Meetings present forums for the expression of ideas and concerns. Inevitably, different opinions collide. Each person feels strongly about his or her perspective, and the situation lands in your lap. It's time to pull out your mediator hat and put your communication skills to work negotiating a solution for all parties to accept and respect. Effective negotiation requires both sides to come to the table with the following:
A common allegiance: Working toward common goals establishes a connection defined by similarities, not differences. If nothing else, both sides work for the same company and should support the company's goals, which gives them a common mission. When both sides want to achieve the same outcomes, they're often more willing to search for common ground.
Mutual respect: Despite their differences, do the parties respect each other? If so, they will be able to focus on process-oriented solutions and to separate themselves from their disagreement. Respect is the foundation for trust; people must respect each other before they can trust one another to fulfill the agreements they reach.
Open minds: Each party must be willing to both talk and listen so that together they can explore possible solutions.
Willingness to change: Obviously each party comes to the meeting believing its perspective is valid and correct. After listening to each other and discussing the problems, all parties must be willing to change their positions to accommodate suggested solutions.
Reaching an agreement to resolve a conflict doesn't necessarily mean that each side gets what it wants. Sometimes solutions are collaborative (all parties gain) and sometimes they involve compromise (all parties give something up). Each party must feel satisfied with the solution, or the conflict remains.
People lose it sometimes. Little things add up, tensions and frustrations build. People feel powerless to control or change situations that they believe should be different but that persist because you (or someone else or another department or the company) intentionally created the circumstances. Whether there is truth to this perception doesn't matter; perceptions are reality as viewed through the ever-changing hues of emotions. And the forum of the meeting becomes the place to express dissatisfaction.
Emotions and anger, especially when pent up, may entirely derail a meeting's agenda. When it appears things are going in this direction, you have two options. You can channel the expressed frustration as constructively as possible and reschedule the intended agenda for another meeting, or you can interrupt the dialogue, acknowledge the emotions, commit to a separate meeting to specifically address the erupting concerns, and return to the scheduled agenda. The option you choose isn't as important as maintaining control.
Anger is an unmistakable sign that a person has exceeded his or her tolerance for a situation or behavior. It is an intense and powerful blend of emotion and action that often frightens even the person who is angry. Anger tends to feed on itself. The longer the shouting continues, the more volatile the anger becomes. Meetings can quickly become shouting matches, so it's crucial to defuse anger quickly. These steps can help you regain control:
Intercede immediately. Don't wait for things to become truly explosive. Often, just the fact that you become involved is enough interrupt the cycle and start turning things around.
Remove the audience. If an employee is yelling and otherwise going off in front of other employees, get him or her into an office or conference room, or ask the other employees to leave for a few minutes. Someone who loses control in front of others feels compelled to maintain or escalate angry behaviors. Removing the audience gives the angry person the freedom to back down without losing face and to regain composure.
Separate the behavior from the person, and request that the behavior change immediately. Look away from the person to give him or her a few moments to pull it together, but stay in the room (unless you fear for your safety). By staying in the room, you make it clear that you're willing to do what you can to work things out and also cut short any approach to use anger as a manipulative behavior.
Be an active listener. Let the person fully explain his or her position and frustration, even if you think you already know the problem or have heard it before. Until the full story is out, ask questions only to clarify details.
Ask what solutions the employee would like to see. If one or more of the employee's suggestions make sense, discuss with the employee how best to implement changes. If the suggestions don't make sense, provide a brief and factual explanation and offer an alternative.
Reiterate any agreements, and establish a plan to follow up. This formalizes the discussion so the employee knows the discussion was more than just blowing off steam.
Meetings are one way in which managers can model the behavior they want to see in their department. Employees watch the way managers treat them and others. The notice whom you acknowledge and how you acknowledge them. They watch how new ideas are accepted or cut off, and whether the established feedback loop is functional or merely lip service.
The Silent Treatment
Sometimes people come to meetings and simply sit. Even when you question them directly, they offer only perfunctory responses. What lies behind such behavior? Often, it's the perception that this is yet another useless meeting in which input and opinions don't really matter. Is it? This is a good opportunity to evaluate the reasons for meetings in your work group, the structure of the agendas, and the conduct of the meetings. Perhaps the meetings are important only to you, or it's your higher-ups who mandate the meetings. Are there more efficient ways for you to convey or collect information? Employees who have heavy workloads (and who doesn't) may resent meetings that take them from their assigned tasks, especially when there are no mechanisms for them to make up the lost time.
Keep a Sense of Humor
Humor is a great way to defuse situations before they become volatile or frustrating. However, it's important to know the difference between finding humor, which is appropriate and often useful, and cracking jokes, which is nearly always inappropriate. Humor arises from situations and carries the unspoken message of shared perspectives; it allows people to have fun. Jokes often poke fun at situations or people.