Contentious Meetings

By Lain Ehmann

A lot is written about feel-good meetings such as get-togethers for product launches, the President’s Circle or the year’s kick-off. Many meetings salespeople attend, however, can be less than, shall we say, pleasant. It’s no fun when you have to meet with R&D to duke out priorities for the next generation of products, talk to a customer about a product failure that shut down its manufacturing for three days or tell your team that the year’s outlook is bleak. Here’s how to prepare for and handle those not-so-fun meetings.

  • Set the stage. To have your best shot at keeping things civil and preventing them from falling into an us-them scenario choose your locale carefully. Pick a neutral location such as a hotel or restaurant, but avoid holding what’s sure to be an emotionally charged discussion in a public forum. Instead get a suite at the hotel or a private dining area at the restaurant. If you’re announcing to your team that layoffs are imminent because of declining revenue, don’t host them in a lavish venue. Make sure your message matches the environment.
  • Meet on common ground. Start things off on the right foot by reaffirming your joint commitments to the company, to solving the problem at hand, to serving your customers. “Once the goals are identified the group can move on to discussing how the goals can be shared,” writes Florence Stone in The Essential New Manger’s Kit (Dearborn, 2004).
  • Build in breaks. Just as couples must have the ability to take a time out when talking about their differences, build in ample opportunities for breaks beforehand and agree that any attendee can ask for a chance to regroup if things start getting hairy. Don’t let your desire to hammer things out overshadow the need to keep things calm.
  • Bring in a mediator. Stone says it can be effective to ask a noninvolved party, such as an outside professional facilitator or a member of your own company not directly involved in the conflict, to act as a mediator. “A mediator should stress that no one is there to judge guilt or innocence. The intent of the mediation is to help those in conflict get to the root of the problem and devise an acceptable solution. The mediator should stress that the parties’ focus be on the future, not the past,” she explains. Organizations such as the American Center for Conflict Resolution Institute (ACCRI) accredit professional mediators and can help you find one in your area.
  • Don’t expect miracles. If things are particularly hairy it might take more than a two-hour meeting to make things better. When planning the meeting set up a series of times to get together, not just one. If the subsequent meetings aren’t necessary you can always cancel, but it’s better to plan on more than you think you’ll need.

    For more information on finding an accredited mediator, please go to