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Beating the Meeting Defeaters

The Business of Medicine

Thwarting meeting disrupters & non-participators

In this edition of the Business of Medicine video series, medical practice process improvement expert Dave Spiciarich describes how meeting facilitators can lead more productive meetings through the management of two common, but challenging, personality types.

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We’ve all been in a meeting lasting an hour or more only to see nothing accomplished!  What happened?  We had all the right people; we knew what we wanted to decide; and yet meeting after meeting the same people discuss the same topics with no actionable outcomes.

So what’s the culprit?

In my experience, it’s all related to effective meeting management. One integral skill in leading meetings is using team dynamics to guide and develop discussions to reach a decision. But if you’ve ever tried to manage a group of people with diverse opinions, dissimilar backgrounds or competing interests, you know that this isn’t always simple.

The meeting defeaters: disrupters and non-participators

One reason is that there are two common personality types I have come to label as “disrupters” and “non-participators.”

Disrupters upset the flow of a meeting by dominating the conversation, carrying on side conversations or maybe even arguing excessively against other team members.

Non-participators simply don’t engage during meetings. They are silent even when their contribution is needed, or they consistently seem distracted.

In order to facilitate a meeting effectively, you have to find a way to encourage equal participation from all team members. That means finding a way to harness the energy and communications styles of these two personality types.

Here, I’m going to discuss a few ways to manage disrupters and non-participators to boost productivity and facilitate team communication.

Managing team disrupters

First, it’s important to establish clear guidelines before the meeting starts. You should involve the whole team, but I recommend coming prepared with suggestions. For instance, this is a great time to establish the expectation that the team will stay on topic and avoid side conversations. I find that if people are aware of this guideline from the start, they’ll be more likely to keep themselves (and their neighbors) in check.

However, clear guidelines may not stop disruptions, especially if team members have acquired bad habits. When a disrupter actively interrupts the flow of a meeting, the first thing to do is pause before reacting. Sometimes frustration breeds the wrong first response either with words or in body language. So pause for a moment before speaking or acting.

If the disrupter is being argumentative, don’t add fuel to the fire. Just like you don’t want individuals to push their personal agendas, you shouldn’t push yours. A back and forth battle will only prolong the disruption.

Instead, ask the disrupter “what” or “how” questions rather than “why” questions. For example, if a disrupter says that an idea in discussion won’t work or has been tried in the past, ask: “What other solution would you like to try?” “How would you do it differently this time?”

If a group of disrupters are carrying on a side conversation, one tactic is to place yourself physically close to this group – your presence may deter further side conversations. You can also call on one of the group to give an opinion on the topic under discussion. If it becomes a systemic and disruptive activity, simply state, “Let’s keep the side conversations to a minimum so everyone can hear the presenter.”

If a disrupter is overly talkative or rambling, don’t react by discouraging participation. These people may be your best asset because they are eager and possibly well informed about the topic in discussion. However, it is important to find balance, because they may dominate meetings and walk all over others.

You can also try to slow down disrupters with challenging questions – for example, “Is there any research or evidence that has addressed those issues?” Another solution is to put them to work. Disrupters can make great note takers, scribes and researchers. Having a task also helps them to focus on the group and not what they are going to say next.

You can also create what I call an “idea tree” or “parking lot” where people can write off-topic ideas. This helps team members who tend to stray from the meeting’s purpose to feel heard and validated, but lets the meeting continue on track.

I talk more about these tools in an online lesson in our MedAmorphosis MedAcademy and how they can maximize meeting efficiency and group participation.

Managing meeting non-participators

Finally, perhaps the most common challenge to meeting facilitation is non-participators. There are several ways to pull these people into the discussion.

First, try to engage others around them by soliciting their opinions. If the non-participator is an expert on a specific topic, ask about his or her knowledge. You could even ask the non-participator to present on a topic at the next meeting.

But be careful: some people don’t like to be put on the spot. So tune into the person’s body language to gauge comfort level. You never want to embarrass or add undue stress to participants. Also, lack of participation doesn’t necessarily mean lack of engagement, so ask yourself whether this person is disconnected or just isn’t comfortable in groups. It may be the team member prefers to participate in a different way, perhaps by note-taking or timekeeping or undertaking some other task.

When dealing with disrupters and non-participators, it’s important to keep the team dynamic in mind. Not addressing these behaviors affects not only team productivity but also morale and engagement. Proper management of a team’s communication helps create a collaborative environment where every team member feels like his or her voice has value.

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