How to deal with a dif­fi­cult and dis­rup­tive per­son who threatens to ruin a meet­ing

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE - An­nette Clancy

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 a 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’s 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? 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.

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;

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.

Meet­ings can be eas­ily de­railed by just one quar­rel­some at­tendee, but fight­ing fire with fire isn’t the an­swer. Dr An­nette Clancy is a lec­turer in or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in Ac­coun­tancy Ire­land

Un­der­lin­ing the agenda or al­low­ing the group to change it can boost ef­fec­tive­ness of meet­ings

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