Difficult Meetings

September 19, 2017

Meetings aren’t going away. Their length and frequency has increased over the past 50 years and executives now spend an average of 23 hours per week in them. In the 1960s it 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 facilitator.   All oxygen in the room goes towards hoping the ‘difficult’ person will stop being difficult or leave (to name two of the more obvious options).   The work of the meeting is 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 am a believer in addressing the emotions generated in a meeting as useful data about that meeting. One way of doing that is 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 to us and suggest that we can talk about what’s ‘not’ happening or we can talk about what is….They 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.

I generally find that putting that out into a group does several things

  1. 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’s presented in an unhelpful manner)
  2. It puts responsibility for the content of the conversation where it belongs – with the group
  3. It puts responsibility for the context and boundary of the conversation where it belongs – with the facilitator
  4. It engages with the participants as adults, with choices about how they use the resources available to them
  5. 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 the responsibility, which in turn means that you prevent a group from learning about what they choose to include and exclude. So far, I’ve 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.


This article was first published in the September, 2017 edition of Accountancy Ireland






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