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Difficult People? Seven ways to manage difficult people in meetings

by Pamela Hamilton

Whether I’m leading a big workshop or an everyday meeting, I expect there to be people who will make the meeting feel more difficult than it needs to be. People who don’t take part in the discussion, don’t answer questions or spend time on their phones rather than paying attention are common. There also those who dominate the group, talk about their ideas or opinions for far too long and don’t allow others to be heard. Sometimes people can be aggressive, refusing to collaborate, arguing and even getting angry.

Over the years I’ve learnt to be kinder and more understanding of difficult behaviours, because I’ve realised that people are worried, fearful or feel threatened by what is being discussed and how it affects them, and perhaps don’t feel they are being listened to. I try to look beyond their behaviour to work out what it is that’s making them behave badly, and then work out how best to manage them.

However, in addition to being understanding, I know that I need to manage a difficult person early on, so that they don’t get the chance to derail the meeting. All too often I think we ignore the difficult behaviour, hoping that the person will stop being difficult and calm down. In being polite (and sometimes embarrassed by how they are behaving) it can feel easier to pretend it’s not happening, and try to get along as best you can, despite the difficult elephant in the room.

The problem is that the meeting itself then does not achieve what it set out to, the other people in the room are less likely to contribute or even attend next time and the time of everyone, including the difficult person, is wasted. In not doing anything, you may be reinforcing that difficult behaviour, and they may get worse rather than better.

As the organiser or leader of any meeting, you must plan to manage difficult people, and their behaviours. Here are the things I always do before and during any meeting, to make the meeting as productive as possible for everyone.

  1. Set expectations before the meeting. For example, explain that you will ask people not to check their phones or use their laptops during the meeting. Explain that you want everyone’s full attention so that the meeting is effective. If appropriate go one step further and warn people that you will be putting their phones in a box as they walk in, and they will need to leave the room if they want to answer their phones or check their emails, and there is a £1 penalty (towards charity) for doing so.
  2. Set expectations for behaviour at the start of the meeting. Advise people you will be expecting them to be fully present and not check their phones. Tell them that you will make sure everyone has a chance to speak, and apologise in advance if you have to interrupt some people if they’ve spoken for long enough. Ask people to be constructive with their suggestions and ideas, using phrases such as “yes and…” to build on someone else’s point (instead of “yes but…”), and instead of pointing out what’s wrong with an idea (too easy), suggest positive improvements to build on it (much more clever).
  3. If you know in advance that a difficult person will attend, talk with them before the meeting. Ask them about the agenda and objectives, and ask for their support in making the meeting effective, or even give feedback on what you plan to cover. Sometimes this disarms people as they feel they have invested in the meeting and so are less likely to disrupt it.
  4. With very difficult people, you may need to have a really honest heart to heart with them in advance about their behaviour (using specific examples of their behaviour in previous meetings). Share your views and ask them to talk with you to avoid those issues together in the next meeting. Be very specific about how they effect the meeting and other people, and what you’d like them to do differently. Some people are not aware of the impact they are having. This can work if this is one of your peers or someone more junior to you.
  5. If the difficult person is senior to you or the most important person in the meeting, ask for their permission to have a really honest discussion with you about how to run the meeting more effectively. Share with them the examples of their behaviour in the past and ask for their perception. Most important here is whether or not they need to attend the whole meeting. We often ask very senior, dominant people to attend only at the end, to hear what the team have come up with, and then react. Rather than taking over the whole meeting and preventing others from having a say.
  6. Have a funny reward or penalty system, like giving anyone who’s negative or critical a wooden spoon of punishment to hold. This means that the people in the room can pull each other up on their behaviours in a light-hearted way, by handing each other the wooden spoon, making people aware of how they are behaving.
  7. Finally, something that always works to make the meeting more fair is to ask a question or set a discussion point, then ask everyone to write down their opinion or answer on a Post-It first, before anyone gets to speak. You really need to stop people from speaking until everyone is ready. You then ask each person to share their view in turn, collecting those Post-Its and theming them on the wall into similar groups. This means that the quiet people get a chance to talk, the loud people have to wait their turn, and everyone can see their own ideas represented and those with the most Post-Its get discussed first. It’s much fairer than the “who talks first or loudest” method most used in meetings!

I expect difficult people and difficult behaviours. If you plan for them by setting expectations before and during the meeting, you can make your meeting more effective. You must, however, do something – hoping that difficult people will eventually behave better will not get you anywhere, and they may even get worse if you don’t take control.

If you have a specific difficult situation or person to deal with, and you don’t feel like any of the above ideas are possible, please email me at [email protected] and I will reply personally with further advice. Let us know if you’d like to see the films from our recent Mastery event “Dealing with Difficult People in Meetings and Workshops”, we’d be happy to share.