Managing Behaviours in Meetings

Meetings are an everyday part of work and civic life. When chairing or participating in a meeting, it is useful to be aware of the behaviour and personalities of the people around you. Keeping a meeting under control is key to ensuring that all participants can have their say in a mutually respectful environment.

At many meetings, there is usually at least one person who will try to dominate. They may have a lot of ideas to contribute – which may be perfectly valid – or they may simply like the sound of their own voice! However, if one or two people do most of the talking, others may feel unable or unwilling to join in. Some people will even interrupt or talk over others.

A good chairperson needs to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to contribute. This can be done by asking people directly for their thoughts on a particular agenda item.

If a person tends to dominate every meeting, it may be wise for the chairperson to speak with them diplomatically outside the meeting and explain the need for others to contribute.

“Your contributions to our meetings are great and really insightful but it would be good to have a better idea how some of the others feel. Would you mind holding back a little at the next meeting to let some of the quieter members contribute more?”

However, it may be necessary to take a more direct approach with some people!

Some people will attend meetings and not utter a word – or, if they do, their contribution will be very small. These people can be very difficult to ‘read’ and it is easy to misinterpret their silence. It may be that they have plenty of ideas but lack the confidence or assertiveness to contribute, especially if more dominant personalities are involved.

Alternatively, it could be that they do not understand the issues under discussion and wish to remain silent in case they show their lack of understanding through a misjudged comment. Another possibility is that the silence is a deliberate attempt to show distain or disinterest – a form of passive resistance.

A chairperson should be aware if someone is not contributing and actively try to involve them in the discussion. Inviting them directly to contribute may help:

“What are your thoughts on this, John?”

If they continue to be non-communicative, it may be worth speaking with them one-to-one after the meeting to reassure them that their contributions are welcomed and valued.

If someone who has previously made contributions to meetings but has become withdrawn or quiet, this may indicate a lack of engagement or other problems. It may be wise to speak with the person outside the meeting and ask if there is any reason why they seem quieter than usual.

Some people will display aggression, intolerance or a lack of sensitivity in meetings. This may include losing their temper with people they disagree with, scoffing at other people’s contributions or making rude, sarcastic or flippant comments.

A chairperson should address this behaviour immediately and warn the individual concerned that acting inappropriately will not be tolerated. If the behaviour continues, subject to the constitution of the meeting, the person may be asked to leave.

Some participants may lose focus and digress from the subjects on the agenda. Tangential issues may emerge which people may pursue at the expense of the main agenda item. In some cases, multiple conversations and discussions may take place at the same time, which will cause confusion. There may be particular individuals who have a tendency to take things off-topic. The chairperson will need to ensure that the discussions are brought back in-line with the agenda.

Meetings, especially Board Meetings, are a crucial part of corporate governance. The way in which they are conducted reflects on the organisation’s culture. Initiatives such as SM&CR encourage the development of ‘speak-up, listen-up’ cultures where people have the ‘psychological safety’ to make a contribution, knowing it will be listened to in a respectful manner. A Board where everyone feels they can voice their opinion, is a healthy one and the chairperson plays a key role in ensuring this.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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