‘Difficult’ meetings

Aug 11, 2017
Meetings can be easily derailed by just one quarrelsome attendee, but fighting fire with fire isn’t the answer.

Meetings aren’t going away. They have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years and executives now spend an average of 23 hours per week in meetings. In the 1960s, the average was 10 hours a week.

Meetings are a necessary part of organisational life, but they feel endless when a ‘difficult’ person pops up and isn’t managed by the meeting facilitator. Other attendees often hope that the ‘difficult’ person will simply stop being difficult or leave (to name two of the more obvious options).

The work of the meeting is invariably interrupted or cut short, and people leave feeling frustrated and angry. This raises the question – how much responsibility should a facilitator take for what happens in meeting?

Group involvement

I believe in viewing and addressing the emotions generated in a meeting as useful data about that meeting. You can do this by keeping the planning conversations about the process out loud and in the room. Any other approach infantilises people and results in the facilitator taking more responsibility than necessary. If the ultimate aim of the meeting is to generate action, then infantilising your colleagues will stifle that before you even begin. The ‘difficult’ or ‘angry’ person in a group is the place where this approach is really tested.

If someone is interrupting the task of the group by complaining (usually about a deficit of some kind) then instead of dealing with them directly about it, I put the following into the room: “I appreciate the fact that people feel comfortable speaking freely about what they wish to talk about. However, the context for the meeting is that we are here to discuss the following items…” and I then refer to the invitation or agenda. I refer to the resources available and suggest that the group can talk about what is ‘not’ happening or talk about what is. The group may choose to change the agenda and focus on other items, and I will willingly facilitate that discussion. What I am rarely willing to do is to make a decision for them and then find out that many people in the room are disappointed that we didn’t talk about the agenda that was agreed.

The benefits

Putting this sentiment out into a group does several things:

  • It respects the diversion from the topic at hand, and the person who is brave enough to say out loud what some people may not be able to articulate (even if it is presented in an unhelpful manner);
  • It puts responsibility for the content of the conversation where it belongs – with the group;
  • It puts responsibility for the context and boundary of the conversation where it belongs – with the facilitator;It engages with the participants as adults, with choices about how they use the resources available to them; and
  • It requires action on the part of the group. If the outcomes of the meeting are to be successful, this will require the same kind of action once the meeting has concluded.
The alternative is that the facilitator takes all responsibility, which in turn means that you prevent a group from learning about what they choose to include and exclude. So far, I have never encountered a group that hasn’t been able to engage with that task and make a decision about how to continue to work together. 

Keeping the process public may be a way in which we can increase the effectiveness of meetings, empower people to take responsibility for action and inaction, and reduce the amount of time we spend avoiding disruptive dynamics.

Dr Annette Clancy is a lecturer in organisational behaviour at University College Dublin.