As a manager, you are often required to chair meetings. To be successful, you will need to minimise your own involvement, foster interaction among the participants, and ensure that everyone makes a contribution. There are times, however, when awkward situations arise; and then you will need to draw on a repertoire of responses to maintain control. Here are some of the most common problems that arise in meetings and the strategies for handling them…

1. When the discussion becomes irrelevant…

Meetings sometimes get bogged down in time-consuming, irrelevant discussions that lead nowhere. To get the meeting back on course, you can:

  • refocus the discussion by indicating that the group has strayed from its real objective.
  • summarise the discussion to date and link progress to the objective.
  • bring the discussion back into line by posing a question relating to the agenda topic.

2. When the participants begin to lose interest…

Often caused by lack of concrete short-term goals or successes, flagging enthusiasm can be revived in a number of ways:

  • Propose a success-guaranteed, short-term task.
  • List the achievements of the group so far.
  • If the current topic lacks interest, introduce a related theme to encourage a more active response.
  • If the group suspect that their recommendations will not be adopted, convince them that worthwhile ideas might well gain acceptance.
  • Check whether each participant still agrees with the group goals.
  • If participants believe that a decision has already been made, assure them that solid arguments from an interested group could alter or reverse the decision.

3. When there is uneven participation…

Reluctant speakers can be brought into the discussion by asking questions that you know they can answer. Compliment them for their views. Or ask everyone, in turn, to express an opinion before anyone else can discuss or evaluate the issue further. Restrain the talkative participants tactfully.

4. When the meeting gets overheated…

Your task here will be ‘to stop the warring parties shouting at each other from the mountain tops and to bring them to the valley floor again to talk’. To this end, here are some strategies:

  • Summarise the hot issue, giving combatants a chance to calm down.
  • Appeal to other members, thus using group pressure to restore order: ‘Can anyone suggest a way of getting these two people out of their no-win situation?’
  • Propose that the current issue be dropped for a while and another line of discussion followed.
  • Call firmly for order, stating that progress is being hindered through lack of objective or reasoned discussion.
  • Call for a short coffee break.

5. When someone is distracting the group…

If you have pencil-tappers, paper-shufflers, or side-talkers, they’re probably unaware of their disruptive action, or they’ve lost interest, or they don’t feel included, or the issues being discussed are irrelevant to them. Try:

  • looking directly at the offender
  • calling the offender by name and asking relevant questions
  • tackling them in public, indicating that they’re making it hard for the group to get through the agenda items
  • taking a coffee-break, and tackling the offenders in private.

6. When an argumentative person takes over…

Often, if a participant constantly argues over minor points, the group itself will show its impatience. Failing this, you could:

  • indicate that, unless positive and helpful contributions are made by all present, nothing worthwhile will be achieved
  • give the offender a job to do – taking minutes, recording on whiteboard, etc.
  • break the meeting into small work-groups, giving the offender only a small group to distract
  • speak with the offender outside the meeting or over coffee.

7. When a long-winded participant dominates…

Here are four suggestions to quieten the long-winded, repetitious speaker:

  • Politely interrupt and suggest that it’s now time to hear from other participants.
  • Say: ‘I think we’ve been over this before.’
  • Fire a difficult question at the offender to halt the barrage of words.
  • Announce that each speaker has only three minutes to speak. Be strict with the blabbermouth, flexible with the others.
  • Discuss the problem in private with the talkative one.

8. When two people dominate discussion…

When two members engage in a back-and-forth contest, leaving others to look on, close the debate by:

  • summarising their arguments: ‘Is this what you two are saying?…’
  • involving other participants: ‘What do the rest of us think about this?…’ ‘So, everyone, is there some way all this helps us solve the problem at hand?…’

9. When a decision can’t be reached…

Make it easier for participants to evaluate the pros and cons of the issue: