Facilitation Skills: Effective Meetings With Difficult People

When it comes to facilitation, it’s not enough to simply have a meeting agenda. Leading a successful discussion often comes down to managing different types of people—and the more difficult the personalities in the room, the harder it is. Successful facilitators adapt their style to meet the needs of the group, and by doing so, draw the best ideas out of their team.

We’ve identified some tough personas you might encounter in meetings and how to tweak your facilitation plan to better manage them. You might recognize these types from your own team, or—gasp!—you might even be one yourself.

Ramblers

While it seems like ramblers just like to hear themselves talk, many are actually thinking out loud and speaking before they have a fully formed idea. Brainstorming is great, but it’s more productive when ideas are better defined before being presented to a group. Ask ramblers to summarize their thoughts into a few bullet points, and then sketch them out to help them focus their thoughts.

Contrarians

Playing devil’s advocate has its place—but when a group is sharing ideas, arguing against their merits stifles productive discussion. Contrarians can cause less confident team members to hold back ideas, which can ultimately lead to fewer contributions to the group. Urge contrarians to expand on ideas rather than criticizing them, and to keep all comments positive. Set rules of the room right away if you know you’ll have a contrarian in the room.

Sidetrackers

In meetings, ideas will always arise that aren’t on the agenda. Sidetrackers can derail a meeting with too many off-topic discussions. This is where the “parking lot” comes in—a running list of items that come up during a meeting that are worth addressing at another time. The parking lot is helpful for allowing sidetrackers to be heard while also keeping the meeting on-track.

Insistent Sidetrackers

Some sidetrackers keep hammering away at an idea long after it’s been added to the parking lot, disrupting the discussion and making it more difficult to address items on the agenda. A way to deal with insistent sidetrackers is to allow the group to vote on whether to continue the discussion. If team members believe the topic is important enough to discuss, either allow a set amount of time for it, or schedule an alternate meeting.

Bulldozers

Bulldozers push their own agenda—as opposed to working as part of a team. Bulldozers are similar to sidetrackers in that they derail meeting productivity, but the difference is that bulldozers stick to the topic at hand while dominating the discussion and interrupting other team members. As a facilitator, it’s important to protect those being bulldozed. Ask other group members to finish or repeat their points if interrupted. The more you give the floor to other people’s contributions, the less power the bulldozer will have over the group.

Quiet Types

There are a few different reasons why someone may be quiet during meetings. They may be shy, intimidated, or just someone who only speaks when they feel they have something important to say. Directly asking them for thoughts may make them uncomfortable, so it’s important to find easier ways for them to contribute. Have the group write down ideas to hand over to the facilitator. Alternatively, break into smaller groups for more focused problem-solving to help make this type feel more comfortable opening up.

For All Types: Empathy is Key

Empathy goes a long way toward dealing with people we perceive as difficult to work with in meetings. When prepping for a meeting, spend time not just on the agenda, but on the participants. One by one, what is each person’s biggest priority? Biggest fear? Biggest strength? Then design the experience to account for it and be prepared to change on the fly.

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Andy Hagerman
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