the sideline conversation.

At this point those involved in the side conversation tend to stop and apologise. Then I ask the speaker to go back to where they left off. If you do this early, it tends to prevent people from committing these side conversations. If however, there are some ongoing perpetrators who can’t help themselves, I tend to lean toward them and quietly ask: ‘Can we all stay together please?’

Again, to be effective in doing this, there are a couple of skills to master.

  • Use your entire body (arms, hands, focus of attention) to stop the conversation quickly in order to regain control.
  • Make sure no-one feels like they are being scolded or that what they’re saying is less valuable. I tend to do this by smiling and asking those involved in the side conversation if they had something they want to share.

Difficult behaviour #3 – Looking at phones or being distracted on other devices

As mentioned earlier, if you have agreed or asked people not to use devices and yet a person breaks this rule, I tend to try make it known to the person that I am aware that they are breaking the rule.

But, I try to do this subtly and quietly, trying to avoid making a scene or having the person becoming embarrassed and cause resentment .

To execute this, I might use my hands, or a long glance to get their attention and then give them a telling nod with eyebrows raised, looking at their device and making suggestive hand signals for them to take it outside. All while smiling of course.

Difficult behaviour #4 – Dominating the conversation

We all have to deal with people who, with the best of intentions, can tend to dominate the airtime at a meeting. This may be that they are passionate and/or particularly extroverted. Once you have an idea of who might have these tendencies there are a number of things you can do.

  1. To prevent the ‘dominator’ from taking over, remind the group at the start that you want contributions from everyone. To improve the range of contributions, you should communicate in advance of the start of the meeting what will be discussed and state that their views will be requested.
  2. During the meeting, turn your attention and eye contact visibly away from the dominator and towards others when you ask a question.
  3. You might also try saying something like: “I think it would be good to hear a range of views on this one”
  4. When the dominator is speaking, you can also try to get them to wind up by standing up, turning towards the whiteboard to signal you need to move on.
  5. When the dominator is about to talk, ask them if they can give you their views ‘just quickly if that’s ok?’ (or in a nutshell).

In closing, these are just a few of the common challenging behaviours that can degrade meetings and team collaboration. A skilled meeting leader can help the group manage these rather than tolerate them. How you facilitate your meetings can make or break whether the group succeeds and how well it works together.

An important thing to keep in mind is that effective facilitation is a juggling act between trying to balance, for the team, its progress and its participation. To maximise the team’s potential, it needs to benefit from its diversity of thought and experience, while at the same time making sure to achieve.

And this rarely happens without someone managing those challenging behaviours.

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