Managing Difficult Behaviour in Meetings

See also: Conducting a Meeting

Despite the best will in the world, meetings do not always run according to plan. You can prepare an agenda, and have a very good chairperson, and things can still go wrong. Sometimes participants just do not want to cooperate. They may behave in ways that are deliberately designed to disrupt the meeting or are inadvertently unhelpful to the overall process.

The chairperson and/or facilitator have an obvious role in managing those behaviours, but this is not always easy. This page discusses how to manage those behaviours when they occur.

What Do We Mean by ‘Difficult Behaviour’?

‘Difficult behaviour’ in this context is anything that prevents or disrupts the smooth running of the meeting. It includes:

  • Dominating the discussion by talking too much and preventing others from contributing;

  • Refusing to participate in the meeting by sharing their views;

  • Not reading the papers beforehand, and therefore asking questions that were covered there;

  • Going off at tangents and not letting the meeting progress in line with the agenda; and

  • Disagreeing with people in a very aggressive way.

There is more about some of these types of behaviours in our page Difficult Group Behaviours.

Why Does Difficult Behaviour Occur?

Difficult behaviour can occur for many reasons.

Sometimes, especially with mild disruption like going off at tangents, it is simply a matter of something else being more interesting than the business of the meeting.

However, disruptive behaviour is also often a sign that the person concerned does not agree with the meeting or its content in some way, but does not wish to address this openly—or feels unable to do so in some way.

They may also not wish to be there and are therefore prepared to disrupt the process as a way to show this.

None of these behaviours are necessary. For example, most people who do not have time to read the papers ahead of the meeting will simply sit quietly and take in the discussion, rather than ask disruptive questions. They will be aware that their ignorance is their own fault and will not want to disrupt the meeting by asking for information that they should already have. ‘Off topic’ discussions may be interesting, but you can agree to pursue them outside the meeting instead.

What is happening a lot of the time is that the person disrupting the meeting has not necessarily thought about the impact of their behaviour.

They are often simply responding emotionally to a situation, rather than rationally. To find out more about this, you may like to read our page on Transactional Analysis.

The important thing is to get the meeting back on track.

Managing Difficult Behaviour

For most people, a simple reminder that time is limited will be enough to keep them on topic and in line.

However, where this is not the case, you may need to take a different approach. The previous section suggests that much difficult behaviour is the result of something triggering someone’s ‘inner child’. This is a term from Transactional Analysis used to describe the emotional, irrational part of each of us.

Once this happens, it is up to those around them to engage or reengage the ‘adult’, the logical, rational part of that person.

You can do that by:

  • First acknowledging that they are upset and/or that their point is important. This soothes and comforts the ‘Child’, making them feel that they have been heard. This then paves the way for you to:

  • Suggest a way to manage the situation. For example, where someone has not read the papers, you might suggest an additional briefing outside the meeting to bring them up to speed. This ‘hooks’ the Adult, rather than engaging further with the Child;

Generally speaking, the person best placed to make this response is the chairperson or facilitator, but this is not essential.

The box below sets out a case study of some difficult behaviour that occurred in a meeting, in which that approach was used.

Case study: The difficult co-founder

Some of the founders of a small technical/medical start-up company had been working on their branding and company ‘voice’ with a marketing consultant. They decided to hold a meeting to introduce their thinking to others, including the other co-founders, their blog writer, and a PR firm who would be working with them for a few weeks prior to a big product launch.

At the meeting, Julia, the marketing consultant, was asked to present the branding and ‘voice’ to the meeting. She started, but one of the co-founders, Bill, interrupted several times to ask her to clarify a point, making it clear that he had not been involved in the discussions about the branding.

Julia started to wrap up her presentation, summarising her key points. She was just emphasising that the company’s image was about holistic healthcare when she was rudely interrupted by Bill.

“That’s complete rubbish! I’m not going to be involved in any company that says that it’s holistic! It’s ridiculous! It’s got nothing to do with healthcare, it’s just new age crap!”

Everyone in the meeting stared at Bill. He was, after all, one of the co-founders. Surely he had seen all the proposals before the meeting? The representatives of the PR company looked stunned. This was not at all what they were expecting.

Julia stood open-mouthed. She knew, after all, that the proposals and slides had been sent to Bill, and that he had had plenty of time to read them. She glanced at the other co-founders, but they were equally startled.

Then their blog writer, Melanie, an old friend of one of the other co-founders, spoke up gently.

Bill, I see exactly where you’re coming from. The word ‘holistic’ has had a bad press because it’s been associated with ‘wellness’ and alternative therapies that have no evidence behind them. However, I think in this case that Julia simply meant that the company was about looking at the patient as a whole, and not just at the symptoms—and after all, that’s what this company has been about since the first day! I think perhaps we need to reclaim the word, and take it back to its rightful place in medicine.”

Julia—and the other co-founders—nodded vigorously, and murmured agreement. Bill looked slightly taken-aback, then said,

“Oh, right, yeah, OK, in that case I agree.”

There was a collective release of breath around the room. Then one of the other co-founders said,

“Perhaps you’d finish off, Julia, and then let’s take a break and grab a coffee.”

There were no more interruptions.

It may be helpful to unpick what was going on here.

In the situation set out in the case study, the meeting’s facilitator—the marketing consultant, Julia—was left floundering because she was being attacked. It was therefore very hard for her to react in the moment. The attack was also unexpected, because Bill was one of the few people in the room who had seen the proposals ahead of time, and had time to comment on them.

It would perhaps have been ideal for one of the other co-founders to have said something. However, they too were blind-sided by Bill’s outburst. They had not realised that he had not read the papers, because he had previously agreed that everything was fine. They were also finding him difficult to work with in other ways—although this was, of course, unknown to the other meeting participants—and this coloured their ability to respond.

Who else might have intervened? The PR company were new to the situation and had no idea about the politics involved. They did not want to risk their own position.

That only really left the blog writer, Melanie. On the face of it, she was not the obvious person to intervene. However, she was in many ways in a very privileged position. She was a friend of one of the co-founders and had been working with the company for some time. She therefore knew something about the politics of the situation. She was also seen by the co-founders as an expert in her field, and therefore had some standing to intervene.

Melanie was also a very experienced facilitator herself, so immediately saw that it was hard for the other meeting participants to intervene. She deliberately chose to use her position of being both inside the company and outside it to make a comment that:

  1. Agreed with Bill and validated his outburst (engaging his ‘Child’), but

  2. Emphasised an alternative interpretation of the word to which he had objected (hooking his ‘Adult’).

The intervention turned the discussion around and tipped it away from the danger point.

It is worth noting that Melanie’s intervention did not, in any way, solve the underlying problem: that Bill was not engaging with the company’s development and felt sidelined by the other co-founders. However, it was not intended to do so. She aimed only to get the meeting past a tricky point and enable it to continue without further interruptions—and she succeeded.

A Final Word

In any meeting, the chairperson and/or facilitator can only do so much. If someone really wants to disrupt the process of the meeting, they will be able to do so. However, most people also recognise that this behaviour is out of order, and that it is not polite to others in the meeting.

You can therefore often bring the meeting back to order by simply noting this.

This will work—as long as the disruptive person has not gone a long way into emotional territory. At that point, you will need a more substantive intervention. Sometimes, someone from slightly outside the immediate situation may be best placed to do this.