Nothing can shatter a meeting quite like difficult behaviour from one or more of the participants. It is not easy to run a successful meeting at the best of times, and disruptive behaviour can put you under greater pressure. 

If attendees see someone undermining a meeting through their behaviour, bad feeling can spread, causing even individuals who are engaged in the meeting to question why they should give up their time for it.

Team meetings generally suffer from a bit of an image crisis, something I wrote about in my blog  ‘What is the Point of your Team Meetings?’ Allowing negative conduct to go unchecked sets up low expectations for future team meetings – that they will be unproductive, fractious, or generally a bit of a joke. 

But you can tackle these challenges!

This blog identifies eight common perpetrators of difficult behaviour and how to handle them in your meeting. 

  1. Latecomers
  2. Whisperers
  3. Interrupters
  4. Ramblers
  5. Complainers
  6. Doubters
  7. Know-it-alls
  8. Snipers

Before examining these in detail, if you have not read the other blogs in this mini-series on team meetings. then here are the links:

  1. Planning and preparing the meeting 
  2. Executing the meeting and following-up 
  3. Dealing with Difficult Behaviours in Meetings 🡨(You Are Here!)

The techniques discussed in all of these blogs are interrelated, and support each other, so I would strongly recommend reading them all to truly make your meetings as effective as possible.

With all that in mind, let’s begin our list of a team meeting’s ‘Most Unwanted’!

  1. Latecomers

Latecomer to a meetingIt is unlikely that there is malicious intent behind a latecomer. We all know lawyers are busy people, and anyone can get caught up in their work or stuck on the phone every so often. I wrote in my previous blogs about how important timekeeping is to a well-run and cost-effective meeting. Anything that affects your schedule can turn an otherwise well-prepared meeting into an unproductive waste of time. So when someone who is consistently late to team meetings, it will haves a considerable negative impact, with because items havinge to be repeated or deferred until that team member joins you. 

The Latecomers can also give cultivate the impression that these team meetings are not as important as their own ordinary work. Left unchecked, other team members may also start to regularly put their other work above attending meetings.

Depending on how serious you judge the issue to be, you may feel that a private word with the individual latecomer would be enough. Alternatively, you may need to resolve the problem in a more ‘high-profile’ way – to impress upon your team that consistent and/or unjustified lateness is not acceptable.

A good way of doing this is to make the latecomer fully aware of the negative effects which their behaviour has on the meetings. For example, you could say to them (privately or in front of the team) something like: 

“Peter, you are 15 minutes late and, as we are finishing on time, it will not possible for me to recap because to do that would mean that everyone would have to spend an extra 15 minutes of their busy day in this meeting.  This is why it is important for everyone to be on time.”

Another way is to point out the financial implications of their tardiness. For each of the attendees, you could add up the cost of five or ten minutes of their chargeable hourly rates and use this to give weight to your point: 

“Lucy, for the last three meetings you have been 5 minutes late, this means the cost of the start of the meeting is £X – then I have to repeat everything to bring you up to speed thus adding another £Y to the cost of this meeting. This means that we, as a team, have just ‘lost’ £Z. If we could save that on a weekly basis then our team figures would be on target.”

You could also consider other inventive ways of making them arrive on time, such as appointing them to be chairperson of the next meeting and/or have ‘fines’ to the charity box for latecomers.

2. Whisperers

A good way to tackle whisperers is to to draw them whisper back into the meeting. You should not go all out to humiliate the whisperer, as this can develop into acrimony, simply say (without sarcasm) something like: Is there a point you would like to share with the rest of the team?” or could we have one meeting, please?

Another approach is one you probably remember from your own school days! Look at the culprit and signal to whoever should be speaking to pause for a moment. You can then wait in silence until the whisperer stops.

3. Interrupters

Interrupting a meetingEveryone should be allowed the opportunity to speak uninterrupted without interruption in team meetings. This promotes a sense of equality and involvement amongst the team. 

To clamp down on interruptions, you should deal with the interrupter by acknowledging they will get their chance to speak, but asking them to listen to the current speaker first. For example:

Jim, could we just listen to Sue for a moment? Then we’ll hear your point.” 

Depending on the situation, you may or may not also want to remind everyone that they all have equal voice and the rules you have set in your team meetings are there to facilitate this. . Active Listening is a really good skill for everyone to cultivate.

4. Ramblers 

Like latecomers, it is unlikely that ramblers will be intentionally disrupting a meeting through their behaviour. However, time is precious, and effective team meetings always have a purpose and stick to them. 

Meandering discussions, people repeating themselves, or reiterating matters, which have already been dealt with, can all bleed away a meeting’s sense of direction. So it is for The Chair to prevent this from happening by to stopping the rambler and repeating back what has been said. In this way,  so that the Rambler knows that his or her message has been heard.

Where someone has been dominating the spotlight and their point of view is now clear, you could thank them for their contribution and invite others to share their perspectives.

You can also get matters back on track by reminding your team of the need to move forward, or by referring to the next item on the agenda. Before moving on, you may choose to summarise the salient points of a long discussion, as long as you are sure this won’t spark another one! 

5. Complainers

complaining at a meetingIt is important to distinguish between ‘complainers’ and people who have genuine issues they wish to raise. Complainers usually don’t want a resolution to their problem – they just want the opportunity to whinge. Common attributes of a perpetual complainer are: a ‘whining’ or accusatory tone, bringing up many complaints at once, using lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, and seeing things in absolutes – i.e. ‘never’ and ‘always’. 

