Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 2;   January 9, 2002: When Meetings Boil Over

When Meetings Boil Over

by

At any time, without warning, you can find yourself in a meeting that boils over. Sometimes tempers rise, then voices rise, and then people yell and scream. What can a team do when meetings threaten to boil over — and when they do?
Glow of lava reflected in steam plume east of Kupapa'u Point, on the Big Island of Hawaii

Glow of lava reflected in steam plume east of Kupapa'u Point, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by T.J. Takahashi, courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Think of a time when you attended a meeting where tempers flared. That might be easy — it might have happened yesterday morning. For most of us, fortunately, it's a rare occurrence.

Despite their rarity, stressed-out, anger-infused meetings can be damaging. We must question whatever a team produces when it's angry or fearful or under stress. When we can feel the tension in a meeting, we can't do our best work, because we're focused on whatever is the source of tension, instead of the task. And the source of the tension is usually a duel between two people.

Solid planning can help reduce the chances that a meeting will erupt into a duel. But what can we do when a duel does erupt?

Some teams take "time out." Someone suggests a break and — usually without acknowledging the obvious conflict — the meeting breaks for a few minutes. While this approach does often defuse the immediate situation, the root causes remain in place. Although a relapse is likely, the break is a useful tool for groups that cannot confront the issue more directly.

Groups that deal openly with the problem have more choices.

Despite their rarity,
stressed-out,
anger-infused
meetings can be
damaging
Enlist a facilitator
Let the facilitator track the queue of speakers. Find someone not otherwise involved in the meeting. If you must choose a participant, make clear that the facilitator cannot participate in meeting content.
Pledge not to interrupt
Everyone agrees to speak only when acknowledged by the facilitator. When we interrupt, we can convey the message that we don't value the ideas of the person interrupted, or perhaps that we don't value the person we interrupted. When a meeting boils over, such a message can be very damaging.
Suppress sidebars
Sidebar conversations are distractions in any meeting. But when the meeting is near the boiling point, and we have no idea what two people are whispering to each other, we tend to make up something really horrible.
Declare a three-exchange dialog
As the queue of speakers accumulates, the logical order of what they have to say might not match their order in the queue. When two people need to dialog, the facilitator can ask for the group's permission for a dialog with a limit of three exchanges. In a meeting near the boiling point, a three-exchange dialog can give the dueling dyad a way to have a structured, interruption-free, respectful conversation.
Take a brief silent break
If you must take a break, make it brief, and agree not to speak with each other. When tempers are high, some tend to interpret conversations that occur in breaks as conspiratorial. A silent break gives everyone a chance to breathe and to calm down without fear that anyone is hatching a plot.

As a last resort, consider inviting an observer. If you choose someone not otherwise associated with the group, you'll be rewarded with a fresh perspective, and a possible key to turning down the heat. Go to top Top  Next issue: Express Your Appreciation and Trust  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
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Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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