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Chapter 6. Dealing with Meeting Disruptions

The Facilitator usually has the responsibility of dealing with disruptive or inappropriate behavior, since this is a meeting process issue rather than a meeting content issue. However, if there is no Facilitator, these duties fall to the Leader. In addressing problems during meetings, use a subtle approach initially. People respond to a meaningful glance in their direction or your approaching them to stand directly beside them. If this doesn't work, try some of the vocal interventions listed here.

Latecomers / Early Leavers

Group members may be late sometime. If it's not a usual occurrence, don't disrupt the meeting to review what happened prior to their arrival, unless they are key figures in your meeting. Let the latecomer sit quietly without participating for a while to "catch up" with meeting content. The Facilitator should supply the latecomer with an agenda, plus any supplies handed out earlier. If the lateness is chronic, you could try humor by saying, "Sorry, we must have started early." You might also stop the meeting until the latecomer is seated.

Early leavers tend to drain the energy from a meeting. When people leave, others wonder why the meeting continues. When you review the agenda, point out the ending time and ask if anyone has a problem with that. Those with legitimate excuses will usually state them. Courtesy calls for early leavers to speak with you prior to the meeting to apprise you of their need to leave early. You can then work that into your general meeting introduction, so that other participants will be expecting that. If the early leaver will miss an important feature of your meeting which you can't speed up, you should make this clear. They may decide to stay!

Silent / Shy Persons

If silent people are meeting dropouts - reading a newspaper, yawning, rolling their eyes, almost reclining in their chairs - you might consider their purpose in being at the meeting. They may be indifferent to the topic, think the meeting is a waste of time, be bored, or feel that they will have nothing to contribute. One way to get them participating is to stand close to them. Establish eye contact, call them by name and ask them a question. If they don't answer quickly, say, "I'll give you a moment to think" and call on someone else. One thing you should definitely do is ask them to put away their reading material.

On a break, ask them why they are not talking. Just showing them your attention may help them tell you the reason for their behavior, which could be pressing issues at work or preoccupation with other matters. Other participants will notice how you handle this.

If silent persons are simply shy, they may look uninvolved, but they are really tracking with you and the meeting content. You can establish eye contact, smile, and ask them an open question—one that needs more than a yes-or-no answer. When they've finished, sincerely thank them to encourage further participation. If you split the class into subgroups, ask silent persons to summarize the discussion. You can also ask a question and have each person in your meeting group respond by sharing their opinions. Interact with them during a break to discover more about their perceptions on the meeting topic; if you can gain their trust, they may contribute more. Silents often process their thoughts deeply, so their responses may not be frequent, but they are nearly always worthwhile.

Whisperers / Side Conversationalists

When you've encouraged people to exchange information and views during a meeting especially by forming subgroups, a few people have trouble "shutting down" once you've called the meeting to order and you want participants to focus their attention in another direction. Whisperers and side conversationalists may not be consciously disrupting a meeting; they may just be finishing conversations or adding ideas. Nevertheless, you need a relative amount of silence and cooperation from them. Establishing eye contact sends a subtle message. Standing near them is another step. Stopping the meeting and maintaining silence until they stop talking is a more pointed measure. Asking, "Would you like to share your idea with the whole group?" works as well.

If they persist, they may have a point to make such as an addition to agenda items or a need to voice a perspective not yet aired. You can ask, "Shall we add what you're discussing to the agenda?" Then, you can make a judgment call as to whether to give them "air time" then or call another meeting later to address their concerns. If they are simply bored or need to be the center of attention, the steps already mentioned should silence them. The idea is to control these persons so that the meeting progress is not slowed. A number of small conversations going on will disrupt a meeting.

Talk-A-Lots

These people come in several varieties and generally talk too much during your meeting. Their meeting behavior is more inappropriate than disruptive, although one can lead to the other. The important thing to remember in dealing with these types is not to take their behavior personally. They probably behave this way in every meeting they attend, not just yours. Help them become more effective participants with the following strategies.

