For the most part, people who are being disruptive in a meeting don’t realize the impact they are having on the team; they are just being themselves. The key to handling these situations is to intervene gracefully while maintaining the self-esteem of the disrupter.
The best way to intervene is to prevent the problem from happening in the first place. But preventions alone won’t keep all your problems from surfacing.
An intervention is any action or set of actions, deliberately taken to improve the functioning of an individual group or organization. As supervisors, most of us are familiar with resolving the problem “off-line” or to the side. While this strategy is effective in a boss/subordinate relationship, it is not an effective team intervention strategy.
As a team leader, facilitator or team member, observe:
- Team dynamics
- Areas of agreement
- What isn’t working
You must intervene when a team member is doing something that concretely and tangibly affects the team. A change in behavior is required for the team to progress.
You can intervene when you feel that your contribution would be helpful to the person/team. However, you must have a strong enough relationship with the other person/team to have a reasonable chance of being heard.
Some general ground rules for interventions:
- Prevent the problem using prevention strategies.
- Maintain the self-esteem of the other person.
- Involve the team in the solution, reflecting your observations.
- Reach agreement on how to move forward.
- Confirm agreement to avoid further disruption.
- Resolve the problem to the extent necessary to resume.
- Allow the team to gracefully let go of the undesirable behavior.
- In the face of resistance, shift to active listening.
When you feel the conversation starts to stray, I suggest you use a process I call “escalating interventions.” You’ll want to be firm, polite and fair because you often don’t have a whole lot of time and want to keep the conversation moving briskly. So start with the lowest level intervention appropriate to the situation. If that doesn’t modify the disruptive behavior, then kick it up a notch to the next level intervention.
Do Nothing. You always have the option to do nothing and see if the situation resolves itself. However, if you let one person run over, you penalize everyone else.
- Shoot ‘em a glance when they have been dominating the conversation, making inappropriate or irrelevant comments, or whatever else seems to be disrupting the flow of the team’s work.
- Confidently check your watch and glance at the person.
- Make some kind of movement toward the disrupter. Raise your hand, lean forward, move toward them, show a cue card, tap your pencil, etc..
Redirect the Conversation.
- Turn the disrupter’s comments into a constructive contribution to the team’s discussion.
- Define or clarify the terms being used.
- Change up the question.
- Restate or reframe the question and direct it to another team member.
- Rephrase the statement into something more relevant.
- Condense the speaker’s answer when it is too lengthy or ask the disrupter to summarize or “headline” their position.
- Call on someone in the meeting whom you know has similar issues and ask if what was just said vibes with them.
- Gently interrupt and assure them that you can return to discussing X later in the meeting if there is enough time.
- Interject at the end of a sentence or while the speaker is taking a breath.
- Ask for one conversation at a time when team members are talking over each other.
- Separate the issues out.
- Suggest a new viewpoint or angle on the situation.
- Transition to the next topic when the topic has been covered enough.
- Put it in the “parking lot” to address the issue at the end of the meeting.
- Refocus on the topic.
- Reinforce the ground rules.
- Reinforce/clarify the process.
- Restate the time allocated for the comment.
- Reinforce a key point.
- Recognize constructive behavior.
- Announce the time remaining for the meeting.
- Some teams have a verbal/audible “cue” that reminds people to stay on track e.g. three knocks on the table, or throw a Koosh ball at the disrupter!
Confront the Disrupter. This is the highest level of intervention, and you should only have to resort to this level if you have a jerk in your meeting.
- Do a “process check.”
- Ask for a moment of silence to reflect on what has been happening.
- Appeal to the disrupter.
- Cut off the speaker.
- Discuss potential paths forward.
- Mediate the conflict.
- Disengage. Take a break.
- Call in a third party/team sponsor.
In my experience, you will rarely climb to a confrontation, as long as you place prevention strategies in place and escalate your interventions appropriately during your team meeting.
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator. She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years. She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.