How to Deal with Difficult People in Your Meetings

Organizational Management September 07, 2017

Terry Ibele

By Terry Ibele

This is a guest post from Margaret Sumption, the presenter of our free webinar “How the Best Nonprofits Resolve Internal Conflict Quickly and Get on with Their Mission,” which you can watch here

One of the biggest causes of unproductive meetings is conflict between team members — and often it’s only one or two difficult people causing all the problems.

In my almost 30 years of working with nonprofits, I’ve realized most difficult people can be grouped into six categories. I’ve also been able to refine a system to assess, understand, and successfully bring out the best in each of these types of people.

If you’re dealing with a difficult person in your organization and want to know how to deal with office politics, here’s my system to identify the cause behind the difficulty, and how to turn them into productive team members in your meetings. At the end, I've included a handy infographic that sums everything up.


The Dominator

The dominator attempts to control the group by asserting authority or appearing superior. When planning the meeting, consider putting an agenda item up front for the group to set its own limits on how input will be taken. This will allow everyone to talk while limiting long-winded dialogue. Another tactic that is effective is to ask people to limit adding dialogue until everyone has had a chance to speak.


The Blocker

Blockers are those who actively oppose the emerging consensus of the group holding on to a point of view beyond what is reasonable. A very effective strategy is to appoint a “recorder” who will put all ideas presented by the group on large poster paper for all to see as the meeting progresses. Then, as ideas are dismissed, they can be crossed out. This limits the blocker from trying to resurrect ideas and plans already rejected by the group.


The Aggressor

An aggressor is one who expresses disapproval of another’s suggestion, including attacking a group, person, or problem using sarcasm, joking, or tone of contempt. When there is a group member with this reputation, consider setting ground rules up front. Set the “rules of engagement” at the outset to send a strong message to aggressors that personal attacks will not be tolerated.


The Disputer

The disputer often disguises themself as an amiable individual. Looking deeper, you can see this pattern. It generally means that this person does not share the goals of the group. The disputer will take the group off track using cynicism, targeting insignificant elements of the topic, and sometimes using humor to take people off the process. Managing this pattern of behavior requires the leader of the group to read the underlying meaning of the disputer’s behavior, draw it out with questions or be very direct in asking for clarification of a comment. Be alert to the fact that absence of engaged behavior (a person pushed back from the table, not paying attention, soliciting side conversations with other attendees, or presenting nonverbal gestures and facial expressions) must also be managed by the leader.


The Procrastinator

Outside the meeting room, the procrastinator is most often the one limiting progress. The best strategy is diligent accountability. For every task assigned to individual members, there should be timelines for completion and clear description of the desired outcome. For added safety, groups with one or more of these members should encourage the naming of a “project monitor” who will do follow-up communications on a structured process timeline. It is also critical to assure accountability by including works in progress to be reported to the group at regular meetings. 


The Gossiper

The gossiper rarely is a problem within meetings. Their negative impact is powerful nonetheless. Gossipers are often those who have very little to say in meetings. The first clue I had to who these folks are (I lovingly refer to them as “tailgaters”) came from my time serving on a small community church council. After every meeting, one man would gather anyone who would listen around the tailgate of his truck in the church parking lot and start the conversation with “a guy shoulda said....” You get the drift. Prevention is the best approach to managing this difficult behavior. The group leader must be assertive inside the meeting reminding all members to share their views during the meeting agenda. Also keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. If someone is gossiping to you, it’s because you are listening. Group members must discipline themselves and uphold the integrity of the group by asking gossipers to take their comments to the entire group.


Maybe It’s You?

This post would not be complete if I did not call out the possibility that you might be the difficult person. It is important that each group member assess their own behavior and be diligent in bringing a positive sentiment and engagement to the group’s work. Are you listening? Are you allowing equal time for all members to speak when discussing issues? Are you speaking up, even when it is uncomfortable? Are you keeping your commitments to the group?

When a group forms to take on their mission, it must understand that, to be successful, they must navigate “shared decision-making.” Letting go of the “I” and embracing the “we” will get things done for the good of all. 

To learn more effective ways to resolve conflict in your organization, please watch my free webinar How the Best Nonprofits Resolve Internal Conflict Quickly and Get on With Their Mission.

In the webinar, I’ll show you:

  • 7 proven communication strategies that prevent conflict in the first place
  • The reframing technique that turns interpersonal tension into creative solutions
  • The best way to rebuild relationships after a conflict

I hope to see you there!

And, as I mentioned, here's a handy infographic on how to deal with difficult people in your meetings:

How to Deal With Difficult People in Your Meetings 

Margaret Sumption How to deal with difficult peopleMargaret J. Sumption is a 35-year veteran in association, government, and nonprofit leadership. Educated first as a special education teacher and school counselor, Sumption holds certifications as a Mental Health Professional (LPC) and Senior Human Resource Professional (SHRM-SPC, SPHR). In her business, Sumption & Wyland, Margaret has worked for 26 years nationally in board development, governance, strategic planning, teams training, and conflict management. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and trainer. In addition to her work with organizations, Sumption also supports an executive coaching practice assisting executives to build their leadership influence and meet professional goals.

Additional Resources: 

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