Loudmouths

Once they have started talking, wait a bit and then ask them, "What's your point?" or, "What's your question?" depending on what you're doing in the meeting. If their responses are vague or unrelated to your meeting topic, you can ask, "How does that relate to our subject?" If they're still talking, say, "Thanks for your comments. Now let's give other people a chance to talk," and call on someone else immediately. If they interrupt, say, "Hold that thought for now, and let Barry finish his statement." If all else fails, look at your watch and call time, either citing the need to move on in the agenda or to hear from the rest of the attendees. If you know in advance of these persons' usual behaviors, you can ask them to take notes during your meeting—for discussion afterwards. They usually don't stick around.

Know-It-Alls

These persons may indeed know a lot about the meeting topic, but they don't contribute in a way that sits well with other participants. They stymie the meeting process and prevent new ideas from being conceived or developed. REMEMBER, IT'S YOUR MEETING, AND YOU ARE LEADING A DELIBERATIVE PROCESS, WHICH MEANS THAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE HEARD. When Know-it-alls use their credentials, age, or length of service to disparage an idea, you can say, "We recognize that you've been here a long time, but everyone has a vote on this issue." Another way might be, "We know that you're the expert in this area, but the point of this meeting is to produce new ideas. Do you have any positive ones?" Finally, you can always say, "That's your view; now I'd like to hear from others" and call on someone else. Refuse to speculate with these persons; stick to the facts or experience that you know or call on the expertise of other participants.

If Know-it-alls comment on the meeting process itself by telling you what you should be doing, ask the other participants if they concur. If they say no, then Know-it-alls are at odds with the group, not you. You could also say that there are different ways of approaching problems, there is no one right way, but this is the one that has been selected. If Know-it-alls merely want attention, you will have met that need. If you're aware of these persons' meeting behaviors in advance, you can ask for their support by serving as references during the meeting. If Know-it-alls refuse, at the start of the meeting state their points of view and tell why you disagree, which defuses their arguments. Their biases are showing.

Overall, it's best to get these people on your side or at least going to bat for your team. They may be good resource persons who only want some recognition for their contribution to the company. If, on the other hand, they just think they know it all and you know they don't, fail to see their hands when they ask to speak. You could also cite authorities whose credentials supercede those of the Know-it-alls. "I was in a meeting with our president just yesterday, and the message was quite different from your report."

Hostiles / Overly Disagreeables

These persons are unhappy and let the world know that daily or they "show off" by taking issue with everything. Hence they create emotional furor inappropriately in meetings. Some disagreeables get set off by an issue from the meeting itself, which is at least a step in the right direction. You want people to contribute to discussions, but it should be an orderly contribution and others should not be disparaged in the process. Persons arguing on the issues is one thing; persons ridiculing others' physical, mental, or emotional attributes is another.

Infrequently, hostiles do have valid points; they just don't know how to state them constructively. Asking these people to leave your meeting is NOT usually a wise option, so you need to deal with them. If you know about these people in advance of your meeting, you can be prepared for whatever they might say by doing your research and having facts ready to present.

You can also use the defusing technique mentioned earlier, stating at the outset of your meeting that these persons and you disagree. Then you can present your view of the situation, and ask participants to keep an open mind throughout the meeting. This is especially true of topics you know will be controversial. Sometimes the goal of chronically unhappy people is just to get others riled up. They then feel like they've won somehow. Your job is to focus on the issues at hand and not get involved emotionally.

When and if hostiles use foul language, disparaging expressions, or negative assessments of situations, don't repeat these terms in your responses. Clean them up or rephrase them to suit your needs. "If you mean welfare mothers, then my response is ..." Paraphrase what they say, but delete the expletives and harsh words.

