By David Rose
“To get something done a meeting should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent” – Robert Copeland
“A meeting is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours” – Milton Berle
Meetings are undeniably a central part of professional life. At best, they provide a productive exchange of ideas and help build /strengthen relationships. At worst, as highlighted by the two quotes above, they waste valuable time with no tangible value-added.
Why do meetings sometimes have a ‘bad name’ in many organisations?
Well, as I’m sure your experience will tell you, there is no single or simple answer to this. Effective meetings need good organisation (clear purpose, agenda), an effective chair or facilitator (time management, balanced contributions) and clear outcomes (minutes with action points, responsibilities and deadlines) to name a few.
Here, however, I’m going to focus on one of the key causal factors for ‘difficulties’ in the meeting room: different personality types.
As meetings are so interlinked with an organisation’s efficiency, it’s unsurprising that a huge quantity of research has been carried out on meeting psychology. One important area of this covers the distinct personality types recognisable in meetings and their typical behavioural characteristics.
Having a better insight into each ‘type’ will help you better interact with them – whether you’re participating, facilitating or chairing – so raising the effectiveness of your meetings.
Personality Types in Meetings
People naturally usually assume one or more different roles within any given meeting, depending on both the issue under discussion at a particular moment and the positions, proposals and responses of others. They are, after all, dynamic environments.
Each of these ‘roles’ a person takes, however, will correspond to a specific and definable ‘personality type’, any combination of which may be present in your meetings.
There are three broad categories of recognised ‘personality types’ in meetings: positive, neutral and negative.
The three positive types are assets. Identifying them and encouraging their contributions will help:
• Kick-start agenda items, sustaining momentum and bringing others in
• Keep the meeting focussed on the main agenda points
• Maintain a positive and productive atmosphere
(i) The Catalyst
Proactive, confident and full of creative ideas, they really help ‘get things started’ by always being ready to offer a suggestion or proposal.
Lean on them for initial ideas to stimulate others and bring their ideas into play. Note, though, that they expect their contributions to be actively recognised and praised.
(ii) The Supporter
Always tends to see the positive side of any case and so regularly contributes with supportive comments regarding others’ ideas and suggestions, creating a positive atmosphere. On the flip side, this positive approach means they find it hard to freely make critical comments or difficult decisions.
Their negative comments or judgements usually won’t come spontaneously and so will need to be directly elicited.
(iii) The Peacemaker
Good at defusing conflict before it escalates too far, for example through asking others for clarification, using light and appropriate humour or refocusing everyone on the main topic under discussion if sub-issues are causing friction between others. They can become frustrated if the meeting becomes tense.
Ideally, aim to maximise their involvement, even if no tension is apparent at the time.
The three neutral types are best thought of as ‘possible negatives’ i.e. they can unintentionally have a negative impact on proceedings if not identified and properly/carefully managed.
(i) The Chatterbox
Although they may have a lot of positive contributions to make, they will usually hold the floor too long, often making their point in an indirect and unstructured way with frequent tangents into unnecessary detail or off-topic issues. This is best dealt with by a subtle interruption from the chair/facilitator (or peacemaker) by making a mini-summary of their relevant point(s) and a request to shorten/conclude their turn.
When they don’t have the floor, they regularly start bilateral discussions with those around them, either on or off-topic. Again, a subtle and non-confrontational approach is best here, for example by pointing out you didn’t catch the current speaker’s last point and asking the current speaker to repeat it. If this doesn’t yield results after a few attempts, a private (not public) comment in a break/before the next meeting to limit their bilateral conversations will be needed.
(ii) The Silent One
Not disinterested (there’s no simple ‘cure’ for that!) but either lacking in confidence or concerned about a negative reaction to the point(s) they intend to raise. They might sit through a whole meeting without voluntarily contributing if allowed, even if their comments would be productive to the meeting.
They need direct, positive encouragement in the meeting to contribute e.g. “Can I bring XXX in here, I know he has a good point to make about XXX”. You can further raise their participation by taking time to informally elicit and discuss their opinions before the meeting on each agenda point, offering reaffirming praise where possible.
(iii) The Know-It-All
They have a strong need to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of every topic, often leading the discussion off at a tangent or into unnecessary detail to do so. They may also intervene simply to let others know they were going to make the point just raised, not wanting to appear as if they hadn’t thought of the same idea.
