|“Our meetings have gone off the rails. No one seems to know how to rein in the loudmouths or to get the quiet people talking. Pretty much everyone leaves our meetings feeling frustrated, mad and really deflated. We need help!”
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. I get emails and posts like this almost every week, and it doesn’t really matter whether the meetings are virtual, hybrid or in person.Dysfunctional meeting dynamics are no laughing matter, and they’re costing teams and their organizations a lot in ways they cannot imagine: Project delays. Lost business opportunities. Disengaged, demotivated and disenfranchised team members. Erosion of credibility, trust and respect for the meeting leader. And more.
As I prepare to lead my upcoming Facilitation Skills workshop, Managing Dysfunctional Meeting Behavior and Difficult Dynamics, I want to share a few tips I’ll be covering for effectively handling some of the most typical and problematic “bad actors.” You can also download my tip sheet for a few sample scripts.
Gain agreement for the meeting norms that are essential for this meeting to achieve its goals. Ideally, you’ll ask participants to suggest norms. Or you can start by seeking agreement to a few norms you feel are important for this meeting, and then asking people for specifics. For example, if someone says “full participation,” ask what that behavior looks and sounds like. (I’d much rather have participants themselves suggest that people not multitask instead of me!) By having people describe what the desired behaviors look and sound like, they’re more likely to stick to the norms.
When dysfunctional behavior rears its ugly head, know when to intervene as the meeting leader. I intervene when a person’s behavior is harming someone’s ability to participate freely, is likely to derail the meeting, or may prevent us from achieving our goals in the time allotted. My most sacred role as facilitator is to create a safe environment where everyone can freely participate in the conversation. Any behavior that threatens this is simply not acceptable. Hard stop.
Whether to call someone out in the moment or take them aside privately depends on the situation. For example, if the offender is your client or a senior leader, you may be more likely to coach them privately. Keep in mind, however, that if you take someone aside privately, other participants may assume that you either ignored the behavior or gave the offender a pass. In either case, they’re likely to lose respect for you as a facilitator if they’re not aware that you’ve taken action.
Assuming you’ve decided that an intervention in the moment is needed, how do you make an intervention, which can be especially challenging in the virtual world? First off, you have to stop the action. We can’t use our body language or make eye contact on Zoom. All we have is our voice. For the overly talkative participant, I will apologize for jumping in while making a “timeout” sign with my hands, “Sorry for interrupting you, Wayne. I felt a need to jump in here.”
Follow up by explaining why you felt concerned enough to jump in, citing observable behavior without judgement, and tying that behavior to concerns you have for the group or the meeting. Example: “Wayne, I appreciate how enthusiastic you are about this topic, which is great. At the same time, we have a number of people whose perspectives are equally important we haven’t heard from yet. And we have just 15 minutes to start wrapping up.”
Then comes the “ask,” or the request. You can make this request of everyone in the group. (Example: “I’d like to ask each person to take a silent moment to consider your response to this question, and then I’ll go around the virtual room starting with Jennifer…”) Or you can make the request specifically of the person. After summarizing a few of Wayne’s key points to affirm that his contributions are valuable, suggest something like: “Wayne, it sounds like you have more to add. Can I ask that you jot down your notes, and you can either put them in chat, or if we time, we’ll cycle back to you? That way, everyone will have a chance to participate. Jennifer, can we start with you when you’re ready?”
Refer back to your meeting norms as needed throughout the meeting as a way of reminding people about the behavior they agreed to would help them achieve their shared meeting goals. Example: “We had agreed earlier that all opinions were valid and valued and said that meant no talking over each other and giving a chance for everyone to speak. Do we still agree?” That kind of reminder can act as a gentle nudge without calling anyone out, making it easier for the meeting leader to redirect problematic behavior.
Keep in mind that just because facilitators are often valued for their neutrality, that doesn’t mean we can’t be assertive when someone’s behavior is doing harm to others or derailing the meeting in some way. Indeed, if we hesitate to intervene, not only will the meeting go off the rails, but we may lose credibility, which can be exceedingly difficult to rebuild.
Whether you’re dealing with an insistent interrupter, chronic multitasker, constant criticizer, charming meanderer or the steadfastly silent type, this intervention technique helps to manage almost any kind of bad meeting behavior with diplomacy and assertiveness. The key is to create a safe space for all, including the “bad actor,” by showing them courtesy, respect and dignity as you create an environment where everyone can contribute their best ideas.
*This newsletter never has been, and never will, be written using AI*
Link to downloadable PDF files from Guided Insights:
Checklist, guidelines, model and sample scripts for effective interventions
Guided Insights workshop:
Guided Insights’ Facilitation Skills Training workshops, delivered in person or remotely, customized for the kind of meetings and facilitation challenges your organization has to get right
Guided Insights links- – past Communiques