We sent the agenda in advance, outlined the objectives of the meeting up front, and even limited the size of the group to keep it manageable. Despite this, you still have a disruptor: someone who goes off-topic, brings their negativity, or takes up too much airtime. Although it may feel this way, we are not powerless. Here are some facilitation strategies to keep the disruptions at bay.
Set talking norms: explain at the beginning of the meeting that we want to hear as many voices as possible, so we ask to keep responses to [insert time limit here].
Make disruptors your allies: before the meeting, speak with the person who you anticipate will disrupt and give them the responsibility of keeping others on track. They will be so busy managing others that they end up being managed themselves.
Interrupt with a question: this question can be directed towards the speaker to guide them back towards the topic or directed towards the audience to bring in more voices on the subject. For example: "Interesting point, Sam. What does everyone else think?"
Have backup: assign a colleague to help you manage a known disrupter. Having another voice in the room that you can rely on to ask questions or respond when necessary prevents an uncomfortable disruptor vs. facilitator dynamic.
Have senior backup: if you are in-person, you can have a more senior colleague sit next to the disruptor. The presence of this senior colleague will help curb some disruptive behavior like side conversations.
Use your eyes: if in person, once someone goes off topic or is entering rambling territory, make eye contact with the group instead of the speaker. This cues the speaker to conclude and the audience to speak up.
Use names: interrupting the disruptor with their name gets them to pause just long enough for you to slip in. You can also steer discussions using names by calling on people (especially people who you haven't heard from yet) before the disruptor has the chance to speak.
Match and lead: find common ground with the disruptor and then guide them back to the topic at hand. For example: "I agree. This is an important topic and deserves its own meeting. Let's finish discussing today's topic and then we can set up a separate time to dive into what you mentioned."
Prepare with Positive: if disruptors are bringing a lot of negativity, it can leave everyone else feeling defeated. Therefore, come prepared with positivity. For example, starting the meeting off by praising a colleague, sharing good news that affects the team, or ending the meeting with an empowering statement.
Choose 2-3 strategies to practice and note any difference in your meetings. Disruptors will always be there, but this time you will be ready.
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