Their interventions need to be kept on-topic by the chair/facilitator with subtle interruptions to request they return to the main point at hand. The length and detail of their interventions can be limited in the same way as for the ‘Chatterbox’ – i.e. by subtly interrupting with a mini-summary of their relevant point(s) and a request to shorten/conclude their turn. Note that their need to be heard is often based on a degree of insecurity, so directly confronting their (unconscious) behaviour will usually make them feel ‘under attack’ and provoke a negative reaction.
As many of you will probably have experienced, typically 75% or more of the ‘difficulties’ in a meeting originate from 10% or less of the participants.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. You can’t have effective meetings without actively managing the behaviours of the three negative personality types.
Yet, these personality types are not particularly easy to manage, with any techniques designed to do so inherently running the risk of an adverse reaction. Importantly, however, others will also be aware of these behaviours and either actively or passively support you if your strategies are sufficiently non-confrontational.
(i) The Interrupter
As the name suggests, they frequently and repeatedly interrupt others. If not dealt with and quickly, other participants may well start doing the same. Best case, the meeting will then start losing effectiveness very quickly. Worse case, the temperature will start to rise rapidly, leading eventually to direct confrontation…
A direct but diplomatic challenge is needed, noting to the interrupter that person XXX hasn’t finished their point yet and then promptly giving the floor back to the original speaker. It’s best to soften this further the first time by recognising the interrupter has a point to make and reassuring them they will have an opportunity to contribute after any other pending requests to intervene from others.
(ii) The Yes, But…
The polarised opposite of the ‘Supporter’ previously outlined in ‘positive personality types’. The ‘Yes, But’ is quick to criticise others’ views and proposals but doesn’t usually support this with concrete reasons or constructive alternatives. Worst case, they will also be very direct, with their comments possibly becoming personal if unchecked.
Like the ‘Interrupter’, they need to be dealt with quickly. Unlike the ‘Interrupter’, however, a direct approach is not recommended here. As soon as they disagree with a speaker (or yourself!), diplomatically ask them to explain the specific reasons why they disagree and propose their alternative. This non-aggressive and indirect approach, focussing on substance and not behaviour, will force them to justify their negative comments. This constructively moves the meeting forward, ignoring their behaviour. If consistently used by the chair/facilitator/’Peacemaker’, it will also serve to discourage them from instinctively criticising others’ contributions without justification.
(iii) The Dominator
Consider this the evil twin (!) of the ‘Chatterbox’ outlined in the neutral personality types. Whereas the ‘Chatterbox’ will unintentionally take up meeting time if allowed, the ‘Dominator’ deliberately and consciously does so. A large ego, they will attempt to monopolise discussion and hijack others’ points, trying to elaborate them to make them their own. They have a very high opinion of their views, less so of others. Consequently, they will be intolerant of criticism, even if constructive and diplomatically expressed. Equally, they will be impatient with anything they see as a lack of progress, whether someone not making their point quickly or clearly enough or an agenda-related point they don’t perceive as important.
It is very difficult and highly risky to attempt to ‘stop’ their behaviour totally by direct confrontation. If anything, this personality type will relish the challenge. However, prompt intervention is needed to ‘contain’ their behaviour so they don’t derail the meeting by dominating and discouraging others from contributing.
Expect a counter-reaction from them when this attempt to ‘limit’ their actions is made. The best approach is to play the ‘poker-faced official card’ – i.e. the chair/facilitator/ ’Peacemaker’ make consistent, diplomatic and unemotional reference to time constraints and the need for everyone to equally contribute their ideas. They will not be happy with this ‘control’ and may make this clear. Don’t react. If they unconstructively and directly criticise others’ views, as with the ‘Yes, But…’ above, ask them to explain the specific reasons why they disagree and propose their alternative.
So, research on meeting psychology highlights nine distinct personality types, three each of positive, neutral and negative. Better understanding not only their main characteristics but also how to most effectively deal with each one as a chair, facilitator or participant enables you to maximise the effectiveness of your professional meetings.
The next article in this series on meeting skills will cover ‘Techniques for Effective Chairing’ … watch this space!
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© David Rose 2011