What’s the most annoying thing someone can do in a meeting? Play with their phone? Interrupt you when you speak? Derail the conversation with small talk?

Disruptive meeting behavior is anything that may distract, disrupt, or in other ways negatively (and significantly) impact meeting discussion. It can be a nightmare for facilitators, and it can take many forms. There are no set terms for these disruptive characters (despite the fact that most facilitators are familiar with the types), but here are a few colorful ways to think of them:

Cell phone junkies, who are constantly looking at their phones, texting, or making calls

Pedestrians, who, with little or no participation, send a silent but clear message that they don’t really want to be there

Drivers, who dominate the discussion

Workaholics, who are on their laptops doing other work

Topic jumpers, who are constantly going off topic

Storytellers, who are incessantly talkative

Each has unique disruptive abilities, so facilitators hoping for productive, efficient meetings need to know what they’re dealing with to keep everyone on track.

Disruptive Meeting Behavior: Symptoms, Causes, and Cures

The most important thing to know about disruptive meeting behavior is this: it’s a symptom. That means the first thing facilitators need to do is identify root causes. Broadly speaking, root causes fall into three general categories:

  • Dissatisfaction or disagreement with what is being discussed.
  • Dissatisfaction or disagreement with how the meeting is run.
  • A problem unrelated to the meeting.

While disruptive behavior may seem personal, it’s best not to jump to that conclusion. The workaholic, for example, may have a pressing deadline or task. Pedestrians may be from another team or department and therefore not understand what the meeting has to do with them. Cell phone junkies may be suffering a real addiction to their device that makes it hard to unplug.

Whatever the case, there are a number of actions you can take to address disruptive meeting behavior. Some are preventive, while others are corrective. The circumstances will dictate both what you need to do and when you need to act. But ultimately, your action will require four steps:

1) Approach the person.
2) Show empathy with them.
3) Identify the root cause of the behavior.
4) Try to agree on a solution.

Within those steps, there lie some general rules of thumb regarding how and what to communicate before, during, and even after the meting.

Constructive Communication

Dealing with someone’s disruptive meeting behavior starts with approaching them about it. Remember this above all else: if at all possible, disruptive behavior is best addressed privately. If you do it in front of the whole group, you risk people losing face or feeling criticized. That will trigger what Dr. David Rock refers to as a neurological “threat response,” which makes it much more difficult to achieve cooperation.

So talk to the disruptor one on one. But what do you actually say?

If you have observed the disruptive meeting behavior multiple times, be kind and constructive. For example: I’ve noticed that you often seem to be working on your laptop during our meetings, so you’re probably very busy—or perhaps what we are discussing is not so relevant or interesting for you?” This will invite them to share their perspective, and you can then discuss how to deal with the issue.

Or you could take a softer approach. For example: I’m looking at ways to improve our weekly meetings. How useful are they to you? Do you have any suggestions for how we could run them more efficiently?”

Keep this in mind: don’t do this” language won’t get you very far. Active listening and empathy are your strongest assets.

Pre-Meeting Preventative Measures

There are several actions you can take before a meeting to help prevent disruptive meeting behavior and address it if it does occur. Some will only work for participants within your organization, but all are worthy of note:

・Select meeting participants carefully. Do all of them need to be there

・Check with each meeting participant beforehand. Do they want to be there? If not, you may have some pedestrians on your hands.

・Identify potential (or confirmed) pedestrians, drivers, storytellers, etc. so you know what you’re getting into, and talk to them privately before the meeting.

・Send out an agenda and set meeting objectives in advance. This will benefit the wide majority, but may also trigger responses from drivers who have strong views, so brace yourself to address that.

・Prepare meeting rules, such as “no cell phones” and “try to stay on topic,” and check them with the participants ahead of time. This is how you earn their commitment. Put the rules on a slide if you can so you have something to literally point to if someone gets off track.

Notice that many of these actions are not top-down—you’re involving the participants in the meeting preparation.

Sometimes, you may need to invite someone who is not directly involved in a particular discussion topic, but nevertheless may provide valuable information. When this happens, it’s a good idea to brief them beforehand, or at least at the start of the meeting—explain why you’d like them to be there and what kind of input you hope they can provide. This will clarify their role and help prevent them from becoming a pedestrian.

Show people their own value and what they have to gain so they’re engaged from the start and ready to contribute.

Mid-Meeting Course Correction

No matter how much you prepare, meetings can (and will) still be disrupted from time to time. If you need to address disruptive meeting behavior in front of the whole group, do so with empathy and a constructive manner. Ensure the person feels respected.

Again, customize your approach to the type of behavior you’re dealing with. If a pedestrian is staring out the window, the best thing you can do is engage them with positive energy. Use your voice, eye contact, and body language to make them feel included. Most importantly, ask them questions. If you’ve invited them to the meeting, it means they have valuable information, ideas, or opinions for the topic at hand. Then after the meeting, talk to them and try to find out what’s going on—the root cause of their passivity.

Ideally, everyone in a meeting should be able to answer this question: What’s in this for me? If they can’t answer that (and especially if they have no input to benefit everyone else), it’s time you ask yourself a question: Does this person really need to be in these meetings?

Correcting Behavior After-the-fact

There are things facilitators can do before a meeting and things we can do during a meeting. But is there any point in addressing disruptive behavior after a meeting ends? Yes, and there are at least two good reasons to do so.

First (and perhaps most obvious), it will give you a head start for next time. If the disruptive person is likely to attend future meetings, failing to follow up will just allow the disruption to reoccur. Find out the root cause as soon as you can and try to resolve it—you’ll save yourself a headache later.

Second, finding out the root cause of someone’s behavior is useful for building your general facilitation skills. Even if you never see this person again, you may see their disruptive behavior in others. Once you know why a driver dominates discussion or a topic jumper can’t stay focused, you’ll be better equipped to handle it and other disruptive meeting behavior. Going forward, your role as a facilitator will go that much more smoothly.

Want to dig deeper into strategies and techniques for handling disruptive meeting behavior (or meeting facilitation in general)? Here are two great references:

The Secrets of Facilitation: The SMART Guide to Getting Results with Groups, by Michael Wilkinson

Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner et. al

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