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Whiners, Snipers and Know-it-alls, Oh My! How to Control Difficult People at Meetings

Whiners, Snipers and Know-it-alls, Oh My! How to Control Difficult People at Meetings

Best known for his Conscious Communication® expertise, Dr. Rick Brinkman provides helpful tips for keeping meetings focused and positive by preventing difficult people from taking over.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” -Benjamin Franklin

Difficult behaviors occur when people are stressed. Because people have too much to do and too many meetings have no purpose or structure, it’s easy for people to get stressed out at meetings and manifest difficult behaviors.  These can take the form of Whiners and No People who only look at what’s wrong with ideas and even worse it’s usually voiced in generalizations, “everything is wrong, nothing is right.” But since you can’t problem solve a generalization they drain the energy in the room. Know-it-Alls and Think-They-Know-it-Alls go on and on pontificating and taking the group down unnecessary tangents. The Judge with their incessant nitpicking also takes the group off course. The snarky Sniper with their sarcastic comments are a distraction. And then there is the Tank who declares marshal law and runs over everyone. Meanwhile your passive Yes, Maybe and Nothing people simply drop out and you only find out what they really think after the meeting. The good news is all these behaviors can be controlled and prevented with a few simple techniques.

1. Speaking Order: The first thing to put in place at a meeting is a speaking order because typically your assertive people talk too much and your passive people talk too little if at all. Establishing a speaking order at a meeting is what I call “Air Traffic Control.” There are two kinds of speaking orders. One is voluntary, where people raise their hand and you put their name on a visible whiteboard. That way people know their turn is coming and they tend to relax and listen more attentively to each other. The other is circular where you simply go around the room in pre-determined order. This ensures you hear from everyone, especially your more passive Yes, Maybe and Nothing people. A speaking order also prevents Snipers because you’re only allowed to speak when it’s your turn.

2. Time Limits to Speak: Along with the speaking order is a time limit for any one turn to speak. This begins to control all the difficult behaviors that talk too much like Know-it-Alls and Think-They-Know-it-Alls. It also puts a damper on Whiners, No people, and Judges who go on and on about what’s wrong.

3. Focus: Another part of Air Traffic Control is a focal point for the topic that is on the floor at any moment and the process being used. In an in-person meeting put a topic box and a process box on a whiteboard. Write the current topic and process being used in the boxes, for example; Brainstorming, Discussion, Pros of an idea, Cons of an idea, Presentation, Q & A, etc. You are only allowed speak to the current topic using the current process.  If the meeting is virtual require everyone to see a shared screen. Share a PowerPoint slide and in the title-area put the topic and process.

Having a focal point for topic and process prevents the meeting from going off course or being hijacked by Know-it-Alls, Think-They-Know-it-Alls and Judges. It also controls Whiners and No people who tend to only look at what’s wrong with ideas with dismissive generalizations, because if the process is brainstorming they can’t do that. If the process is presentation they can’t interrupt. If the process is looking at the pros they have to hold their tongue.

Your more passive behaviors of Yes, Maybe, and Nothing people can feel safe to actually say what they really think. These people operate on the theme, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.” But because we have a process that everyone is doing together, it makes it safe for them. The group is brainstorming together, then looking at the pros of an idea together, then looking at the cons together, they never feel in opposition to someone else’s comment.

4. Flight recording: This simply means having a visual device that all can see and whatever people contribute is summarized as a bullet point or sentence. This can be done on a PowerPoint slide in a virtual meeting or projected at an in-person meeting. This cuts down on people repeating themselves at meetings. Think about it, if there is no visual flight recording and I have a point of view that I think is important to the group mind, I’m going to say it a number of times to keep it in people’s awareness. But if we have flight recording, I say it, then I see it, I see that you see it and five minutes later we all still see it. You’ll be amazed at how this simple thing eliminates people repeating themselves.

This also helps eliminate Whiners and No people, because it makes no sense to put dismissive generalizations on a PowerPoint slide. This forces them to be specific about problems. Specifics of a problem are the first step to problem-solving. It eliminates Snipers because the first time they see their snarky comment on a PowerPoint slide will also be the last time. (Yes, everything gets written). And it fulfills the Know-it-all’s and Think-They-Know-it-All’s ego needs when they see their contribution in writing for all to see.

When you run a meeting like this you can always tell who would have become the Tank because they’re the one with the biggest grin on their face. The group stays focused, there are no tangents, no stray comments and the group goes through agenda items like a wood chipper.

I have found that putting these four processes in place not only controls all the difficult behaviors but prevents them from occurring in the first place.

To read more from Dr. Rick Brinkman, check out his book Dealing with Meetings You Can’t Stand.

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Whiners, Snipers and Know-it-alls, Oh My! How to Control Difficult People at Meetings
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Dr. Rick Brinkman is the coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, which has been translated into 25 languages. He is a top keynote speaker and trainer on leadership, teamwork, customer service, effective meetings, difficult people, and managing multiple priorities.