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Managing Difficult Behaviors in Meetings

Meetings can be productive. Often they are not. As a means of communication, they can be instrumental in getting work done and in building productive work relationships.

All too often, people feel their time is wasted in meetings. Poor planning causes problems. Just as often, difficult behaviors during a meeting cause good plans to go off track.

Behaviors that disrupt meetings include: side-conversations; questions, comments, and/or tone of voice that dominate and re-direct discussion; excessive complaining; passivity and non-participation; rambling statements; dwelling on details while ignoring the big picture, and late arrivals.

Here are some strategies that lead to greater productivity and communicate the leader's respect for the time and contribution of others:

  • Plan an agenda that can be accomplished in the time allotted for your meeting. Prioritize agenda items by placing the most important items first and items of lower importance later. Consider estimating the time allotted for each agenda item. You also may find it helpful to enlist a timekeeper.
  • Start meetings on time and end meetings on time.
  • Negotiate "ground rules" for the meeting. Examples: one person talks at a time, everyone refrains from side conversations, the leader sticks to the agenda, everyone follows time allotments for agenda items, everyone will show respect for others, time limits for speakers, etc. You also may find it helpful to post the ground rules.
  • Be prepared to deal with difficult behaviors and the people who exhibit them. You know who they are.
    • Meet individually with persons before the meeting to discuss what behaviors they might stop and behaviors they might continue to contribute to a successful meeting. When talking with persons who typically exhibit difficult behaviors in meetings, be clear about what you need while asking them how they can help you accomplish your goals. Model effective listening and convey that you are seeking the same from them.
    • Meet with other group members who have a history of responding inappropriately to disruptive behaviors. Discuss how they can confront the behavior calmly and honestly, keep the agenda, and avoid encouraging further disruptive behavior
  • In small break-out groups, pair meeting participants who have opposing or different points of view. Ask such pairs to present the partner's perspective as a way to build understanding for diverse positions.
  • Talk at a break with people who seem to be seeking attention by their behavior. Give them feedback in private as to how their behavior affects you and how you think it affects the group. Ask their help in improving the situation.
  • Be honest, direct, and let persons know the impact of their actions on you. For example, say, "I feel powerless to accomplish what we need to be doing when you get so angry or talk so much during the meeting."
  • Give persons with disruptive behaviors a special task or role in the meeting that is valued by the group.
  • Avoid getting into a debate with anyone during the meeting and watch your choice of words and tone of voice. Use active listening techniques in order to show respect.
  • Draw out non-contributing attendees by asking their opinion and complimenting them after they've spoken. Some facilitators begin with an activity that solicits every person's opinion. This makes it easier for more reticent attendees to contribute later.
  • Keep everyone focused on the agenda. If attendees continue to focus on small points and miss the larger picture, refer again to the agenda. Suggest that distracting issues be set aside for later discussion. Sometimes facilitators write such details on an easel sheet titled the "parking lot," which is posted for later discussion (time permitting).

Think about your own style as well as the needs and preferences of those attending your meeting. Let these guide you in finding the most appropriate and most effective way of handling difficult behaviors in your meetings. When you have clear goals and use a few techniques to manage distractions, you'll find your meetings are shorter, better attended, more interesting, and highly productive. Indeed, work will get done and it will happen in a way that offers real opportunities to build strong work relationships.

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