Difficult Meeting Participants


By Odette Pollar,

Have you ever sat in a meeting and felt like screaming? Every time use survey shows the same thing; meetings fall into the top 10 time wasting activities within organizations. A successful outcome is a function of leadership style and process management. In smaller meetings of eight or ten people, there are bound to be tensions, unspoken problems and personal agendas. Here are some strategies for moving the agenda forward, while not unduly ruffling feathers.

Problem: Side conversations.Private conversations between a couple of people is very distracting. When this happens, control quickly passes out of the hands of the leader.

Solutions: Ask the group for cooperation. Mention that side conversations are distracting to all and request their cooperation. "Excuse me. I am having difficulty hearing what Su Lin is saying." "Excuse me. We did agree to have one speaker at a time. Thanks again for your attention." If your are standing up, walk toward the talkers. They will generally stop and return their attention to the group.

Problem: Getting off the subject. It is always a delicate balancing act between staying with the agreed upon agenda while remaining flexible.

Solutions: When new ideas come up that you wish to explore, identify them and table them for a future discussion, or if there is time, add them to the end of the agenda. If the new idea becomes more important than one of the existing agenda items, replace with the groupís agreement. When an item is tangential and not particularly important, call the attention of the group to the new subject and pull it back to the topic. "We started by discussing the new marketing strategy, but now seem to be talking about last yearsí program. Is this the direction we want to go in?"

Problem: The monopolizer. As much as you want to encourage participation, some people feel that a meeting is their personal Academy Awards acceptance speech. When one person talks during most of the meeting, it shuts down others and you loose their ideas and perspectives.

Solutions: Interrupt and acknowledge the personís comment, but ask for some input from others in the room. "I really appreciate your input, and before we continue I want to make sure to hear from the rest of the group. Weíll get back to you, Richard."

Problem: Personal attacks. This is a real test of a leaders ability. Personal attacks on individual members of the meeting as well as emotional outbursts are not only surprising, but often cruel. They shut down communication and end creativity. After a sudden eruption of angry words or direct personal attack, there is a remaining cloud of tension.

Solutions: If the outburst is quick, respond immediately. Look in the middle of the group, not at any individual and speak. Remind them of their earlier agreement to respect each other. Point out that attacks create a hostile environment which hurts the outcome of the meeting. "Letís take a moment here to pause so that we can calm down. This is an emotional subject, but I want us to think and to try to create a fair solution for everybody." Allow a pause so people can calm down and think about positive ways to move forward. If this is a long outburst or another outburst occurs when the conversation resumes, interrupt immediately with "Excuse me, we have heard that and agreed to respect each other. Please tell us what your concerns are."

Problem: Quiet participants. For meetings where the goal is to get ideas from everyone, people who are not participating, can undermine at worst, and at best reduce the number of ideas for the group to consider.

Solutions: Consider why people are quiet. It may be shyness, lack of interest or knowledge, disagreement or physical discomfort, i.e. illness. Ask for contributions from group, but look directly at the quiet person. Consider calling on them by name and asking how they felt about the last comment or the discussion to date. "Juanita, how do you imagine this will work in the West Coast region?" Although encouragement is helpful, forcing an uncomfortable person to respond can backfire. After the meeting, arrange to get their input and encourage them to speak up at the next meeting.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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