Dealing with disruptive behaviour

In all cases it’s important to get to the bottom of the underlying issues. Develop your ability to spot problems and try and work out why they are happening. Don’t just ask “what is happening?” Also ask “why is it happening?”

Disruptive behaviour

This type of problem revolves around individuals in the group and is sometimes called problem behaviour. Examples include dominating individuals who talk at the expense of others, or the cynic that shoots down every idea that’s raised in the meeting.

Whenever you’re dealing with a ‘difficult’ participant, it’s vital that you remember that the problem is their behaviour and not them as a person. It’s also important to realise that they’re rarely deliberately making life difficult for you. Chances are, that at some level, the meeting isn’t addressing their needs. By increasing people’s ownership of the meeting you can increase their commitment to the outcomes, as well as improving behaviour in meetings.

Addressing people’s needs

We all bring a number of needs with us, whenever we work in a group. Most of them are quite simple, and rather obvious. We need to feel that we are being treated fairly. We need our expertise and experience to be valued and our ideas and opinions to be heard. We need to feel part of a group and we need to feel like we’re getting something useful done.

When these needs aren’t fulfilled people can easily feel alienated from the meeting. This often expresses itself in disruptive behaviour. For example, they feel they had no say in the choice of agenda, and consequently can’t see the relevance to them. Or maybe they feel that the meeting is a waste of time because their opinion won’t be considered when it comes to making the final decision.

Planning an interactive meeting agenda, then facilitating it in a way that allows everyone to participate should leave everyone happy from the start, and problems shouldn’t arise. But if they do, discover why it’s happening what are the underlying causes? That way you can figure out what to do about it. If you’re ever unsure ask the group what the problem is and actively listen to the answer!

Dominating behaviour

It’s common that groups have a handful of dominant personalities who do most of the groups’ talking and organising. Don’t tolerate it just because it happens. It can be very destructive for the group in the long-term. See Example Problem box below for ideas of how to deal with dominant individuals.

Example Problem – disruptive behaviour

Tom is talking all the time and dominating the meeting. Hardly any one else gets a chance to speak.

Underlying causes
  • It may be due to power imbalance. Tom might hold a more senior position in the group hierarchy (formally or informally) – maybe he’s a long-standing member of the group.
  • Perhaps there’s a deficit of knowledge in the group – only some people know enough about the issue to feel confident in speaking.
  • Perhaps Tom receives all the group’s mail or emails. He naturally feels like he knows the most, and does a lot of talking to keep the rest of the group informed.
  • Maybe Tom’s not very sensitive to group dynamics. He’s not being deliberately rude, but he simply doesn’t realise he’s so dominant.
Possible solutions

The facilitator can equalise speaking time by using tools such as the following.

  • Introduce a go-round: each person speaks in turn for a set amount of time, with no interruptions or questions allowed.
  • Make a group agreement at the start of the meeting to remind participants to let everyone contribute equally.
  • Pro-actively ask other people for their opinion: “Thank you, Tom, for your great ideas. What do other people think?”
  • Share out information before the meeting so everyone is as well informed as Tom. Share out mailings and emails or have a short presentation at the start.