Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 21;   May 23, 2012:

Handling Heat: II

by

Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satellite

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satellite. The scope of this accident continues to this day. In April, 2011, BP held its first annual general meeting of shareholders following the incident. People from the Gulf coast states purchased shares of the company as a means of gaining entry to the meeting to register protests — some more demonstrative than others. The company responded by denying entry to those whom they regarded as presenting a risk of meeting disruption.

This technique corresponds to what I am here describing as a refusal to engage. The situation is complex, because the conflict began with the actions of BP (and possibly others) at the well site, and from that perspective BP might be regarded as Aggressor. But the technique of refusing to engage can be effective for both the Aggressor and the Target, at any stage of the exchange. Moreover, Aggressors and Targets in long-running conflicts can exchange roles on a stage-by-stage basis. Thus, the techniques described here might be employed by either party, depending on the stage of the exchange. Photo by Rob Gutro, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Last time, we began to explore what we can do when heated exchanges occur in meetings, if the meeting lead either can't or won't address the problem. We saw that as meeting participants, there are some choices to avoid, because they probably won't work. The question remains: what can we do?

Here are some tactics that can be helpful in specific circumstances. In what follows, the term aggressor denotes the initiator of the attack, and target denotes the object of the attack.

Notice your own anger early
Noticing your own anger can give you the warning needed to avoid explosions. When you do get angry, notice your own physical responses. Write down a description, or describe your feelings to yourself aloud. Articulating the experience of anger can help you remember what anger feels like.
Later, when you recognize your own anger, take a breath or two. Give your brain the time and oxygen it needs to find a different path.
Refuse to engage
Because Aggressors usually select the timing and content of the attack, Targets are often taken by surprise, which gives Aggressors significant advantages. Targets who can consistently respond effectively when taken by surprise do indeed have a rare talent.
Even if the Target does possess such talent, engaging the Aggressor almost certainly takes the Target off point. There's little to gain by engagement. Instead, if you're targeted when speaking, stick to your plan. You've been interrupted, and you might even have been asked a question. Don't respond.
Seek allies
Ganging up on the Aggressor can be very effective. Preferably, the entire alliance petitions the meeting lead for redress, but we're assuming that that approach has failed. A less preferred alternative is direct action in the meeting itself. When an offense occurs, the alliance members can object in unison directly to the Aggressor, without waiting for recognition by the chair.
The risks of confrontation tactics can be mitigated in two ways. First, rehearsals can make people more comfortable with the action, and help build unity of purpose. A second approach is increasing alliance size. There truly is safety in numbers.
Know the range of retaliatory tactics
Retaliatory Because Aggressors usually select
the timing and content of the
attack, Targets are often taken by
surprise, which gives Aggressors
significant advantages
tactics might be effective when the interrupter is a well-meaning individual who got a little carried away. Examples of retaliatory tactics:
  • Wait for the interrupter to finish or pause, then ignore what has been said and continue, "As I was saying…"
  • Overtalk the interrupter by repeatedly saying, "Stop talking please, I had the floor…"
  • Offer any number of sarcastic comments such as, "Excuse me for talking while you're interrupting."
Caution: retaliatory tactics don't work on confirmed abusers. Use retaliation with care, and in combination with support from allies.

Remember that these measures are only a poor second choice. Addressing the problem of heated meetings is really the responsibility of the meeting lead. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Nonlinear Work: Internal Interactions  Next Issue

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