When the meeting you are leading begins to go off the rails, you need to take charge and help the group get back on track.
But what happens if the group won’t follow your lead? Chaos, frustration, waste, anger are a few possibilities that come to mind.
Let’s think positive thoughts. They will follow you because they believe in you. And they believe in you because you demonstrate outstanding meeting leadership skills.
To maintain the group’s respect through the rough patches, I’ve developed seven strategies that work well for me. They are not guarantees, but they help:
- Maintain neutrality.
- Bring good energy to the meeting.
- Respect everyone.
- Be informed.
- Stay out of the spotlight—make it about them.
- Create a safe environment.
- Keep things comfortable.
Let me teach you how to put them to work for you.
You Earn Power By Being Neutral
Your ability to lead comes from the group’s willingness to grant you that power. You will be most successful in earning that right if you do your best to remain neutral.
This, in my years of experience, is the secret ingredient to all meeting facilitation. Do not take a content position. Instead, be all about the process.
There are plenty of times when there is no need for you to take a position. Your point of view is already well represented in the group. Let them figure it out, and then support the group’s decision.
Sometimes when I’m worried that people have preconceived ideas about my neutrality, I take action to counter those preconceptions.
For example, let’s suppose the VP has asked me to lead a meeting with her team. She wants to fully participate in the conversation, but doesn’t want to dominate.
Unfortunately, some in the group suspect that I’ve been called in to get the VP what she wants. In those situations, I go out of my way to be slightly tougher on her up front so people can see I am not on her side.
I’ve learned to talk this strategy through with the leader before the meeting. There have been times when I didn’t and ended up with an angry person in my face after the meeting, because I made him look bad in front of his employees.
Of course, if the leader wants you to help him get his way, that’s a different problem altogether. Be ethical.
To prevent damaging your reputation, don’t let yourself get pulled into some sort of charade for the purpose of manipulating a group.
Your Energy Transfers to the Group
The group members will stick with you, if you help them feel good about their work. One way to accomplish this is to fill the room with positive energy.
There are many versions of energy. My style would be described as loud, fast, and animated. I’ve watched others facilitate who aren’t at all like me, but yet bring powerful energy to the room. It might show up as—
- the intensity with which they listen to people.
- the amazing recognition and empathy they provide to all the participants.
- their bottomless bag of tricks and techniques for moving the group through the rough patches.
- their ability to stay calm when things turn stormy.
So bring the positive energy when you lead a meeting. Not only will it show, but will also spread to the rest of the participants.
Give the Group a Respect Example They Can Follow
When you convene a group, especially a large one, it is possible there will be a knucklehead or two in the room.
As the leader, people expect you to deal with them, so that they don’t wreck the meeting. This is where you need superhuman skills to deal with bad behaviors in a manner that is effective and respectful.
One of the best ways to demonstrate respect is to listen intensely. At times, this is next to impossible; especially if the person blathers on, tells an unrelated story, or says something that you immediately recognize as wrong.
Regardless of what you and others think, people talk for a reason. They want someone to listen to them. Perhaps the reason they repeat something is because they don’t believe anyone truly hears what they have to say.
Show them you are listening. Make eye contact. Allow your face to react. Paraphrase and summarize. Thank them for what they have said.
In addition to listening, you demonstrate respect when you recognize people’s contributions. To listen is a form of recognition, but it helps to go much further than that.
During a meeting when you notice the good work that people contribute, be generous with your recognition. Think about all the things that you could say to help participants know they are doing a good job and adding value to the meeting:
- “Mary, that’s an idea that hasn’t previously been brought up. Thanks for expanding our boundaries a bit.”
- “Joe, I like the way you reframed that point. It makes things more clear.”
- “Thanks, Erin. That’s a job that wasn’t going to be popular. It’s great you are willing to take it on.”
- “Maddie, thank you for focusing on the time. We do need to keep things moving.”
- “Good catch, Nate. That was an important detail we almost overlooked.”
