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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Thumbs downRecalcitrant Collaborators
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
A pair of adult trumpeter swansFinding Work in Tough Times: Marketing
We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
A Roman coin from the reign of Marcus Cocceius NervaThe Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: I
In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
Perceptual illusions resulting from reificationThe Reification Error and Performance Management
Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted results.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Representative Don Young, Republican of AlaskaComing June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
Filling a form in hardcopyAnd on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.