9 Steps for Dealing With Difficult Meeting Participants

When dealing with difficult people in meetings, there are 9 key factors to take into account to effectively control any conflict.

The Meetingnotes Team
December 6, 2023

Dealing with difficult meeting participants is an essential skill for any professional. Learning how to smoother over conflict in a meeting will not only help you become a more effective communicator, it will help you be a more effective leader.

At times, you may be required to work with uncooperative or hostile people who may not be pleasant to be around. Or, there may be one-off situations where you find someone in a meeting is suddenly dominating every discussion, throwing the agenda off track, and putting the meeting goals in jeopardy.

When dealing with difficult people in meetings, there are 9 key factors to take into account to effectively control any conflict.

1. Try to understand why they are acting in the way that they are.

Be sure to focus on the fact that it's not personal. It's just the way they choose to act. Sometimes a conflict in a meeting spawns from conflicts between personality types. You may be tempted to judge a person's personality, but that's not productive.

Avoid personal judgments and think about the behavior instead. How is their behavior is affecting you and the team? The notion of personalities and personalities types are tools to help people better understand each other, but in the real world, we need to look at what people say and do rather than some generalizations on who we think they might be.

2. Ask yourself how you can improve communication with the person.

People are sometimes constantly difficult because they feel they aren't being heard. Do they need time outside of the meeting to speak about some of their ideas? Try to understand where the difficult energy is coming from. Focus on the future and how you can improve personal relationships in the future.

3. Consider the direct consequences of how you act in a meeting.

Remember that in a meeting you're in a public environment. You can make a bad situation worse by responding too aggressively, but you may need to be aggressive to halt someone who is also being aggressive.

Whatever you do, you'll be doing it in front of the group, which sets an example for your organization. For example, if an employee is being blatantly rude to other team members, respond assertively to the problem. Treat the incident seriously, rather than passing it off in a casual manner, to set an example for everyone present.


4. Keep an even keel.

When someone is being difficult in a meeting, try to be friendly, but not too friendly. Don't smile too much, but don't be aggressive or overtly rude either. Sometimes an unconscious goal of the difficult behavior is to get a rise out of you and other meeting participants. By not reacting too heavily in any direction, you avoid feeding into this desire.

5. Are they "coming from a good place"?

Some people are hard to deal with because they interact in ways that get on people's nerves. For example, they may seem dishonest or constantly unhelpful, but they're actually not malicious.

Always be on the lookout for people who mean well, but the delivery is coming across as difficult. Most of the time, coworkers and partners are trying to help. They're being difficult because they have passion, strong opinions, a great idea (in their mind), or they're trying to make a point. Maybe they want to take control of a discussion to make sure certain comments or points are taken seriously.

But at the core of the issue, everyone wants the same thing: a happy customer, a profitable company, a bug-free product.

Conflict Experts suggest using these phrases to de-escalate:

I know you are angry/frustrated/confused/irritated and I respect that. Would it be ok to talk with you about it?

- I would really like to talk to you about what’s going on between us and to try to put it behind us. We are both angry and upset but I think it would help us to move on if we could talk honestly about how we can move forward.

- I am sincere in my attempts to try to work out a resolution with you in the hope that we can re-build our relationship. Would you be open to that?

6.Take a break.

In a long meeting where a decision has to get made for the business, a challenging encounter can screw up the flow. Sometimes the best thing to do is press reset on the meeting, take a break, and let the negative energy clear from the room.

Encourage team members to take a walk around the office (physical or virtual). With a few minutes of quiet time, a disruptive person might gain some insight into their issue and return to the session refreshed and with a different perspective. Who knows, they may even manage to come back with an apology.

7. Have reasonable expectations in the moment.

Be aware that with some people, your actions will only have a limited impact on changing their behavior. At best, you might be able to stop the behavior in the short term and get through the meeting but one interaction is not going to be life-changing.

However, practicing good communication skills time after time will lead to a change in your meeting culture and see fewer problematic encounters as a result.

8. Know when it's the manager's responsibility

Managing conflict in the workplace often needs to be approached in a one-on-one conversation between the manager and their direct report. If some of the tips in this blog don't work (and even if they do), often there is another conversation to be had separately.

Some team members may need training in how to express their ideas effectively. They may tend to talk over others without realizing it. Again, if there is a personality type issue here, the person may not realize it exists or have the skills to address it.

But, if a manager can point to a specific disruptive action someone takes and then provide skills or training to help adjust, it will be better for everyone in the business. You're addressing the problem at its core, rather than in a single incident.

9. Understand when new rules are needed.

It's nice when everyone just does what they're supposed to do. We're not generally fans of putting too many policies in place, but sometimes a few ground rules are what it takes to create a wake-up call.

For example, you might have a team where some attendees are consistently late to meetings. Then most meetings run long.

You could adopt a confrontational attitude to this bad behavior and get in their face every time they are late. But this will only be effective for a few meetings and it certainly won't make them more excited to be punctual in the future.

Instead, for the long term, put into place scheduling policies that address the issue. Address it as a team issue, not a personal one, saying that meetings are running long, which nobody enjoys. Show the benefits of showing up on time, like leaving early, and potentially couple the change with other improvements, like a streamlined meeting agenda, so that the policy doesn't seem to be targeting someone in particular.

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