Handling Rowdy Meetings


Sometimes meetings become rowdy, ie conflicts arise when people forcibly and strongly disagree, voices can be raised, inappropriate and abusive language used, etc.

The aim is to turn conflict back into a productive conversation.This means reducing the emotional level.

NB Calm emotions like happiness, connection, etc are slow and deliberate; while aroused motion like hostility, defensiveness, etc are fast and confused, ie
"...pulses quicken, thoughts race and words fly..."

Joseph Grenny, 2017

Some examples of meetings 'going off the rails' which are caused by

- mutual monologue (conflict is more apparent than real with people struggling to be heard; people shouting each other down, etc)

- battle of the silos (different members or teams are fighting for resources or authority to advance their parochial interests)

- hidden agenda (peripheral and/or unrelated issues are dominating the conversation, eg when discussing the location of a new office, personal commute times dominate the conversation, rather than suitability of the new office)

- pandemonium (more a lack of order rather than presence of conflict, eg discussion shifts from topic to topic with no resolution, ie many topics discussed, with little resolution)

- wounded warrior (the discussion has left somebody personally hurt, ie negative impact on their ego)

"...the principal cause of most conflict is a struggle of validation. This means that most conflict is not intractable because the root cause is not irreconcilable differences, but a basic unmet need......When overlapping and divergent interests (as exists in every team) are combined with communications that invalidates someone's needs, the result is almost always escalating conflict and personal animus..."
Joseph Grenny, 2017

There are 4 steps to restore order

i) interrupting chaos (change the tempo of the meeting by standing and speaking in a calm, neutral, slightly-raised voice so that you get people's attention and calm their emotions; make sure your body language reinforces the calming message; once you have their attention, lower your voice)

ii) shift to process (describe what has happened in a factual way, without assigning blame; highlight the consequences of continuation on current path; this helps in 3 ways

    - it allows egos and tempers to cool by changing the subject of discussion from the immediate problem to the problem-solving process

    - diverts attention to a unifying common enemy, ie the ineffective process

    - by asking everyone to co-create a more effective process, it is 'feeding their ego' and making them part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Get everyone to confirm your observations, ie do others see it the same way as you?

"...this is a critical psychological step. When they explicitly acknowledge the process problem, they become committed to supporting a solution..."
Joseph Grenny, 2017

iii) propose a structure (offer a process that ensures all points of view will be heard; slow the pace in order to reduce the emotions; ask for commitment to this process by all parties; process involves one party expresses a point of view, then another party restates that point of view to check that all have understand it correctly)

iv) honour the agreement (if people still want to be disruptive, highlight the discrepancy and check if people want to continue with the process or try something different; sometimes having a break can be the most effective circuit breaker in these situations, as usually after the break commonsense will prevail)

NB The key to this is focusing on the process rather than content as a way to defuse anger and frustration long enough to move forward.


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