How to Manage those Meeting Monsters

In the December issue of BCCJ ACUMEN, I wrote an article on meeting monsters (“Are You a Meeting Monster?”, page 29) that has elicited some interesting responses. I thought it would be a good idea to provide some solutions concerning how to deal with these monsters.

Devil’s Advocate
This type of person likes to constantly take the opposite view to any argument or point being put forward. They seem to think it is some sort of sport. Often this person begins by saying: “For the sake of argument, I believe the opposite is true”.

While there is always value in looking at more than one point of view, the devil’s advocate seems to take this stance at every possible opportunity.

Hold on in there! Stick to your guns, don’t let them sidetrack you. A good meeting leader will be able to depersonalise the difference in opinion. After thanking the devil’s advocate for their ideas, the leader should have their facts ready to counter the points put forward by the devil’s advocate.

Valid facts trump opinion all the time. If more people than just you and the devil’s advocate are battling through, it is easier; you need to get people to chip in with their agreement. It is a lot harder one-on-one.

Try something like this:
“It’s great that you have a different point of view. Thank you. But let’s look at the facts we have in front of us”.

I am a great believer in lightening
 the atmosphere from time to time. However, jokers often are over the top and sometimes belittle others’ ideas and contributions.

Jokers can be a real pain when one is trying to keep a meeting on track. Their constant repartee derails others, and often completely redirects the subject being discussed.

Once they start, jokers cannot stop. After they get a response from their “audience”, they will find a funny quip to offer at every opportunity. A good meeting leader needs to nip it in the bud.

Try something like this:
“Thanks for your input and for lightening the atmosphere, but we have some serious topics to cover and time is at a premium, so let’s save the jokes for later. I am sure we will all appreciate your humour over a beer or two after the meeting or at the end of the day”.

Pandora’s Box Opener
These meeting monsters feel they have to tackle issues that are emotional, touchy or “hot buttons” for others.

In every business meeting there are topics that are guaranteed to strike a nerve, provoke an emotional reaction, or place the group into a quagmire.

Pandora’s box openers like to discuss anything that will strike a nerve or provoke people’s emotional responses. They like to go where other members of the meeting know it would be better not to go. They bring up issues from past meetings that have been resolved, but not to their liking.

The best way to deal with people like this is to be firm from the start. The minute they begin to go where everyone knows it is better not to, or when they drag up past issues that they know will get everyone in a lather, it is time to be strong and stop them.

Try something like this:
“We discussed that at a previous meeting and reached a conclusion. Please check your minutes”. Or maybe: “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, that’s not for discussion now”.

Tangent Talker
They like to divert the topic to something different, detracting from the agenda. Thus, one minute you are on target and adhering to the agenda and the next minute … who knows! However, you can be sure it will not be the topic at hand.

Identifying this type of monster as quickly as possible is paramount, or their agenda will take over. The meeting leader needs to be tough and verbally agile.

Try something like this:
“Time is of the essence and we need to keep this meeting on track and work on the agenda topics”, or, “Let’s not go off on a tangent please, we need to stay on track.

“Parking” is another good way to deal with these types of people. Tape a piece of paper to the wall with the heading “parked items”.

As the tangent talkers bring extra topics to the meeting, calmly but firmly suggest that they are not on the agenda and can be addressed later, if there is time.

Fence Sitter
Such people are unable to make decisions. They like to consider all points of view and hate to disagree with anyone. They hate conflict and healthy debate, avoiding it at all costs. It’s difficult to see what point these people are trying to make during a discussion, while their ambivalence is frustrating and slows down a meeting.

Time after time, decisiveness has been shown to be a top quality in leaders. If you come across a fence sitter in a meeting, challenge them into making a decision. Cajole them, push them and put them on the spot. Tell the fence sitter that their opinion counts.

After all, they are just providing fodder for the devil’s advocate who will quickly jump in.

Try something like this:
“Your opinion is as valid as anyone’s and we need to know what you think”, or, “Come on, it’s your turn to speak up and say what you really feel. There is no right or wrong here, just opinions, and we need to know yours”.

He or she believes they are the only one who has knowledge and the correct answers on any given subject.

They believe that everyone else is there to hear them speak. Thus, they prattle on, in the belief that their ideas are the only important ones, and don’t give anyone else a look in.

The meeting leader needs to quickly nip this in the bud and ask others to give their points of view and opinions. You have to stop these people before they take over.

Try something like this:
“Thank you for your thoughts and ideas. I think it is time to hear from someone else now.” Or, “Okay, that’s interesting. What do other people think?”

Such masters of negativity tend to use phrases like “we’ve tried that before and it failed”, or “that won’t work”. The cynic sees everything from a negative perspective.

Try to get them to take on board the opinions and ideas of other people and offer solutions from that point of view.

It will be tough for them, but will get them out of the “done that, been there” stance. It might mean that the light dawns on them and they can see that the idea is not such a bad one after all.

Try something like this:
“Now this might be a tough call, but just imagine you agree with what has been said. How would you present the idea?” Or even, “Your ideas and experience are really valuable, thank you. But I think we need to give this a try”.

Attackers are bullies. They attack the person rather than the issue, have no concern about hurting other people’s feelings, are confrontational and have no regard for others.

A good meeting leader encourages the attacker to use a less adversarial approach. Any point made during a meeting should be soft on the person and hard on the point, while attackers usually take an opposite tactic.

All meeting participants are entitled to give their opinions and a meeting should be stopped as soon as the attacker goes into action.

Take a break for a few minutes and reconvene the meeting after the leader has had time to approach the attacker. When the meeting reconvenes, it is time to put what has happened behind you and start afresh.

Try something like this:
“Your point is clearly aimed at the person and not the point. Please depersonalise it or let’s move on”. “Let’s take a break and reconvene in 10 minutes”, or, “it is important that we can criticise actions or beliefs, but I will not tolerate attacks against a person” would also work.

These people will bend over backwards to ingratiate themselves with the boss. They are smarmy and sickly sweet, agree with everything the boss says, and have no backbone or ideas of their own.

These types of people are so obvious; everyone knows they are in the pocket of the person to whom they are sucking up. Ultimately, they will be seen for who they are, become predictable and not trusted.

Get them to give you their ideas before anyone else gives theirs. This really puts them on the spot, as they will not have the chance to follow the opinion of the person they are sucking up to.

Try something like this:
“Let’s get your opinion first, before we go into discussion”. This is a bit confrontational, but sometimes that’s what is needed: “I see you agree with our chairman on this. Can you explain your ideas further please?”

These people irritate me the most. They cannot live without technology and bring mobile phones, pagers, iPads and laptops to meetings, where they access their e-mails every few minutes. It’s not only a distraction for the user, but for others at the meeting.

Set ground rules, including turning off all electronic devices before the meeting starts.

Try something like this:
“Before we start the meeting, I want to remind everyone of our ground rules. Please switch off all electronic devices and let’s concentrate on the meeting. The faster we get through it, the faster you can get back to them”.

Or, “I understand we are all busy people, but let’s focus on this meeting so we can all get back to those urgent and important emails and calls. Thank you”.

We all spend so much of our working lives in meetings and it is irritating if they don’t run smoothly.

I believe it is clear that the meeting leader needs to be on the ball at all times and be able to identify these monsters throughout the meeting and react immediately.

Good luck with your meetings!

Anne Good is a professional executive, career and life coach and conducts sessions face-to-face or via Skype. If you have a related question for Anne that you would like answered in BCCJ ACUMEN or in private, please contact her: anne@eurekamoments.net, www.eurekamoments.net