When they are upset, what do you do about it?

A difficult communication challenge is how to respond to a disgruntled meeting participant. 

For those of us who lead meetings, it’s foolish, even dangerous to be a ‘Pollyanna’ thinking that everything will be wonderful if we just let people talk.  Our reality is different.  Communication as a meeting leader is a very conscious and deliberate process. 

A facilitator mantra of mine is, “one conversation at a time.”  This is especially true when you encounter a dissatisfied participant in the meeting.  Here are three communication steps to use with an unhappy participant.

1.  Recognize: identify and pinpoint.  This first step is not hard.  The upset participant will usually make their presence known.  But don’t stop there.  Once they start talking ask safe, open-ended questions to have them identify what triggered their response and pinpoint the specific pain point that got them energized.  Examples: Why did you choose to speak up?  What is most important to you?  What do you most want us to understand about your concern?  Take in the answers, don’t reply right now.

2.  Acknowledge: accept and own.  It’s not always easy to accept the answers to your open-ended questions.  We have an instinct to ‘help’ the other person or we feel pressure to ‘fix’ their problem.  Instead, acknowledge that you’ve heard and understood what they are saying.  Then explain back what you think they are saying.  Then ask something like, “Did I get that right?”  This exchange releases crucial neurotransmitters that cause us to feel good.  Do not agree with their conclusions; just feedback what they said.  After that, ask brainstorming questions to get them to accept that their concern is their issue and that they need to own the responsibility of finding a solution that works for them and everyone else in the room at the same time.  Examples:  What do you most want to see happen that will work for you and everyone else at the same time?  What solution ideas do you have that meets everyone’s needs?  What’s holding you back that if resolved we could move forward together?

3.  Appreciate: value and validate.  Letting them know that you value the experience they are having can go a long way to reducing the heat from their hot button issue.  Here you tend to make statements like, “I can see this is important to you.”  “Thanks for making your need known.”  “As the meeting progresses let’s all see what we can do about it.”  I usually end with a ‘readiness’ question posed to the whole group, not the upset participant, like, “Can we move forward from this point and see where we go with this?”

Leading meetings bring us great opportunities, but leadership also brings a need to manage the full range of human responses—including a disgruntled participant.  It’s not always easy.  But, on the other hand, it’s not boring either.  It also is a productive contribution to make meetings work.

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How do you talk with a disgruntled participant? Leave a comment, below.