This article was based on episode 92 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or access the full guide when you become a member at mamieks.com/join. Purchase a single full guide at mamieks.com/store.
I love meetings. I’m sure that to some of you, I must sound crazy, but it’s true. I deeply enjoy being in conversation, engaged with other people in meaning-making, problem solving, and learning. When meetings are well designed and everyone comes prepared, they can be the best part of the day.
Unfortunately, meetings are still at the whim of the people who participate. It’s often challenging to guide a group of humans who have their own personalities, styles, and interests. Even the best planning can’t stop someone from derailing the conversation. Learning to manage disruptive behaviors during a meeting is one of the most useful skills for any meeting leader.
PEOPLE AREN'T INTENTIONALLY BEING DISRUPTIVE
Despite what it may seem, most people aren’t trying to sabotage the conversation or disrupt the meeting. Usually, we simply aren’t aware of our bad habits or unhelpful behaviors. They occur for a variety of reasons ranging from utter lack of self awareness to personality type to emotions to outside forces influencing us.
Before you can address the behavioral issue, it’s helpful to assess whether the behavior is done repeatedly, on occasion or it’s the first time you’ve observed it. There are different approaches to each of these patterns.
Regardless, the first step is learning to facilitate past these behaviors when they show up in a meeting. This is critical to the overall meeting’s success.
HOW TO ADDRESS FOUR COMMON DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIORS IN MEETINGS
Taking the conversation off on a tangent
One of the most frustrating disruptive behaviors is also one that almost everyone is guilty of: Going off on a tangent of deep into the weeds. I struggle with staying on topic, especially when I get excited or my curiosity is piqued. It’s just so easy to follow that train of thought without pausing to consider if it's the right conversation for this room.
In addition, extroverts, like myself, do better when we think out loud, processing and forming ideas as we talk. Saying things that may or may not be relevant is an unfortunate side effect. It also opens the door for someone else to pick up on one of those loosely related topics which then spirals into a full on tangent.
To get the conversation back on track, try these approaches:
Share a clear desired outcome for the meeting when you open the conversation so everyone knows what you’ve gathered to achieve.
Use a backburner or bike rack for off-agenda topics. Acknowledge the subject and write it in the meeting notes for a follow up conversation. If it’s helpful, reference the desired outcome for this meeting and the need to get through the agenda.
Ask if the topic is essential for right now or with this group of people. Often, discussions on details don't require the full group and related topics require other participants.
Hogging the microphone
I’ve often felt at the mercy of a meeting participant who never stops talking. They’re the first to jump in after a question and their comments ramble on and on. You don’t want to interrupt, but you also value the input of other participants. It’s especially hard if they hold a more senior role.
Balancing participation and hearing from all meeting participants will usually lead to richer, more useful discussion. If you notice the same people speaking, they may be extroverts who prefer talking, feel highly comfortable with this group, are quick thinkers or dislike silence, among other reasons.
If the challenge is more centered around long-winded monologues, it may be that the person is figuring out their ideas as they talk, are passionate about the topic or have deep knowledge on the subject which they feel the need to share.
To encourage more balanced participation, try these approaches:
Ask people to write their thoughts down during 2-3 minutes of quiet. Then go around the room having each person share one idea or thought at a time.
Use a timer to give equal air time. Announce that you have limited time and want to hear from everyone, so each person will get 1 minute. Ask them to be respectful and end their remarks when the timer goes off.
Specifically open the floor first to people who haven't spoken yet. For example, “What were your takeaways from the report? Let’s start by hearing from those who haven't shared yet.”
Nay-saying or not letting something go
Some forms of conflict are healthy in that they help a group arrive at more nuanced thinking or a more strategic decision. But sometimes, revisiting old decisions and poking holes in every idea inhibits a group from moving forward.
Whether the person is feeling unsettled about the work, emotionally charged, or believes they are helping by pushing the group to think more deeply, this type of negative talk can impact the experience of other participants in the room.
When someone is fixating on a topic or bringing up old business, try these approaches:
Request you take up the conversation with them privately. It’s important not to ignore their concerns. Instead, refocus on the purpose of this meeting and offer to speak with them after about their concerns.
Clarify when there will be time for critique. Point out that now is discussion around possibility and that later, in this meeting or an upcoming one, there will be time for critique.
Build in a “devil’s advocate” time on your agenda. For 5-10 minutes, encourage everyone to identify problems, challenges, issues, unintended consequences, etc.
Being distracted and multi-tasking
It feels incredibly disrespectful when you look around the room only to find people engrossed in their laptops, tablets or phones. Of course, we all have lots of work to do, but being absorbed in your device impacts the quality of the conversation for everyone.
We live in an era of distraction and overload in which multi-tasking has become part of the incessant need to check our phones. But it’s not only habit that directs us to our email. Many times, other work is looming overhead making it hard to focus. In these cases, your device becomes a (misused) productivity tool. If the meeting topic isn’t relevant for your work or you don’t have anything to contribute (meaning, maybe you shouldn’t even be in that meeting at all), it feels like a godsend to still be productive while stuck sitting in the meeting room.
To address multitasking and device distractions, try these approaches:
Introduce norms about technology use in your meetings. Agree that devices will only be used to enhance engagement, for activities like taking notes, capturing action items, or looking up information.
Start the meeting with a mental check-in during which people can share what’s on their mind. This will help you know if anyone is feeling particularly distracted or needing to be particularly attentive to their device.
Remind people to put devices away or step out of the meeting if needed. When you notice people are distracted, request they either step away from the table to complete what they’re doing or put their device away.
TALK TO THE PERSON OUTSIDE OF THE MEETING
You never want to criticize someone directly in a meeting. Gently encourage them to change their behavior by facilitating the conversation forward. Don't be disrespectful, passive aggressive or disciplinarian in your tone.
For repeat offenses, it’s helpful to speak with the person in a private setting. Use this time to help them understand their behavior and why it’s problematic. Share what you’ve observed, how it’s negatively impacting you, the team, the project, and/or the meeting objectives. Often this simple awareness is enough to spark self corrections.
If the problem persists, it may be a topic for their professional development plan. In this case, they actively work on developing new skills to overcome the unhelpful behavior with your support and accountability. Or, if it is a deeper issue and they’re unhappy with some aspect of the team or the work, you’ll need to address that before you can expect to see much change in your meetings.
Lastly, if the behavior seems out of the ordinary, check in with the person to see if they’re OK. When we’re unsettled, stressed, or otherwise feeling out of sorts, it can impact how we show up at work.
Get the free mini-guide or access the full guide to help you address these disruptive meeting behaviors when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at mamieks.com/join. Purchase any individual guide at mamieks.com/store to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.