Handling Difficult Behavior in Meetings
People often play different roles during a meeting or in the life of a group. Some roles support the healthy functioning of the group, and others do not. Positive, supportive roles include seeking information, inviting other people’s opinions, using gentle humor to relieve tension, or building on other people’s ideas. Behavior that impairs the functioning of the group includes acting aggressively, always advocating one position, or dominating the conversation.
Destructive behavior is usually a symptom of some dissatisfaction or discomfort rather than a malicious intent to undermine the working of the meeting. Most people express behavior that is disruptive when they themselves are feeling unvalued, insecure, or frustrated with the process.
In her book On Track: Taking Meetings from Good to Great, Leslie Bendaly describes some common difficult behaviors and a few strategies to cope with them. Below is an adaptation of her work (pages 99–106).
People who monopolize the conversation are the first to jump in with an opinion, don’t leave space for others to participate, and dominate the discussion. These people may be very enthusiastic participants, so you don’t want to dampen that. They may not be good listeners, so invite them to develop that virtue. Here are some other suggestions:
- Encourage everyone to speak once before anyone can speak twice.
- Vary the methods from personal reflection to breakout groups to whole-group discussion.
- Quickly summarize the monopolizer’s comments; often these people want to be sure that their contributions are heard. Next, ask if others understand the point, and then ask, “What do others have to say about this issue?”
- Review the covenant, especially that we need to hear everyone’s wisdom to come to the wisest results.
- Invite those who have not spoken to speak. Try saying, “Let’s hear from those who haven’t spoken yet on this issue.”
- If no other strategies work, have a private conversation with the individual.
Being Silent or Withdrawn
Some people rarely speak, may look sullen or disconnected, and can seem shy. These people may have very introverted tendencies. Some suggestions to draw them out follow:
- Remind people of the group’s covenant with one another to participate fully in the meeting.
- Encourage everyone to speak once before anyone can speak twice.
- Intentionally use silence, and ask people write down their ideas. Then break out in small groups of two to three that will report back to the entire group.
- Invite silent individuals to contribute by saying something like “We haven’t heard your thoughts on this yet, Darian. What are your ideas on this issue?”
Some people tend to debate points, want to persuade others of their opinions, and may speak negatively of others. To avoid this problem,
- Review the group’s covenant, especially about celebrating diversity of opinion.
- Acknowledge the person’s strong feelings and opinions on a subject by summarizing his or her comments and then adding, “I imagine there are other perspectives on this. What do others think and feel?”
- Reinforce the belief that to come up with the best decisions, we want to have dialogue and creative interchange, not debate.
- If necessary, be direct about what you fear the impact of the person’s behavior might be on the group. For example, say, “Christiana, when you are so forceful in your opinion and discount others’ contributions, I worry that some people may stop participating. We need everyone’s input in order to succeed.”
Always Being Nice
Some people seem to agree with everyone, and their opinion on an issue is difficult to pin down. Later, though, they may express discontent or disagreement. Try this:
Speak directly to the person. You could say, “Kelsie, where do you personally stand on this issue?”
The complainer often sees the negative in things and says things like “This won’t work” and “Whose idea was this, anyway?” Here are suggestions for coping:
- Be intentional about who you invite to a meeting (if you have a choice), and avoid very negative people.
- Review the covenant, and focus on potentials rather than problems.
- Quickly summarize the complainer’s comments; often such people want to be sure that their contributions are heard. Next, ask if others understand his or her point, and then ask, “What do others have to say about this issue?”
- Give the person a role to ensure the smooth running of the meeting.
- Invite the complaining person to state her or his vision; say, for example, “Talia, you’ve described a lot of what you don’t like about this proposal. From your perspective, what are the top three things we could do to make it better?”
We don’t want to typecast people, and most people play a variety of roles in life. However, it is good to observe and notice who acts in what ways at a particular time and to invite people to look behind the roles they play. Meetings provide an opportunity to encourage participants to stretch and grow. You may preface meetings with a reading such as this one:
- Part of the gift of being involved in a religious community such as ours is that it invites us to stretch, grow, and risk.
- If it is your tendency to jump in and talk, risk sitting back and listening deeply.
- If it is your tendency to be silent, taking it all in, risk speaking out.
- If it is your tendency to see the glass half empty, anticipating all that might go wrong, risk seeing the positive—the possibility of what could turn out right.
- If it is your tendency to keep things smooth, take the risk of stirring the waters a bit.
- If it is your tendency to take the lead, risk trusting that others are also good stewards.
How to Move Thru Impasse
Sometimes you’ll reach an impasse in a meeting, and no matter how hard you work, you can’t seem to come through the other side to clarity and consensus. Here are some ways to cope when you’re spinning your wheels:
- Take a short break. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to rest a few brain cells.
- Break into small groups to engage in creative brainstorming.
- Do something fun. Try getting up and changing chairs, or stand up and continue the conversation while standing.
- Invite silent reflection: Give people one to five minutes to reflect in silence and write down their thoughts.
- Refocus on mission by exploring how this discussion and decision are connected to our ultimate purpose for being.
- Think in images. Ask participants to think what this reminds them of—what images and metaphors come to mind.
- Set a deadline. Give the group a defined amount of time to come up with a decision.
- Invite people who haven’t spoken much to add their contributions.
- Choose a subgroup to work on the issue, and propose some strategies at the next meeting.
- If the conversation had been adversarial, invite people to stop advocating a position but instead to speak and listen from the heart.
- Take a long break by tabling the topic until the next meeting.
How to Handle Absences
Establish a protocol for absences. It should include the following:
- Expect participants to let the chairperson know in advance if they are not coming to the meeting.
- Acknowledge the people who are absent.
- Match people who are present to follow up with people who are absent by saying, “Who can call Jacob, check in to see how he is, and let him know what happened at the meeting?”
If a person is absent more than occasionally, have the chairperson check in with the person and ask the following kinds of questions:
- I notice that you’ve missed several meetings over the last weeks, and I’ve been wondering what’s up.
- What is getting in the way of your being able to come to meetings? (This question may reveal barriers such as the time of day, child care needs, and so on.)
- How does your involvement with the group connect to your current sense of personal ministry? (This question may reveal that it doesn’t and that it may be a good time for the person to consider resigning from the group.)
- Your contribution to the group is really important and we’ve missed you. What can we do to make it easier for you to be involved?
- How do you want to proceed from here? If there is a general lack of attendance to the meeting, consider the following:
- Check to ensure that the time, frequency, and location still work for people.
- Reflect collectively on the underlying purpose of these meetings, why they are important for the congregation, and how they connect to each individual’s personal ministry.
- Evaluate how people experience the meetings and how to make them more effective.
- Give people roles for the meetings.
- Consider meeting less frequently for a more intensive time.
From Meetings that Work: Make Them Meaningful and Productive (PDF)
New Congregation and Growth Resources
UUA Congregational Life Staff Group (2005)