Respond to the content of their statements, rather than the emotional overtones. "Let's make sure we're on the same page. Your major point is that..." You can also agree with something they've said (if you can while maintaining your credibility with the group) and move on to get others' comments. You can also enlist others' support by saying, "That's a unique way of seeing things. Lester, what do you think about that?" When in doubt, boomerang the question or comment to other participants, "Is anyone else interested in talking about this?" If others respond "No," then Hostiles may see that they're outnumbered, and you're off the hook.

You might also say, "You've described a problem for us. What do think is the solution?" This is especially effective if you've written this into your ground rules: don't present a problem unless you also present a solution. Expose the biases of Hostiles and when they pause for breath, ask the group if they want to discuss the Hostile's topic. When they say no, you will be seen as fair and impartial, and the group is pleased to move along in the agenda. After this, you can avoid eye contact and overlook their hands when Hostiles want to be recognized to speak, and the group will support you in this.

If all this fails, see if you can get agreement on a larger issue, especially if the Hostile is differing with smaller details. "We agree then on the big picture, not just the details." You can also just agree to disagree, especially if you've taken time at the beginning to state Hostiles' viewpoints and asked participants to keep an open mind. Of course, you can also check your watch and state that time constraints prevent more discussion, or you can say, especially if the group has indicated a lack of interest in Hostiles' topics, that these can be discussed after the meeting. Of course, Hostiles rarely stay after, since their "payoff" is being the center of attention during the meeting.

Finally, you can calmly and directly say, "Mike, your comments are keeping us from accomplishing the purpose of this meeting. I'd appreciate it if you would stop making them." If Hostiles fail to respond to all of these, you have a bigger problem than hostility, and your organization needs to handle that.

In summary, dealing with disruptive and inappropriate behavior in meetings is part and parcel of managing meetings. If you can avoid any of these behaviors by getting to know the people who'll be attending your meeting and understanding their viewpoints and biases, you'll be better prepared to run meetings well.

When and if the behaviors arise, don't be defensive with the disrupters. Arguing with them in heated tones or threatening them places you on their level when you really want to stay above the fray. Also, don't criticize, ridicule, or shame them, especially in front of other participants. If you do, everyone may "shut down" their responses, even though you feel justified. Treat everyone with respect, even Hostiles, even when you're closing off their inappropriate behavior. Honor the person, but not the act.

About Conflict

Many people go to extremes to avoid any sign of disagreement or the appearance of conflict. It is tough for people to learn how to disagree without fighting. In conducting meetings, you hope that conflict will not occur, but if it does, don't be afraid to deal with it. A meeting which airs differences of opinions and exchanges of strongly held beliefs is a good meeting! You got to the heart of matters, and people spoke truthfully. Strong disagreement can generate emotions, but it can also engender deeper thoughts on the issues.

It is important, though, that the opinions and exchanges be controlled, and that's where you come in. Insist that participants stick to the agenda items and the content provided there and prevent personal remarks of any sort. If people bring hidden agendas or unresolved emotional issues to your meeting, contain the contribution of their "baggage" but encourage their thinking and responses to your meeting content.

Be fair; be firm; Bring out the best in people!


HANDLING DISRUPTIVE AND INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIORS HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT

Directions: Read the assigned material on dealing with disruptive behavior in meetings. Write the requested number of ways to deal with meeting troublemakers on this sheet. Make your suggestions as specific as possible. For example, don't just say "ask a question"; write the question itself. Using your own wording for the ideas helps make this important information your own. Use ideas from your topic.

  1. Hostile persons [overly disagreeable] ( 5 suggestions)

  2. Know-It-Alls (3 suggestions)

  3. Loudmouths [overly talkative] ( 5 suggestions)

  4. Whisperers [side conversations] ( 3 suggestions)

  5. Silents [quiet, shy] ( 3 suggestions)

TYPE

SUGGESTED RESPONSE

Example:

 

Know-It-Alls

Ask for their support in advance. "I realize you know a lot about this (if they really do). Will you serve as a reference if we need specifics?"



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