Personal attacks hurt people, mar communication, and end creativity. If they
become part of a meeting's culture, they drive the participants into making safe and
perhaps useless contributions.
Approach 1: Speak to the group
Set the stage for the group to enforce its culture by making a general comment.
Look at the middle of the group and say:
"Just a moment. Let's pause here to calm down. I can tell we're upset about this. And
we want to find a fair solution for everyone." (Take slow deep breaths and relax to
model calming down.)
After saying this, pause a moment to let the group respond. Often, someone else
will support your request. Then continue as if everything were normal.
Avoid looking at the attacker when speaking to the group. Making eye contact
acknowledges and returns power to the attacker.
Approach 2: Explore for the cause
Sometimes people throw insults from behind a fence of presumed safety. You can
disrupt this illusion by saying:
"Chris, you seem upset with that."
"Pat, you seem to disagree."
"You seem to have reservations about this."
I realize these statements may sound like naive responses to an insult. However,
such understated responses improve the situation because they sound less
threatening, feel easier to deliver, and preserve the other person's self-esteem.
Realize the attacker may have viewed the attack less seriously than it sounded.
These statements also transfer the focus from the target to the attacker's feelings.
And this is what you need to talk about in order to resolve the dispute.
After you speak, continue to look at the attacker and wait for the person to talk
about what caused the attack.
If the attack continues, interrupt with:
"Excuse me, we need to respect each other. And I wonder what makes you feel upset
"Excuse me, we heard that. Now, what makes you feel that way?"
"Excuse me, I'm interested in hearing what your concerns are."
Approach 3: Call a break
If verbal approaches fail to end the attacks, then call a break or end the meeting.
This will give you a chance to meet privately with the attacker, rewrite the agenda,
rebuild communication, and (if appropriate) schedule another meeting without the
You could say,
"We seem to be at an impasse. I want to take a break so we can all calm down."
"This hostility makes it impossible to get any work done. So, I'm adjourning the
meetings. We'll work on this later and then reconvene at another time."
Note that some people use anger to force others to cooperate with them. If you
adjourn the meeting, you will have to meet with the attacker to resolve the conflict.
"We need to work on this outside of the meeting. So let's adjourn."
Use these techniques to restore a safe environment to your meeting.
Meetings are a forum for finding solutions, making decisions, and reaching
agreements. When you apply these approaches to disruptions, you will maintain the
productive environment necessary to accomplish your goals.
This is the seventh of a seven part article on Managing Monsters in Meetings.
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IAF Certified Professional Facilitator and author Steve Kaye works with leaders who
want to hold effective meeting. His innovative workshops have informed and
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