To Manage Difficult Behavior in Virtual Meetings, Be Diplomatic Yet Assertive

Ever been in a virtual meeting when someone completely dominates the conversation, refusing to pause long enough for anyone else to say a word? Or when someone steers the conversation down an achingly long path that’s completely off-topic? Or when a person is so distracted that they keep asking to repeat the question? And of course, there are those who simply refuse to engage in any sort of conversation.

These dysfunctional behaviors are hard enough to deal with when you’re sitting in the same room, but when your conversations are virtual, it’s can be tricky and awkward for meeting leaders to intervene, refocus and redirect the conversation in a way that’s respectful, assertive and helpful.

In this edition of Communique, I offer some quick tips for handling just a few of the most common problem behaviors that can derail a virtual meeting. Below I describe the problem participant followed by sample dialogue you can modify based on many variables, such as your relationship to the group and to the person demonstrating the problematic behavior and your own personal communication style. While it can often be easier to address the whole group, there will be times where you have no choice but to address the offending person directly.

For more tips, please join me for a free webinar hosted by Wild Apricot on Tuesday, Sept. 15, where I’ll share ideas for designing virtual meetings with engagement in mind, creating a space where all can contribute their best ideas, and managing difficult virtual meeting dynamics.

The person who comes unprepared to every meeting and asks you to catch them up while others wait

  • “We’re just about to dive into a conversation related to the prework I sent out last week. For anyone who didn’t have a chance to read it, I have copies here (or have pasted the URL here, if a virtual meeting), so you can review it now as the others share their ideas. As soon as you’re ready to contribute to the conversation, please feel free to jump in.”
  • “I’m concerned that if I stop to review the content for the one or two who didn’t do the prework, we’ll lose too much time in the agenda. You can take a few minutes off to the side to review the content, and we’ll go ahead and start with those who came prepared.”

The persistent multitasker who asks everyone to repeat the question as they continue to type

  • “Jim, your perspectives and experiences are vital for this conversation. The last few times we asked for your opinion, we had to repeat the question. We can’t be sure whether you’re working on something else, or have just tuned out for a moment. What I am sure of is that all of us will lose out if we miss hearing your ideas. If we can have your undivided attention for the next 10 minutes, we can probably end the meeting a few minutes early. Is that possible?
  • “To everyone who might be trying to juggle multiple things during this meeting, I’ve noticed that we’re experiencing many delays when we have to repeat ourselves to get your attention. I’m concerned that if this keeps happening, we’ll need another meeting to accomplish our goals. How about if we give everyone 60 seconds of silent time to send that final email or text, and then fully focus on our conversation?”
  • “This might be a good time to revisit our meeting norms we agreed upon earlier, especially the one about staying fully focused and participating on our conversation. If anyone wants to to revisit this norm, let’s discuss the consequences of doing so.”

The dominant speaker with no off-switch

  • “At the start of the meeting, we had discussed the importance of balanced participation and making sure that all voices are heard. I’m concerned that there are a number of important perspectives we haven’t heard from yet, and others we’ve heard a lot from. This is a good time to stop and ask: What does ‘balanced participation’ look and sound like to you? Anyone want to start?”
  • “Jennifer, I am sorry to have to interrupt, but I am concerned that there are many people we have yet to hear from. You’ve brought some great ideas to the table and certainly have experiences we can all learn from. Who would like to build on Jennifer’s ideas, or who might havea different viewpoint to share? Sam, can we go to you next?”
  • “Pat, I apologize for jumping in here. I appreciate the passion and energy you have for this topic, and at the same time I realize that our time is getting short. Can we talk after this meeting about some possible ways you can share your experiences another time – perhaps in a future meeting, or by directing us to some helpful resources? Marianne, what thoughts came up for you as Pat was speaking?”
  • “Jake, sorry if I am cutting you off here, but we need to make sure we hear from others. Before we do, I want to make sure we understand your key points, which I will summarize here.”

To people who have disengaged (or who have never engaged in the first place)

  • “I’m concerned that there are a number of important viewpoints we haven’t heard yet. Dave, I remember you relayed your experience about a similar situation last time we spoke. Can you share some lessons learned that we might all benefit from?”
  • “I notice that a few of you have said very little since we began, and I am not sure what to make of it. For example, I’m not sure whether the topic feels relevant to you, or if my questions have been unclear, or maybe you’re juggling multiple priorities. I want to make sure everyone feels that this meeting is a good use of your time. Lori, would you mind if I start with you to ask: What could make this meeting more engaging/relevant for you? I’ll be asking everyone, and you can pass if you like.”
  • “Let’s take a minute to go around the virtual room to ask everyone to fill in the blank with just one or two words: If I could change just one thing about XXXX, it would be _________. I will give you a moment to think of an answer, and I will start with Ellen. We skip you if you’re not ready and come back to you later, if you like.”

No matter how thoughtfully you design your virtual meetings with frequent opportunities to keep people engaged, something (or someone) is bound to take it off track, at least occasionally. If you know your participants, consider their “typical” behaviors, and have an intervention ready. If you don’t know your participants, be ready with interventions that can work well in a variety of situations. One of the best ways to stop dysfunctional behavior from sabotaging your virtual meeting: Agree on a set of meeting norms up front, and discuss specific behaviors that will support your collective ability to achieve virtual meeting goals. This way, if you must intervene later on, it becomes a much easier conversation.


Past Communiques:

Untangle Your Virtual Team with the 10 Most-Needed Norms

8 Ways to Stop Interruptions from Derailing Your Next Virtual Meeting

The Real Costs of Persistent Multitasking: 9 Tips to Minimize Damage

Customized workshops from Guided Insights:

Designing and Leading More Engaging Virtual Meetings

Virtual Leadership Workshop series

Planning and Leading More Engaging Virtual Learning Programs

Navigating Cultural Differences

Discovering Unconscious Bias

Tips guides from Guided Insights – PDFs available for purchase

122 Tips for Planning and Running Exceptionally Engaging Virtual Meetings

123 Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams

101 Tips for Designing and Leading Virtual Learning Programs that Keep People Interested, Engaged and Focused

Wondering how I can help?

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