- “Aaron, I can see you’ve tried to get in on this discussion a couple of times, but have waited patiently for your turn. What’s on your mind?”
And opportunities for having people feel great about themselves will just keep coming.
Dish out as much positive reinforcement as you can during a meeting. Make it genuine and specific, and notice the effect it has on the group.
Do Your Homework So They Believe You Care
If you are an outside facilitator, you certainly don’t need to be the best-informed person in the room, but groups do appreciate when you’ve done your homework.
That might be as simple as learning some of the jargon and grasping the key issues.
It’s also helpful to know who is in the room and something about each person’s interests. At the very least, I work hard to learn and remember everyone’s name. If you’re part of the group, you should already have this knowledge.
Making It about Them Is a Game-Changer
By far your best strategy for earning the respect of participants is to make it about them. It is, after all, their meeting. You just happen to be leading it. You would not have called it in the first place, unless you needed them to do something.
Not only should you focus all your attention on helping them do what you want them to do, but ultimately you step aside and give them all the credit for doing it.
At the end of the meeting, it’s the participants who should feel like the winners. They are the ones who solved the thorny problem you brought them together to address.
They are the ones who overcame their differences to reach consensus. They are the heroes. Your role in this was to convince them they could do it and to provide the coaching, mentoring, and nudging they needed to fulfill their destinies. Good for them.
You Earn Your Pay When You Maintain Safety
On really bad days, and hopefully those days are few and far between, someone goes on a rampage during your meeting.
As people do what they can to stay out of the line of fire, they want someone to make the person stop. If it’s you, there are going to be some people in the group who will be forever grateful, especially those who were the targets of this person’s bullying behavior.
Every person whose aid you come to is one more person who will stick with you through thick and thin. When those opportunities appear, seize them.
Everyone Appreciates Comfort—Even You!
While you may struggle to make a meeting fun and interesting, at the very least you can help people be comfortable.
If you don’t respect people’s needs, they will think you don’t care about them. In return, they won’t respect you.
What people need to remain comfortable isn’t a huge mystery. There are some pretty basic factors that you should monitor and manage.
They Need Space
Give them enough space. People don’t want to be crowded.
If the meeting is going to last for a while, they want a place to lay out materials in front of them. They also want a little elbow room.
Interpersonal space is a big deal for some people. Don’t put them shoulder to shoulder, if you want them to feel comfortable.
They Need to Move
The butt is the first to go. Once it starts to ache, you’ve got a problem. People quickly lose interest in the meeting, as this physical distraction grabs hold of their attention.
What I like to do to remedy this problem is find reasons to get people up and moving at regular intervals. Maybe I ask someone to help out at a flip chart or pass around some material.
The easiest thing to do is to tell people at the start of the meeting that if they aren’t used to sitting and want to get up and lean against the wall, they should.
This is particularly important for people who are up and active in their jobs. Nurses, retail associates, and production employees aren’t used to sitting at work. They need to keep moving.
If participants seem unwilling to take you up on your offer, remind them once in a while. Better yet, invite them to stand and stretch every 30 minutes or so.
Restroom Breaks Aren’t Optional
The next breaking point is the bladder. People can only hold it so long, and when time is up, they need to go.
If the need is urgent, most will just leave the room on their own. There are others who don’t want to draw attention to themselves and will choose misery for as long as they possibly can. They are waiting for the break.
Two hours is the absolute limit on how long people should sit without taking a bathroom break. Every hour is probably closer to ideal.
Better yet, keep your meetings short and focused, and this won’t be an issue.
Hungry Participants Are Distracted Participants
Hunger is another huge distraction.
I’m not a fan of feeding people in meetings. I don’t think you want to condition people to attend only for the free food. And for folks working on controlling their weight, they might not appreciate the temptation.
Dealing with this issue is probably best addressed by scheduling the meeting so that it doesn’t go into the time when many people want to eat.
