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.

NEW: To see a video version of this blog, please click here!

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 others what they think. Charlotte, what about you?”

  • If someone isn’t contributing, ask them directly for an opinion, but frame it with a reference to their knowledge or experience to help them feel validated and more confident before they speak: “Helen, I know you know a lot about this subject, and I was wondering what you think about it?”

  • If none of this is working (which is unlikely, because fundamentally most people don’t want to rock the boat too much), then stop the meeting, and ask to have a word with the person causing the problem. Step outside, and ask them directly what is going on. Make it clear that this is not what you want in your meeting, but do it from a perspective of trying to understand their behaviour. You can then address what is bothering them. Being listened to will generally head off any continued bad behaviour. For example: “Sorry everyone, Phoebe, can we have a quick word outside please? I notice that you’re not really feeling comfortable today, and I was wondering what was going on? We’ve got a lot to get done in the time, and I’m sure you realise that [being negative/ not allowing others to speak] doesn’t help us move forward. So I wanted to check what you were thinking?"

And one final tip

Refreshments really do help!

Offering tea, coffee, biscuits and/or fruit helps meeting attendees feel cared for, which gets them in a positive frame of mind. At the very least, make sure there is water…

And that’s it.

As with many aspects of work, good preparation is key to success.

When I was in the Civil Service, having effective meetings was an art form, and success or failure was usually decided before the meeting ever started.

So prepare to succeed! And follow these steps if you need any extra help.

Good luck!

Kirsten xx

p.s. If you would like to find out more about the career coaching I offer, do get in touch on or visit my website at Booking has just opened for our next one-day Career Retreat in Central London on Saturday 8th June - click here for more info and to reserve your space.

p.p.s. Don't forget, to see a video version of this blog, please click here!

Things to do and consider

  1. Look at your diary. How many meetings do you know what the purpose is, and what your expected contribution is? Are you really needed? If you aren’t clear, ask the meeting organiser.

  2. What type of meetings do you facilitate? Work out the broad categories, and work out the optimum length, attendees, and types of contribution for each one. Then you are ready for when you next need to organise a meeting.

  3. Learn from others. Some people generally chair constructive, productive, positive meetings. Watch what they do. Identify how they set expectations, and manage behaviour. What can you replicate that would work for your particular circumstances?