Successful meetings: dealing with challenging participants (part 3)


In every workplace there are individuals who make running meetings look like a fine art, meticulously planning the session so that it absolutely delivers what must be achieved, bringing every participant on the journey with them.

For every such chairperson, there are many more whose failure to adhere to the crucial checklist – crafting a meaningful participant list, enforcing the ‘no judgement’ rule during brainstorms, failing to manage a hijack attempt on the agenda – results in an expensive waste of everyone’s time.

In part three of our special series, we look at the invitee behaviours which threaten to throw your meeting off course and how to deal with them effectively in order to meet your desired goal.


Visit the previous editions in the successful meetings series:

Part I: It’s all in the preparation

Part II: Taking the chair


The chronic latecomer

A huge 37% of meetings start later than the scheduled time[i], and the problems often arise because participants have a fluid notion of what ‘late’ really means; organisational psychologists conducting a study of meeting goers across North America discovered that many believe there is a ‘grace period’ of a few minutes in which it is perfectly acceptable to arrive. Despite this belief, oftentimes the same individuals cited a feeling of negativity towards those who turn up after the meeting has kicked off: the chair feels disrespected; others are frustrated when the chair backs up for the benefit of the latecomer; the knock-on effect on the room’s energy spells trouble for the remaining minutes.

“Keep calm and carry on” should be your mantra when a regular latecomer disrupts your flow by putting in an appearance once the discussion is in full swing. Resist the urge to reiterate for their benefit everything that has been said to this point, or to embarrass the individual with a direct or passive criticism of their timekeeping. If they ask for information that’s already been given, calmly explain that the agenda is packed and you’d prefer to keep going but that you’ll catch up with them after the meeting to bring them up to speed – this should send a clear signal that you value punctuality, and, if it’s a regular occurrence, the post-meeting chat gives you a chance to discuss this with them privately. If their timekeeping fails to improve despite your request, consider which of the following strategies could have the desired outcome based on what you know of the individual:

  1. Figure out why they’re late. Is it because they’re in a previous meeting that always runs over or is located at a distance? If so you might want to consider moving the meeting by a small window in order to accommodate their transition. If others are likely to be affected by the move, you might want to make it an agenda item to find a better time that works for everyone and allows for a prompt start. If their lateness is more a symptom of bad planning, consider whether that’s down to a personal weakness or a symptom of their current workload. What could you do to make it easier for them to be on time? If their desk is en route to the meeting location, can you swing by early to collect them?
  2. Assign them a task and put this at the top of the agenda. If your meeting is a regular one, it could be that you rotate who chairs so that everyone gets the opportunity to experience the meeting from the point of view of organiser. If you’re asking them to present or kick off the discussion, don’t rely on them spotting their position on your calendar invite – put in a friendly call or pop by to remind them they have a starring role on the attached agenda.
  3. Be a role model. Turning up late to chair your own meeting sends a clear message that lateness is tolerated. Make sure you’re always punctual and ready to start the meeting to the second hand. And don’t be tempted to demonstrate how irritating lateness is by turning up late to others’ meetings – make sure you’re the first one there and if your punctuality is noted, use the opportunity to reiterate how important good timekeeping is to you and your ability to diary-manage.


The chatterbox

Sometimes the person brimming with so many ideas they barely pause for thought is the chairperson’s lifeline, injecting contagious energy into the room. But when one person’s domination of the meeting impacts on others’ ability to have their say, stepping in in a timely fashion is a must.

  1. Listen attentively and cut in (politely acknowledging your interruption and thanking the person for their contribution so far), to direct the discussion point back to the floor, inviting others to contribute by name if you’ve observed them being cut off or consciously leaning out of the discussion.
  2. Open up the floor for others. If the speaker’s points are valid but need broader input, ask other participants to challenge or respond to what they’ve said.
  3. Value conciseness. If they have a tendency to ramble, take opportunities to summarise their message succinctly in a way that demonstrates that getting to the point is a desirable skill. Or:
  4. Set a brevity rule up front. Use your packed agenda as evidence for why conciseness will be appreciated throughout the meeting. If you’re conducting a round the table discussion, add fun and competition to the mix by setting a time limit per speaker, being strict about the cut off point. Another tactic is to suggest parameters, such as: “Who can sum up in one sentence what the key problem is we’re trying to address here?” If the more talkative meeting participants rise to your challenge, be sure to thank them for putting across their points in a clear and concise way.
  5. Give useful feedback. If you know the offender well or are their direct line manager, turn your observations into useful feedback that will enable them to develop their communication style around clarity and explicitness.   


The silent type

“Most of the people will be silent most of the time,” concludes a 1976 essay on the challenges facing chairpersons in the world of corporate meetings. Little has changed in the intervening decades; the person who sits back and shares little is likely to be one you’re familiar with. Breaking the silence can be as challenging as silencing the chatterbox, more so when you consider the complexities that are likely to be behind a reluctance to contribute.

  1. Sound out the silence. Switch on your empathy and look at the view from the quiet participant’s point of view. Is confidence an issue? Are they introverts who like having all the information in their possession before they formulate and share ideas? Are they finding their feet as the newest or most junior person in the room? Arm yourself with this knowledge so that you can play to their strengths.
  2. Instil confidence. “I know you have experience with X; can you share some of your knowledge on this topic?” “As a newcomer it would be really interesting to hear your fresh perspective on X.” “When we chatted before the meeting you had some really interesting ideas: would you mind repeating them for the group?”
  3. Prepare. Get together with your silent types for a pre-meeting chat about your expectations around their input. Emphasise why their particular skillset or experience is relevant to what you hope to achieve in order to foster a collaborative mentality and make them complicit in your ambition.


The agenda-bender

Are your meetings being hijacked by someone whose own agenda swerves the discussion so off course that your attendees are left wondering what the original point of the meeting was? Try instigating the following rules to stop the runaway in his or her tracks:

  1. Police the agenda. Any off-agenda item is parked until the final five minutes of the session, at which point it will be decided if a follow up is necessary. If the point raised is valid, politely tell its owner that you appreciate them bringing it up and that you’d rather wait until there is adequate time in the diary to give it the thought it deserves.
  2. Set a mission statement. Kick off your meeting with a clear and concise goal (e.g. “The ultimate aim of this meeting is to agree the list of ten things we’ll do in the next quarter to drive sales”). If there is disagreement about what constitutes an off-agenda item, ask the group to consider if its continued discussion enables the successful delivery of the meeting’s goal.
  3. Become a time lord. Allocate chunks of time against each of the points on your agenda, and become a masterful clock-watcher, regularly evaluating aloud where you are against the timeline, using an early or on time finish as a motivator (“If we get through this next point quickly, we’ll be leaving on time today”).
  4. Acknowledge the issues (then quickly move on). If you know that there are participants present who’ve a tendency to side-track the meeting, beg forgiveness upfront for being ruthless with sticking to your carefully laid out agenda, while demonstrating sensitivity to the points they care about: “I know that there is so much to be done on the topic of X, but in order to make this session as focused as possible on solving one of those problems, I’d like us to stick ruthlessly to our agenda.”
  5. Instil trust. If a more senior figure is the one responsible for veering your meetings off course, it might be their way of initialising their own peace of mind that wider issues are being addressed outside the meeting. Thank them for being across your area; let them know that you’re completely on top of whatever’s on their mind and that you’d appreciate their time in a separate session to set the wheels in motion, before directing conversation back to the agenda.




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