Help me run this contentious meeting!
August 6, 2014 12:53 PM   Subscribe

Tomorrow morning I will serve as the facilitator for a meeting I called, which is a four-year review of the program I run. The meeting will be among several old white men, and I am a reasonably young white female. There are bound to be emotions, as people have personal investment in various aspects of the topics to be discussed, and there are territorial issues that will likely rear their heads. What tips do you have for keeping such meetings productive, rational and finishing on time?

I have written and circulated an agenda with the points to be discussed, so I know I can always plead to stick to the time limits. What I'm most worried about is 1. wasting everyone's time with unproductive pontificating and 2. bullying attacks from one person who--hey!--happens to be my former boss.

My current boss and I are in perfect agreement about what we want to get out of the meeting, so I know he has my back. However, I've never chaired a meeting like this and am looking for advice on nudging things to go along the way I want them to. Frankly, I'm terrified. Please help?
posted by Liesl to Work & Money (14 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I might recommend a strategy that (alas) I was late coming to in life: have small meetings before the big meeting so that when you get to the big meaning, everything kind of just falls into place and it's more like you're reviewing a group consensus than it is like you're looking for new input.

Is it too late to call each participant, one at a time, and just quickly go over the topics? You might be surprised by how much of the energy they'll let out on you in a one-on-one, which may keep them calmer in the big meeting, and how many things you can get decided in on the one-on-ones so that they don't have to be discussed in the big meeting.

Good luck, in any case.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:11 PM on August 6, 2014 [21 favorites]

Start by being very clear (I mean VERY clear) about the purpose of the meeting. Work with your boss to articulate a specific, tangible purpose. Maybe it's to achieve a particular result. Maybe it's to achieve that result within a fixed period of time. Announce that purpose at the outset of the meeting: "The purpose of this meeting is X."

If the purpose is clearly articulated, you will have important leverage in reminding participants as necessary that "this discussion does not move us to our purpose", or "remember that our purpose is X; now Mr. Jones ...". You might have to repeat this more times than you like, but having that purpose will be very helpful.

HINT: Your "purpose" is not merely to "review the program". That gives you no leverage.
posted by John Borrowman at 1:21 PM on August 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

You want to be serious (extra important for young women) and pleasant/cheerful (important because that will set the tone of the meeting). When you start things off, I would say something along the lines of "I know some of the issues we're going to discuss today are a little contentious. I want to encourage everyone here to express their thoughts and needs, but I also hope we can be courteous to one another and productive. With that in mind, let's get started!" Acknowledge that there are some Issues to be discussed, and set the expectation that that will be done politely.

I see you're in NYC, so in my view it is too late to call the participants as suggested by Mo Nickels. If you called me now I would be (1) annoyed, because I'm starting my day-end close out which is always time consuming* and (2) unimpressed, because (I would think to myself), why the fuck didn't she think of this yesterday, or last week? So while Mo Nickels' idea is great, I'm afraid it won't work for your situation.

Good luck! I know it's cheesy, but if you walk into the meeting in a good headspace, you're more likely to succeed.

* Lest I be called a liar, I'm on a pomodoro break!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:22 PM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mo Nickels has good advice - I call it "socializing" the information first so no one is caught off guard. If they have time to absorb the information (privately) first then they won't be so defensive.

Focus on the facts, not the people. (People always want to blame the other person's character first, vs. the context that person found themselves in.)

I took an OD class where they taught the GRPI model for sorting out organizational problems
- 80% of the problems are because the Goals were unclear
- of the remaining 20% of problems, 80% were because the Roles were unclear
- of the remaining 20% of problems, 80% were because the Processes/Procedures were unclear
I add my own: additional 20% of 80% are because the Tools weren't supportive

finally at the very end... its because the Interpersonal relationships were shite

Unfortunately when people are mad, they immediately go to Interpersonal Relationship "so and so is a Dick and never told me about XYZ in time because he hates me!!" or those kind of insinuations. Your job is to re-interpret what they are saying in the GRP(T)I model. "So what I hear you saying is that you needed information, and that the role division was unclear in this case as XYZ was unclear about this requirement."