I’m an early eater. Around eleven-thirty, my attention almost always turns toward lunch. If you me to stick with you, get me out of there before my stomach tells me it’s time to go.
Sleepiness Is Hard to Resist
Finally, the most challenging discomfort of all is sleepiness.
Some of it should be the responsibility of the participants to show up to work rested and ready for action.
Some of it is caused by boredom, which is your problem.
Timing is also an issue. Everyone knows that between one and two o’clock in the afternoon is a tough hour to have a meeting. Lunch is digesting and a call for a nap is strong in many people.
When possible, don’t schedule your meeting for that time. And when you do, be thinking about how to make things as active as possible.
This is a great time for an emotional debate on a thorny subject. It’s not a good time for a background presentation.
Be Ready to Take on Direct Challenges to Your Leadership
At times, it may seem like you do not have the group’s respect. Just because you’ve been appointed to lead a meeting doesn’t mean everyone’s going to agree with what you suggest.
I can recall instances when a meeting participant challenged my leadership with,
“I don’t think this meeting is working. I have a better idea of how we should proceed.”
It happens, and you need to know how to handle it. If the only idea you have is to squash this person like a bug, you’ll want to keep reading. You need better options.
Unless you supervise everyone sitting in the meeting, your powers to control and decide are limited to the authority granted to you by the people in the room.
And what makes this even trickier is that you never quite know how much power you have, and even if you are able to figure it out, the group may decide to rein you in on a whim.
This means that as the leader you almost always are on somewhat shaky ground. Unless you are confident you can get away with it, puffing out your chest to push back on the people who confront you isn’t likely to work.
When someone challenges my leadership, I use one of two techniques, neither of which is confrontational.
Option 1: Learn More About the Objection
Find out what the person has in mind and why.
It might be a good idea. If it is, I say something like,
“Trevor has a pretty good idea about this. If it’s okay with everyone else, I think we ought to adjust the plan.”
There are several benefits to taking this approach.
- The group members see firsthand that they can control the process. This creates engagement, which is a good thing.
- Trevor has just become an ally and will likely work collaboratively moving forward.
- The group gets a better result, because it followed a better idea.
Option 2: Get the Group to Help Out
When Trevor’s plan isn’t any better than mine, and in my opinion possibly worse, I need another approach. In other words, his proposal or challenge needs to be countered.
To do this effectively, you will first need sound judgment. I have no doubt that you are a reasonable person. Here are the questions you must answer correctly:
- Will Trevor’s proposed change create problems for the group?
- Will a majority of people in the group side with me?
If the answer to both questions is yes, then you can deal with Trevor’s challenge.
First, paraphrase his suggestion. This demonstrates that you heard what he said and understand it.
Then ask the meeting participants what they think. Because you have good judgment, you’ve already predetermined that most people are likely to see it your way. Your job is to draw out those opinions in others.
You can then bring the discussion to a close with something like,
“My sense is that most of the group wants to stick with the original plan. Trevor, are you okay supporting that?”
With a little luck, he agrees and you move on.
If you still wonder why you should not take him on yourself, I’m happy to tell you now. You are setting yourself up for trouble. Even though a majority is with you and would feel happy if you quell Trevor’s uprising, it will still look like a power play.
In leading a meeting, you will have more power if you don’t blatantly use it. You get what’s granted to you.
Don’t give the other participants the opportunity to wonder if you aren’t a little too gleeful in exercising your power and control.
Win Them Over So You Can Effectively Lead
You may have other ideas that will help. These are seven that have worked for me.
The key point to remember is that you can’t help the group unless the group let’s you help them.
They’ll happily accept your leadership when the trust you and believe you are competent.
This post is an excerpt from my book, Meeting Hero. Pick up your copy today to learn how to plan and facilitate meetings that will finally show your coworkers that meetings aren’t a waste of their time. WARNING: When others recognize your meeting leadership skills, you’re going to be asked to lead a lot more meetings. But hey, that’s what meeting heroes do.