How do I keep control of a meeting?

A strong leader knows that when one of the meeting members makes an inappropriate comment such as, "Howard, you are so naive and this idea of yours is really stupid," he or she needs to immediately exert control over the group: "Hey, Peter, that remark was uncalled for. Let's keep this meeting on a professional level, not a personal one." A strong leader won't allow such a remark to be endorsed or sanctioned by others, either. He or she doesn't wait for others to shake their heads in silent disdain for the inappropriate outburst—or, worse, nod in agreement.

Body language is also effective in controlling meeting behavior. If someone makes a scathing remark that is unjust or inaccurate in response to a remark from one of the participants, a strong, disapproving look back to the member may be effective. It may not be necessary to call the speaker to account. If criticism of the behavior is needed, it should be delivered calmly and with eye contact.

When participants at a meeting respond nonverbally to another member's comment—say, scoffing or rolling their eyes when a junior member makes a remark—a strong leader addresses the behavior either verbally or nonverbally. He or she might say, "Is there a problem, Peter, with John's remark?" The leader—and team members, too—can show with questioning looks that belittling attitudes just aren't appreciated and that they don't share that same, unjust opinion.

A good leader publicly apologizes for any derisive remarks. "Linda, I'm very sorry that remark was made. It was totally uncalled for, and we welcome your ideas."

The leader's role is to create an environment where ideas are viewed fairly, no matter who contributes them, and where the group's energies are positively and productively focused.

Tell Me More

A variety of situations can arise when you chair a meeting. Here are some guidelines to help you, as chair, to facilitate discussion:

- Ask for feelings or opinions. For instance, you might ask one team member who disagrees with another's suggestion what is the matter with the idea: "What brings you to question Joe's idea?" Or, you might query, "What do the rest of you think of Joe's idea?" Better yet, "Who has another suggestion about how we should proceed?"

- Paraphrase what others are saying. This technique can help clarify any misunderstandings, including misunderstandings that may prompt angry words about another member's remarks. Just the act of paraphrasing the comment may make an angry team member realize that she is overreacting to the statement of a coworker. As a team member, you may also want to paraphrase some remark to ensure clarification for the group as a whole: "Let me see if I understand your position. Are you suggesting that . . . ?" "What I am hearing is. .. . Am I right?" "Let me restate the last point you made to see if I understand."

- Ask for a summary. Periodically, you might want to stop the discussion to review conclusions reached. Not only will this keep your team on course, but it also allows the group as a whole to catch its breath if it was a heated discussion.

- Ask for more concrete examples. This moves the discussion from the abstract to specifics, from an exchange of information to specific actions the team can take to move forward.

- Question whether the group has reached consensus. Periodically, the team may seem to have reached the point where it is ready to make a decision on an issue. At that point, you may want to call for a vote to see if you are correct that the discussion is over.

- If the group feels further discussion is needed, then allow that. However, if the group seems as if it can't get over this hump, then you may want to ask, "What do we want the end result to be? What is it we are trying to accomplish here?" Focus the discussion on critical issues.

- Call for action. As a leader, you are always moving the team toward completion of its mission. That will demand that you monitor the discussion and, whenever appropriate, ask, "How do you think we should proceed?" Or, more specifically, "Darlene, how would you suggest we proceed?" Or, looking to the group as a whole, you might comment, "I'd like your suggestions on possible ways we can get started. . . ."

- As suggestions are made, put these on a flip chart for later discussion. Ideally, wait until all the ideas of the group have been put on the chart before discussing any.

- Suggest the next step. In the interest of maintaining team momentum, you will have to put an end to conversations and move along to the next item on the agenda or the next step toward achievement of the mission or objective related to the team project.

- Stay flexible. The closer you get to the end result, the more likely you will encounter differences of opinion—so, the more flexible your agenda should be in order to allow enough time for discussion.

- Support a team member. You may need to make supportive statements to get members of the team to share their feelings: "Grace, you've had your chance to share your opinion. Let's hear from Barbara now."

- Confront disagreements. How you confront disagreements will depend on the degree of conflict and the stage of the team's mission in which the conflict arises. But it is imperative that you act immediately when conflict arises. For instance, Helen is sitting quietly in her chair, obviously upset. You might say, "Helen, you seem upset by what you have just heard. Could you share your concerns with the rest of us?"

- Give all a chance to speak up. The majority of the team seems ready to come to a final decision. But there are two members who aren't supporting the decision. Open disagreements and even hostility are impeding the team from making a decision. Then you need to give those opposed to the proposed actions a chance to have their say.

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