That's how to keep it to the facts. Don't let it get personal.

Finally you get to set the tone... if people start mud slinging, Nip It In The Bud.

you: sales were down 20% last year
defensive guy: well that's because Other Guy is a Stupid Stupidhead!
you: Whoa now. (conscious pause for 3 seconds) As I was saying, sales were down 20% last year...

Don't rub it in, don't make an issue of it, just acknowledge it, and then obviously walk right past it. It sets the stage for respect.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:23 PM on August 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

I'd try to nod, accept, and deflect further discussion.

"Excellent point, but let's table that for further discussion in a follow up one-on-one session."

"Richard, that's your area, can you give us a write up by a week from Thursday?"

"Why don't you two take that off to a sidebar and we address it later."

"Alright, we'll put that on the agenda for next time."

If possible schedule the meeting just before lunch. Other people will push it forward for you...
posted by Mad_Carew at 1:26 PM on August 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've found "Let's try X. If it doesn't work out we can revisit it in [time period 6 months or more out]," often mollifies people. The timeframe helps if it's far enough away that people forget it exists before the deadline occurs, and you can always say that you're giving it enough time to definitely say it's going to work or not work.
posted by telophase at 2:03 PM on August 6, 2014

Are some of these people new to you? You may have success in asking everyone to go around the room and quickly state specific things, such as:

1. What you feel is strongest about the program?
2. What part of the program needs additional support?
3. How do you hope to see the program evolve in the next 1-5 years?

Or pick your own, based on what you and your boss want to achieve.

This can give you an advantage of seeing in advance what aspects of discussion will need the most wrangling. And people who are going to be difficult will very quickly reveal themselves.

If you find someone who's particularly unruly, placate them: "I want to be sure we're capturing all your ideas on X. Can we set a time to follow up on Friday?" Brushing off their comments just makes them more adamant. (Ask me how I know!)
posted by mochapickle at 2:45 PM on August 6, 2014

I've found for meetings like this, it can be useful to set time guidelines for each agenda item, e.g. "Let's spend five minutes talking about how to prepare for upcoming opossum warfare, ten minutes dealing with the barnacles, and fifteen minutes addressing tenant complaints from the bees. Does this sound reasonable?" Then you've framed expectations about depth implicitly to some degree, and someone can serve as a timekeeper and can reasonably ask folks to keep their rambles limited. Since it sounds like you'll be chairing the meeting, and since your boss presumably has more legitimate power to tell the old white guys to shut the hell up, this could become his job.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:02 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Taking visible notes of key points can help cut off circular discussions.
posted by elmay at 3:27 PM on August 6, 2014

Be prepared with answers to the really difficult questions that you anticipate they will ask. Like Rude Q/A questions. They may not be the meanest, nastiest guys but I bet you have some idea about what their questions will be.
posted by lois1950 at 4:25 PM on August 6, 2014

Keep a (visible) list of points that are raised but off-topic. That's you're parking lot. If somebody starts to go on a tangent, say "Okay, that's an important issue but we need to keep it focused. Let's add to this list of items we need to take up at a future meeting."
posted by synecdoche at 4:47 PM on August 6, 2014

"I know I can always plead to stick to the time limits."

It's your meeting and excuse my language, but fuck that, no pleading.

"Thank you, now moving to agenda item three".

Positive Action Subcomittee Chair PBMS Bay Area 1997 - 1998
posted by vapidave at 5:19 PM on August 6, 2014

Something I have found useful to do when someone would repeat or rephrase a point already made is to interject and say "does anyone have anything *new* to add". In my experience, most people take that as a cue to move on to the next topic in the agenda.
posted by aroberge at 5:39 PM on August 6, 2014

The meeting finished about an hour ago (we only went 15 minutes over!) and it seems like it was a great success. I "best-answered" those tips which I thought would fit well with the particular mix of people I had to deal with, but all the advice is wonderful. And I'll make it a habit to pre-meet with each person in the future.

Thanks to all!
posted by Liesl at 10:44 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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