Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 50;   December 14, 2016: Dealing with Meeting Hijackings

Dealing with Meeting Hijackings

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When you haven't prevented a meeting hijacking, and you believe a hijacking is underway, what can you do? How can you regain control?
Bee with pollen

Bee with pollen. In a 2015 paper by Peter Graystock, Dave Goulson, and William O. H. Hughes, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the authors reported evidence that bee parasites have been found to spread among bees, both within a given bee species and across bee species, by means of the flowers the bees visit to harvest pollen and nectar. In effect, the parasites "hijack" the flowers to their own purposes. In her June 8, 2015, contribution to Sciblogs, Erica Mather provides a more accessible description of this work. Photo (cc) 2.0 by coniferconifer.

You've done whatever you could in advance, but it didn't prevent an attempted hijacking of the meeting, because it appears that a meeting participant might be trying to steer the meeting away from the agenda. What can you do? Here are some guidelines for the meeting Chair or facilitator who is responding to hijacking behavior. In what follows, we'll use the names Horace or Harriet to refer to the hijacker.

Adhere to established procedure
However outrageous or insulting Horace's behavior becomes, be calm and respectful. Do nothing that would seem heavy-handed or offensive, or which can seem to be an abuse of the Chair's power. Such tactics can arouse sympathy among other participants or possible future hijackers. Hijackers, especially Horace, can use that sympathy to disrupt the agenda. If established procedures aren't sufficient for controlling hijackers, the time to add such tools is in advance of the hijacking incident.
Allocate time to each agenda item
Adhering to a pre-determined schedule creates a desire in other participants to keep the discussion on topic. This helps Chairs when they rule contributions out of order or when they determine that they're unrelated to the current agenda item. With each such ruling against Harriet, her efforts to marshal the sympathy of other participants become less productive.
Recognize that some deviations from the agenda aren't hijacking
Some people don't realize that their contributions are off topic. They're sincerely exuberant. Treating them as if they were hijackers can seem to be gratuitous spitefulness on the part of the Chair. Actual hijackers can exploit the Chair's mishandling of these incidents to gain sympathy for their disruptive behavior.
Don't recognize other participants in Horace's place
Recognizing someone other than Horace, out of turn, can be a tempting method for depriving him of opportunities to redirect the discussion. But it can also seem to be abuse of the Chair's power. Maintain your normal practice for recognizing speakers.
Don't interrupt Harriet's attempts to shift the discussion
Having recognized Some people don't realize
that their contributions
are off topic. They're
sincerely exuberant.
Harriet, interrupting her as she tries to hijack the meeting can also appear to be abuse of the Chair's power. Comments such as, "Please get to the point," or "That isn't related to the current topic," can seem abrasive. When Harriet has finished, if her comments were explicitly forbidden by the not-agenda, advise the meeting at large of that fact. If it appears that she departed from the agenda in some other way, add her point to the parking lot. If she objects, explain that she was out of order, and let the meeting decide whether or not the agenda needs adjusting. The time taken for such an agenda adjustment discussion must, of course, be taken from reserve, or from other agenda items. After the first such incident, most participants will likely recognize the disruptive behavior as disruptive.

If these approaches don't contain the hijacker, and if the hijacker's agenda threatens the group's mission, recognize that resolving the matter publicly is unlikely to succeed. Adjourn the meeting or call a recess and address the problem privately, enlisting assistance from supervisors if necessary. Such a move might not be an admission of failure. It can be the first step on the path to successful resolution. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Problem Displacement and Technical Debt  Next Issue

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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