10 Ways to Survive Meetings with Difficult Colleagues
Take these steps to avoid the anxiety and stress of workplace conversations.
Posted Nov 09, 2018
Whether you are a business leader, manager, or frontline employee, sooner or later you will have to meet with someone who you would prefer to avoid. While the definition of a “difficult” co-worker takes many forms, problematic people are usually described as contrarian, pessimistic, aggressive, argumentative, or just down-right negative.
When we know a meeting is required, we often procrastinate and defer the meeting for as long as possible with hopes of avoiding the anxiety and stress that usually accompanies the discussion. While discomfort may be inevitable, there are many easy-to-implement strategies to make a challenging situation tolerable, while concurrently upgrading your leadership skills.
The process for conducting effective meetings under challenging circumstances begins with solid and shared ground-rules. Conducting the meeting is difficult by itself, but when you have uncooperative participants the task becomes even more complex. To maximize results and show appreciation for the time and effort of others, follow these tips:
Distribute an agenda and meeting objectives before the meeting. While this suggestion may seem obvious, how many meetings have you attended where you had no idea why you were invited? When participants know the meeting purpose in advance, the conversation can be focused on the important issues, so time isn’t wasted on personal, explanatory, tangential, or exploratory issues.
Set a specific meeting start and end time. Whenever possible stay on schedule. If meeting with multiple individuals, do not wait for the late attendees to show up. Instead, begin the meeting on time. When you show respect for the time of others, they will likely respect your time as well. Value the time of others as if it were your own.
Set participation guidelines. Sometimes adding structure to an informal meeting can keep people focused. Exclusive of a training situation, no one should attend a meeting merely as an observer. Keep all meeting participants informed about why they were asked to attend and what’s expected of them during the meeting.
Listen to everyone. The goal of a meeting should be two-way communication. Participants, whether they have valid or unjustified opinions, need the opportunity to express their views (Harolds, 2012). To be certain you understand their perspectives, paraphrase what is said by the individual and avoid evaluation or judgment. As many grandmothers claim, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason!”
Consciously avoid putting someone on the defensive. Assume that everyone’s ideas have some merit and personal value. Rarely does a business or work issue have a singular cause (Hoffman, 2017). When someone shares their views, they are sharing a part of themselves. Encourage participation by intentionally avoiding negative evaluation of the contribution.
Model sincerity. Realize that your interests, alertness, and enthusiasm are likely contagious. If you appear disinterested or apathetic, others may not take your views seriously. A long line of research indicates that enthusiasm from those in leadership roles, and especially educators, directly influences the motivation of others to participate, while indirectly boosting learning outcomes (Keller, Hoy, Goetz, & Frenzel, 2016).
Keep discussion records. If you are facilitating a meeting write down the main points discussed on a flip chart or a board that everyone can see. If someone asks a question, repeat or paraphrase the inquiry before providing an answer, so there is no doubt that the question was heard and is understood by all participants.
Confirm discussions with a written follow-up. Although tedious, every meeting should include a summary of what was discussed and agreed upon during the meeting. A quick post-meeting email that includes the words “As we discussed…” or “As we agreed to the following actions…” is sufficient to memorialize the meeting. The written follow-up should outline who is accountable for each task and include due dates for deliverables whenever possible.
Model equality in “airtime.” Conversations and meetings should strive toward balanced participation. Don’t be a meeting hog and talk an inappropriate amount of time. If you are the meeting facilitator involve others by asking probing questions, seeking clarification of important points, or by asking for participant feedback. Keep personal participation to less than 50% of the meeting time.
Don’t appear dismissive. Do not look at your watch, phone, or a computer during a meeting. Pay attention to the participants. Besides verbal abuse or lecturing someone during a meeting, nothing is more demoralizing or condescending than not giving the person who is speaking your full attention. Don’t expect respect or avid compliance from individuals who may believe they were marginalized during a meeting.
Recognize the diversity of your audience. Some people have preferred communication styles that reflect how they see themselves in relation to other meeting participants. People may unconsciously portray certain roles to feel more confident or comfortable. Some common meeting dispositions include:
Staying silent – These folks may feel inadequate about their knowledge or ability to make a meaningful contribution. Involve the employee in the meeting process, give additional preparation time, solicit questions, or ask the silent type to summarize what was discussed.
Always agreeing – The person who agrees with everything may be fearful of expressing an opinion or they believe that agreement shows socially-desirable conformity. Ask the person why they agree, ask for suggestions to make things better, or consider asking the person "What other ways might produce a similar result?"
Openly angry – The angry person may have pent-up emotion that has not been resolved. To help those who may be experiencing workplace challenges, avoid meeting surprises, focus on listening, and reflect on their emotions. Say things like, “I understand the meeting (or decision) is not living up to your expectations.” Then ask for improvement suggestions, while focusing on positive contributions, and building consensus with others.
Marginal contributions – Similar to the silent type, people who minimally contribute may be apathetic and just going through the motions. To counteract disinterest, clarify personal expectations and encourage confidence in the person and organization. Do not dwell on negative past experiences or point blame; instead, model a future focus.
Excessive contributions – We all know people who are self-proclaimed experts on many topics. These folks often need to be heard and will offer their opinions regardless of agendas, meeting roles, or communicated expectations. When all else fails, conduct meetings standing up. This strategy gives the impression of urgency and sends the signal that you have limited time and need to focus on the specific challenges at hand.
Clear workplace communication is essential for a profitable and productive organization (Ulrich & Dulebohn, 2015). Meetings can be anxiety provoking, but the presumed stress is controllable with proper planning and preparation. A few concrete steps can transform a dreaded meeting into a rewarding and productive developmental experience for both leaders and everyone involved.
Harolds, J. A. (2012). Planning and conducting meetings effectively, part III: keeping meetings on track. Clinical Nuclear Medicine, 37(2), 164-165.
Hoffman, B. (2017). Hack Your Motivation: Over 50 Science-based Strategies to Improve Performance. Oviedo, FL: Attribution Press.
Keller, M. M., Hoy, A. W., Goetz, T., & Frenzel, A. C. (2016). Teacher enthusiasm: reviewing and redefining a complex construct. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 743-769.
Ulrich, D., & Dulebohn, J. H. (2015). Are we there yet? What's next for HR?. Human Resource Management Review, 25(2), 188-204.