Managing Meeting Mayhem

By Renee Houston Zemanski

You start the meeting, only to be interrupted by two or three latecomers. As you glance around the room, people are busy sending text messages on their cell phones and whispering quietly to each other. What about the meeting? How do you even try to compete with all of these distractions, not to mention the rambling storyteller and the constant disagreement between the two at the end of the table? These are just a few of the common dysfunctions that occur in meetings, but don’t fear, Michael Wilkinson, CMF, managing director of Leadership Strategies, Inc., offers some solutions to deal with dysfunction and disagreements:

  1. Prevention: Develop ground rules and discuss them at the beginning of the meeting. For example, Wilkinson suggests gaining agreement in advance on such ground rules as One conversation at a time. No interruptions. Arrive on time. Re-direct off-topic discussions.
  2. Early detection: Be on the lookout for dysfunction in the meeting, says Wilkinson. Don’t ignore it.
  3. Resolve dysfunction. If you detect a dysfunction, Wilkinson suggests executing an appropriate resolution strategy. While he says that the specific strategy depends on the type of dysfunction, when it occurs, and the number of people involved, he does provide a general formula:
    • Approach privately or generally.
    • Empathize with the symptom.
    • Address the root cause.
    • Get agreement on the solution.
  4. Resolve disagreements. Wilkinson says that there are three reasons people disagree and offers specific strategies to help. They are:
    • Lack of information. This occurs when the people disagreeing haven’t heard clearly or understood each others alternatives and the reasons for supporting them, says Wilkinson. These disagreements are often a result of an assumed understanding of what the other person is saying or meaning, he says. Wilkinson’s strategy: Define alternatives.
    • Different experiences or values. Even when parties have fully heard and understood one another’s alternatives, they may have had different experiences or hold different values. This results in them preferring one alternative to another. Wilkinson’s strategy: Identify strengths and weaknesses and create new alternatives that combine strengths.
    • Outside factors. This is when the disagreement is based on personality, past history, or other outside factors that have nothing to do with the alternatives, says Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s strategy: Take it to a higher source.

Employing these solutions can’t guarantee the perfect meeting, but it will definitely iron out some trouble spots.

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