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Article:
How to Deal with Ramblers, Bores, Show-Offs
and Other People Who Sabotage Your Meetings

  

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Dealing with people who disrupt meetings Many corporate executives spend up to half or more of their working hours in meetings of all kinds: staff meetings, project meetings, board meetings, sales meetings, impromptu meetings and others. Perhaps your organization and its people are exceptional, and your meetings are the very model of efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps in your dreams! Reactions of managers, professionals and others with whom I come in contact range from amusement to frustration when they share what happens in meetings. Many adults who are otherwise mature and competent people often behave just the opposite in meetings. It doesn't take much to derail a meeting. Sometimes the process is at fault; most often than not, disruptive people bring meetings to a grinding halt.

Who are the big offenders? Ramblers, bores and show-offs are at the top of the list. Let's not forget latecomers, naysayers, timewasters, Mr./Ms. Minutia…and others. What can be done about people displaying these disruptive behaviors in meetings? First of all, you can head off many problems by getting the group to agree on ground rules -- the "norms" that everyone agrees to about how your meetings will be conducted. Typical ground rules might include:

  • meetings will start and end on time
  • there is only one meeting -- no side conversations
  • one person talk at a time
  • stay on the subject (follow the agenda)

Ground rules are useful because they are essentially neutral. Rather than dictate them, have everyone agree on the ground rules (for groups that meet often, this has to be done only once). Post the ground rules. Then, the leader, facilitator, or anyone else in the meeting can simply refer to them whenever another's disruptive behavior is throwing the meeting off course. For example, when the "rambler" appears, heading the discussion off into la-la land, someone can say, "Folks, we all agreed to stay on the subject…let's get back to the topic."

A very useful tool is a prioritized agenda. When constructing an agenda, identify the most important items and place them first on the agenda with an estimated time allocation. Place less important items, and the estimated time for them, lower on the list. The group can construct a prioritized agenda before the meeting, or even do it as the first order of business when the meeting starts. A prioritized agenda forces everyone to give some thought to what is really important; it helps the group to stay on track and puts "meat" into the ground rule of staying on agenda.

What about other problem people…the ones who display behavior that is disruptive and even obnoxious at times…despite ground rules and prioritized agendas? Addressing such behaviors requires a delicate balance between assertiveness and tact. The goal is to preserve the integrity of the meeting, not to claim a victory over the person or people who are causing the problems. Here are some techniques that can help:

  • Focus on the behavior, not the person. Stay in the realm of neutral enforcers such as ground rules, rather than attacking individuals. For example, bring up the "stay on agenda" ground rules for ramblers, bores and other timewasters. When two or more people engage in a side discussion, remind them of the "one meeting" ground rule. Suggest that their discussion be shared with the entire group, or continued privately at the break. A more drastic approach is to separate people, a la grade school. This can be done in a subtle way, such as breaking into smaller groups for discussion.
  • Always start the meeting on time, no matter how many people are there. This sends a clear message that everyone's time is important. For chronic latecomers, have them facilitate the next meeting! Use a timekeeper to remind the group of how much time remains, and to stay on track for specific agenda items. Try starting the meeting at something other than the hour, quarter hour or half hour. For example, one group starts its weekly staff meeting at exactly 9:03 every Monday morning.
  • Keep notes of major discussions, ideas and decisions on a flip chart or white board. When people start covering items that have already been discussed, refer to the notes (or "group notes").
  • For clowns, show-offs and other attention seekers, give them a job, such as timekeeper. If their behavior is severe, talk with them privately at the break (rather than in front of the group), give your feedback on how their behavior is affecting the group and ask for their help.
  • For Mr./Ms. Minutia (people who focus on small details and miss the big picture) or people who bring up side issues, suggest that details and other issues be set aside (a useful device is the "parking lot" -- a piece of flip chart paper that lists all such issues), to be covered later as time permits.

All of these techniques employ the use of gentle, yet assertive, intervention rather than direct confrontation. The meeting facilitator is in the best position to help the group to enforce the ground rules, since she/he is charged with running the meeting process. The boss, or other nominal group leader, is often not the best person to facilitate, since he/she has an investment in the issues and outcomes, whereas the facilitator can (and should) be "issue neutral." More and more organizations are teaching people how to facilitate meetings; the trained facilitators lend their talents to different groups as needed.

Sadly, some people will still not "get it" with these methods. A more direct approach may be in order for a highly disruptive person, and that is usually more appropriate for the boss or group leader to carry out. The most effective direct method for dealing such a person is simply not inviting them to meetings! There is no reason to tolerate childish behavior that drags down the productivity of the entire group. If their input or opinions are valuable, then a frank discussion (from the boss) of how their behaviors are affecting the group may work.

Meetings don't have to be boring, unfocused and unproductive. Setting ground rules and making a prioritized agenda are the first keys to more interesting, shorter and more productive meetings. They will also help prevent disruptive behaviors before they start and provide a neutral enforcer. Add a few techniques to help manage specific behaviors and you will be well on your way to meeting success.


About the Author

Charlie Hawkins is president of Seahawk Associates, a management resource for strategic planning, idea generation and communications effectiveness. Charlie has over 30 years' experience as a facilitator and consultant, and is the author of Make Meetings Matter, a complete guide for planning and running effective meetings.


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