The longer you’re in youth sports, the more you’ll face organizational conflicts and inappropriate meeting behaviors that conflict with the objectives of the meeting. I took some time to detail some of those common disruptive behaviors and how to respond productively. If you take these ideas into your next meeting conflict, you’ll be more likely to support your participants and keep meetings on track.
You Must Ask This Question First
Before addressing unhelpful behavior in a meeting, ask yourself: Why is it important to intervene?
You may choose to intervene when the behavior is disrupting conversation, distracting participants, or pushing the meeting off topic. But if the behavior isn’t negatively impacting the meeting, even if it’s uncomfortable, should you address it?
For example, if someone isn’t paying much attention during a particular topic of discussion, how is that affecting the meeting? Is this person a key contributor that is needed for that discussion? Or is it just awkward to have someone not paying attention?
There are three basic types of behaviors that can interfere with a meeting and may require intervention:
- Low or No Participation
- Unhelpful Participation
The approaches for addressing each of these behaviors are different and relate to the reason you want to intervene in the situation.
Low or No Participation
The most common issues involving low or no participation are sleeping in a meeting or someone not giving their attention in the meeting. Lack of participation may include reading emails that are important (but not critical for that meeting), using their phone to communicate with others outside of the meeting, or reading other documents not related to the meeting.
Oftentimes, there’s a reason to intervene in these situations. Keeping the meeting on track and making sure everyone at the table is prepared to contribute are big responsibilities as the leader of a meeting. These things benefit everyone involved so the meeting is short, concise, and everyone is clear what the next steps are and who is responsible for what.
An effective strategy to re-engage people with low or no participation is changing the activity or process you’re using to discuss. Putting participants in small groups to talk through an issue or circling the room and inviting participants to share their thoughts are two alternatives. This makes it difficult for people to avoid participating. To avoid embarrassment, start a round robin with participants who are engaged so that those who need to re-engage have a few moments to do so.
Unhelpful participation occurs when participants ramble or wander off topic, dominate the discussion, make negative or cynical comments, put down other participants, or attack others in the meeting. These five behaviors have a more direct impact on the ability of the meeting to be productive and usually require some type of intervention.
Typical reasons for intervening are to keep the meeting on track, to enable all participants to be heard, and to validate the contributions of everyone (including those who are being difficult). The premise is that people need to feel heard, even if they are having a hard time communicating their ideas. When someone keeps repeating themselves, it could also indicate that they do not feel heard or understood. It is also important to maintain a constructive and positive meeting environment so that people are willing and not afraid to participate.
For those who are rambling off topic or dominating the conversation, two strategies may work. First, ask the participant to “headline” their key point as if they were making it into something at the top of a newspaper. Second, repeat what you have heard them say to reinforce that you are listening and want to make sure you all understand their ideas. If you have a whiteboard, you can also write down the information to further show that the group is listening. Once the points have been captured, it is easier to move on to other people and invite their contributions.
If someone continues to dominate, consider having a private conversation and ask him or her to speak later – say third in line – so that others can contribute earlier. This can be important when there is a power differential in the room because a senior manager is a part of the meeting, and others shy away from speaking before the boss does.
Put Downs and Personal Attacks
For more negative behaviors, such as cynical comments, put downs, and personal attacks, it is important to help the group stay focused on the topic, not individual personalities. For a continual cynic, consider asking the unhelpful participant to constructively play the role of “The Cynic” to help the group identify potential problems and pitfalls.
For put downs and personal attacks, it is important for the group to have clear ground rules about what interpersonal behaviors are not appropriate and for the group (not just the meeting leader) to hold participants to those norms. Redirect the conversation by noting that the behavior will not be tolerated by the group and asking the difficult participant to restate his/her contributions as they relate to the topic at hand.
If the verbal attacks are particularly ugly in an in-person meeting, you can physically stand between the person on the attack and the person being attacked. It is difficult to attack someone if there is someone else standing in your line of sight. If the situation escalates, call for a break and speak to the person on the attack privately.
Other Distractions That Lead to Youth Sports Conflicts
There are three types of meeting distractions that impact the effectiveness of the meeting:
- Arriving late or leaving early
- Holding sidebar conversations
- Losing their temper or storming out
Addressing these behaviors benefits all participants and de-escalates future disruptions as well. Arriving late or leaving early sends a message that the meeting or participants are not important. This inevitably interferes with the group and its work. Before addressing a late arrival or an early departure publicly, speak to them privately to understand their partial attendance and explore alternatives.
When participants are whispering or engaging in sidebar conversations during meetings, consider having the meeting leader casually walk towards the people who are whispering. Another physical presence is often enough to snuff out the conversation. If the meeting leader or other participants invite those in a sidebar conversation to share their ideas with the larger group, avoid doing it in a way that shames or belittles them.
Someone Stormed Out — What Should You Do?
Though it’s rare, it’s startling when someone storms out of a meeting. Whatever you do, it’s critical to not ignore what just happened. If you’re facilitating the meeting yourself, take care of the people in the meeting first. Ask for participant observations and feedback about what just happened.
If you have a co-facilitator, ask him or her to talk to the person who left the meeting. It may be necessary to give the person who left some time to cool off. Tell everyone to take a deep breath, and don’t be afraid to take a break and regroup.
The two keys to successfully addressing disruptive meeting behaviors involve:
- Assessing if you need to actively intervene
- Addressing the meeting behaviors so that you achieve the meeting objectives
Objectives often include gathering the input of others, creating a safe and productive working environment, and staying on-topic. By handling these challenging meeting behaviors with intentionality and a clear mind, your participants will be thankful and your meetings will accomplish the objectives you and your team have in mind.
Ruth Nicholson is an internationally certified professional facilitator, mediator, and organizational alchemist helping sports organizations better support players and coaches. She is the founder of GO! offering proven governance, leadership, and administrative tools.
In 2020, Ruth was inducted into the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame. She was a co-creator of the international 2019 Think Tank to Improve Youth Sports which engaged over 60 speakers from two dozen sports. In 2018, Ruth was a finalist for the Hudl Innovator of the Year award for youth soccer. Her work has engaged sports enthusiasts in North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.