What to do when your meeting goes bad...

We’ve all been there - when one person decides to disrupt the a meeting with negative, domineering or distracting behaviour.

If your job is to facilitate the group, this can be hard to deal with.

This post gives you three steps that will help you deal with difficult people and get the outcome you want.

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1. Lay positive foundations.

Make sure the meeting is set up to succeed even before you enter the room.

People become difficult in meetings when they are bored, frustrated, purposeless, or in the wrong mindset.

There is a lot you can do to prevent that from happening during the preparation stage.

As facilitator, or chair, you have to decide what the objectives are, how long the meeting will be, and who the required participants are.

Only invite people who really need to be there, otherwise you are increasing the chances of people feeling bored and frustrated.

And decide what kind of contribution you expect from participants. This will depend on the purpose of the meeting.

Generally, make it as short as possible (otherwise people get bored), make sure there are only one to three objectives (otherwise it gets unwieldy, with room for getting off-track), and have one style of contribution: is it a brain-storm; is it a planning meeting; is a team update?

Stick to one type at a time, so that people can focus on one type of participation.

Then make all of this clear to attendees when you invite them to the meeting.

Help them realise that this is a purposeful, meaningful meeting where they are being invited because they are needed. That will help create the right mindset for when they arrive.

And if you think someone is going to be a problem even before you start, have a pre-meeting with them about what the meeting is about, and what you want from them in the meeting.

Don’t allow room for confusion or boredom - or for people to think bad behaviour will be tolerated.

2. Set expectations at the start

The tone of a meeting is shaped in the first few minutes.

As facilitator, it is your job to set the tone of the meeting.

(Even if the rest of the meeting is collaborative, the group need direction at the start - and that has to come from you.)

So remind everyone about the purpose of the meeting; and lay the groundwork for expectations.

This doesn’t have to be too heavy-handed:

  • thank you for coming;

  • this is the objective and time-frame for the meeting;

  • why this matters;

  • this is the contribution/ behaviour you want from them today;

  • offer an opportunity for questions (to get them out of the way);

  • then lead them into how it’s going to work.

For example:

“Thank you all for coming along today. We are going to spend the next hour brainstorming our business objectives for the next financial year, which is a really important part of our business planning process.

So I hope you’re all feeling creative and constructive? Yes? Any questions before we start?

Ok, let’s go. First we are going to…”

3. Address difficult behaviour directly, and early

The key is not to let bad behaviour spiral out of control.

First, make sure you are calm (it NEVER helps for you to add emotion to the situation).


  • If someone starts having a side-conversation, go silent until they are finished (usually they will be too embarrassed to do it again)

  • If someone starts to be negative, empathise with their point of view, but directly ask them to frame their contribution in a constructive way: “I understand what you’re saying, but I want us to focus on how we can solve problems today. So what do you suggest we could do about that/ what could we do to prevent that?”

  • If someone starts to dominate, thank them for their contribution and ask the rest of the group what they think. If they continue, thank them again, acknowledge their contribution, then remind the group of the time constraints and the purpose of the meeting, and again refer it back to the group, or a particular individual to move the conversation on. “Thanks Katie, I hear that you are saying x and y, that’s useful input. Just a reminder that we only have twenty minutes left and we need to get agreement on this point, so I would love to hear from oth