A complainer often revels in playing the victim, believing that other people are to blame for what happens to them and that they have no say or agency at all.  They may also believe that there is a ‘perfect’ way to do things and thus find fault with everything.

You should take your time when dealing with a complainer. Start by listening to their grievances and assessing whether there are any genuine issues which need to be resolved. This also allows them to ‘let off steam’, which can be helpful as long as they are matters which affect the team as a whole. 

Continued complaining must be dealt with, however. You can do so by consciously interrupting and then paraphrasing the complaint back to them. This demonstrates that you have heard them and understood their issue. You can then ask them what their solution to the problem would be, and open this question out to the group if you feel it is appropriate. 

When you are presented with a large number of complaints at once, you can take a different approach. Ask the complainer to prioritise their grievances, choosing the most important ones or rating them on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of importance.

6. Doubters

Doubters tend to be cynical team members who do not believe in the efficacy of any solutions. However, they can be useful to a meeting if you believe that a doubter’s perception of a problem is sound. You could start your discussion of a topic by asking the doubter to create a list of the issues they have identified, although it is unlikely they will volunteer any solutions. At this point you can invite the group to share their perspectives on this list and choose the most important ones before suggesting ways to resolve these problems.

7. Know-it-alls

Know-it-alls are often specialists in their field, jealously guarding their knowledge because they equate that knowledge with power. When in a meeting, they can sometimes feel like the ‘heavy mob’, crashing down on other people’s ideas and replacing them with their own. They might also act defensively, crushing other people’s objections, through big words, fast speech, technical jargon, and aggressive body language. 

Their behaviour can be some of the most disruptive to a meeting – stifling open discussion and making other team members feel stupid for holding a different viewpoint. Know-it-alls often don’t even consider other opinions and will feel insulted when ‘challenged’ on something within what they perceive to be their area of expertise.

When dealing with know-it-alls, the first step is to listen to their ideas. Just because they are a know-it-all does not necessarily mean that their ideas are invalid. Their expertise may be genuine; they might just have a closed mind and an inflated opinion of themselves. Importantly, by listening to them, you demonstrate that you and the team have heard and understood them. If it is appropriate, you might ask them to share their expertise with the team so that all can benefit from it.

However, know-it-alls tend to think conservatively and, if their ideas are dated, you might ask them to consider the long-term implications of their thinking or ask how their ideas could help specifically in the current legal landscape. This gives you (and others) time to think and evaluate, whilst the know-it-all has to consider aspects of their ideas which they may not have confronted previously.

When you want to widen the discussion to others in the team try the following: 

I appreciate your knowledge on this point Simon – does anyone else have any relevant experience to share on this issue?” or;

“Penny, I know you are our resident expert, so can we see where everyone else is on this topic before coming back to you?”

This approach recognises their knowledge – undoubtedly a source of great pride to the know-it-all – but opens the discussion out in a way which does not belittle their contribution.

8. Snipers

Controlling the meeting

Snipers bring another difficult type of behaviour to team meetings. They will use humour or sarcasm to put down other participants. This usually has the effect you would expect – nobody wants to ‘put their head above the parapet’ and share their ideas or perspectives. An uncontrolled sniper will cut short important discussions and undermine the team spirit which meetings are ordinarily so good at fostering.

To deal with them, the idea is to ‘smoke them out’ and not let them get away with their behaviour.  You have to move behind the joke and pinpoint what their intention behind it is. Removing their ‘camouflage’ in this way allows you to, ideally, get to the root of the problem and also curtail their behaviour, as people normally do not want to be seen as the aggressor. Calling them out on their ‘put downs’ is a way of highlighting that their behaviour is aggressive.

To do so, you can use the phrases such as:Is that a ‘put down’? Did you mean it that way?, or, Is that sarcasm I hear in that point against Sally? Did you mean it that way?

“Excuse me Helen, I know that your joke was funny and it certainly got the laughs but I thought I heard a ‘dig’ in it aimed at the team/firm – did I?” 

You should be prepared for the sniper to try and brush it off. To prevent them getting away with it, you could respond with a variation of the above, such as: 

“Yeah I know that, Simon, you thought it was a joke and that it was very witty, but I thought I heard a ‘put down’ and I was just checking to see if I heard right. And you seemed to be following it up with another dig at me/others being sensitive – is that what you meant to do?’ 

The key point is to always finish with that question. It presents them with the dilemma question of whether to openly admit they were sniping – something which they are unlikely to do. If you check back with them every time they do it, they are likely to stop their behaviour to avoid being presented with this uncomfortable situation each time.


Holding more effective team meetings

Clamping down on these kinds of behaviour is crucial to effective team meetings. As you use these techniques in a firm, assertive and calm way, the need to employ them should diminish!

It takes confidence to stand up to difficult behaviours in your meetings. You must have faith in your own judgement, and have courage in your convictions that challenging such negativity is the right thing to do. If you do not feel your confidence levels are up to the task, I offer coaching specifically designed to help lawyers with their self-confidence. 

Another approach is to arrange for the team to complete a psychometric assessment (I know lawyers love these!). This can help you (and your team) to understand the different styles and approaches within your team. I use MiRo, which not only provides an individual with knowledge about their preferences but can also produce a team report so that you, and they, can work to the strengths of the team.  Of course there are the usual colours involved – red, yellow, green and blue!

For a friendly, no-pressure chat about what coaching or MiRo might achieve for you and your team, please call me on 07921 540039.


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