When times get tough…
While there are some toxic people in the world – people who will disrupt or sabotage a meeting under any circumstances – these are rare. Most ‘difficult’ people are difficult for a reason. In the most basic terms, they expect or experience not being heard. Returning to the opening page of this book (’Thinking big and thinking simple’), they come into a conversation unable to register their feelings or intentions in an appropriate way. Assume most people are reasonable, and expect them to attribute reasonableness to you and others. Then look for elements in your Purpose, or Process that inhibit their opportunity to be heard.
If you are struck by an outburst or challenge, just pause. Take a moment to reflect on the situation and decide what to do (including doing nothing). If it is useful, acknowledge your dilemma and ask for clarification, or advice.
Return to Purpose
Remind people of the Purpose. Check in and see how well people think they are travelling on this journey.
Be very clear about what your meeting is about and what participants can expect as a result of their participation. If you promise to provide follow up information or activity you must do it.
Process is (almost) all
Plan, practice and refine your process. A good plan is preventative medicine. If you set things up well and involve people respectfully you will be forgiven even if you stuff up every now and then. People respect honesty and a commitment to co-operation approach.
Negotiate ground rules early on
The longer the anticipated duration of the group the more important it is to spend time negotiating ground rules. Even if the meeting is a one-off, it is important to establish rules.
Build rapport with participants
Pay attention to the interests and energy levels of the group. Remember the Process Radar. Start building rapport with participants from the beginning. How you respond to one individual will be noticed by others.
Notice what is going on and make a decision whether it is important enough to deal with. Make a hypothesis and then an intervention. It may be a simple problem requiring a simple solution: e.g. a comfort break. Start with the least intrusive intervention and build up intensity as you need to.
When someone is demanding or dominating, the simplest response can be to turn attention to elseweherem, to another issue or another person.
“Thanks for that comment” (turning away from the dominating party, and directing attention elsewhere in the group)…” Anyone else with a comment or a question?….”
Avoid singling out people. Embarrassing people generally has a negative effect on the rest of the group, let alone the individual you identify. To be used only as a last resort (but to be used if it IS necessary). If it is necessary, you can call on the group to help you (“My sense is that this behaviour is making it hard for us to continue, what do others think?”). Your primary responsibility is to make it safe for people to have important conversations.
Consider this: the difficult person might be you
Often the person you have the most problems with is the one who pushes your own ‘hot button’. If you have a chip on your shoulder about a certain type of person (e.g. “they know more than me”, “they have a PhD”, “they are much older than me”, “they are a really cynical”) you can be sure that someone will trigger it. Be aware of your own sensitivities. See the section below on ‘power’.
Trust the group
In general build solutions and keep the interests of the whole group and the purpose uppermost. If the going gets rough, the rules are your mandate for intervention. If people are combative seek to defuse polarities. Involve other group members. Seek different points of view. Harness the capabilities of the group. Get the group to help you with difficult challenges. Enlist their support.