The People Issues: Problem characters

Have you ever been in a committee meeting and had the experience where two participants are like oil and water? They absolutely refuse to agree on common ground or see the other’s point. Other times it’s like you are Sisyphus, and instead of things rolling along, it’s like rolling a boulder uphill. What’s worse is when you are one of them, and you are supposed to be in charge of the meeting,

Sales guru Craig Harrison, in an About.com article, outlined several types of troublesome characters you are likely to encounter in a business meeting. While you probably won’t meet them all, I’m sure you know at least one or two. Harrison outlines them, how to recognize them, and how to handle them. Here are a few of his examples, how they might show up in your committee meeting, and what to do about them. (The genders used in these examples are purely arbitrary and alternating; they do not infer character traits of either gender.)

The Monopolizer – He’s the one who thinks he is the only one with wisdom on just about every subject at the meeting. The Monopolizer believes everyone else is there to hear him speak. He doesn’t appreciate that committee meetings offer an opportunity to hear from many different viewpoints. They go on and on, acting as though they have the correct answers and that their ideas and beliefs are more important than everyone else’s. Unfortunately, other people just defer to the Monopolizer because he has such a stranglehold on the meeting.

The chairman must not allow this to go on, because if it does, it gives the impression that Monopolizer really does know it all, and that other viewpoints aren’t important. Gently but firmly cut off the Monopolizer and allow others to share their viewpoints. Encourage participants to raise their hand for recognition, then call on them when the Monopolizer’s time is up. “Jack has had his hand up – let’s hear from him” is a good transition.

The Stubborn Mule – Related to the Monopolizer, he’s convinced that he’s always right, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can change his mind. The truth to him lies in how he perceives things regardless of how they actually are. He makes statements as though his opinions are fact, and feels free to chime in on every conceivable subject. He’ll bring in observations that really don’t pertain to the discussion and try to work them in. He intimidates the group into believing him through his appearance of authority.

Dealing with the Mule requires tactfully refuting the statements he holds up as fact if you know them to be false. You don’t want to get into a shouting match or lose your cool, however, as tempting as it may be, for you reduce yourself to his level. You can’t let his false statements go uncorrected, however. A calm “I’m not sure that’s correct” followed by your reasoning can send the rest of the committee the message that there is doubt about the statements made, but don’t count on reforming the Mule’s thinking.

The Tangent Talker – Also known as the Agenda Creeper, the Tangent Talker hijacks the current topic by bringing in another topic unrelated to the current discussion. One minute, you’re on topic, and the next, you’re talking about something else, as the agenda topic has been taken on a tangent.

Your ability to recognize the tangent and restore focus is essential to a productive meeting. You could say “That’s not related to our current topic – perhaps we can add it as an agenda item in next month’s meeting” to get things back on the road.

The Devil’s Advocate – There’s one on every committee. She seems to relish taking the opposite tack. Regardless of the direction of the discussion, she delights in taking the opposite view. The more unpopular the stance, the more exciting the challenge. “Just for the sake of argument…” is how she starts out, “… I believe the opposite is true.” There is value in seeing things from multiple points of view, but the Devil’s Advocate applies this technique to every issue, argument and conversation.

As Chair, you need to handle this carefully. Indeed, the Devil’s Advocate could have legitimate points and form a springboard for discussion, but if there are already agreed-upon points, it’s counterproductive to go back and question them again. You need to indicate the inappropriateness of such a direction, given the time constraints of the meeting.

The Cynic – This one is the ultimate naysayer. The cynic usually says things like “It’ll never work”, or “We never did that before”, or “we tried it once and it was a failure.”

Here’s one where you can use the previous technique, Devil’s Advocate, in your favor. Challenge the cynic and ask him “What if it could be done, what would we need to do?” Using a well-known conflict resolution tool, challenge him to embrace the other side of the issue as if it were his own, and argue that side.

The Fence Sitter – This person sees all sides of an issue and just can’t make up his mind. He provides fodder for the last two types, the Cynic and the Devil’s Advocate, and becomes an obstacle for his inability to move the action forward.

Try to convince the Fence Sitter to make a decision and stick with it. Remind him that his vote matters and the group wants to know what he truly feels, and not fear being wrong or disagreeing with someone else.

The Pandora’s Box Opener – This is somebody who is fond of raising hot-button issues – subjects that are touchy or emotional. She leads the entire meeting into areas that provoke animosity, resentment or just frustration. Once the box is opened, however, it’s difficult to get the issues back in the box. Some culprits even re-open issues from previous meetings that have already been resolved.

The best cure is a firm “let’s not go there” from the chair. “That’s already been discussed / resolved”, “let’s take that up at a more appropriate time” or “that’s a hornet’s nest we don’t want to disturb” are things you can say to disarm her and get things back on track before others get riled up as well.

The Brown-noser This guy can’t bend over backwards far enough to curry favor with the chairperson. He cloaks his own feelings on issues behind his unabashed support for the chair’s ideas. He can come across as being in the pocket of the person to whom he’s cow-towing, but ultimately is seen for who he is and becomes predictable and not trusted by the group.

This is a difficult one for you to handle. It’s nice to have a fan club, and we all want to be friends with one another on the committee, but the chair must be impartial and give everyone equal weight on issues. Even if he and you have been friends since your sons were Tiger Cubs, you need to distance yourself, and draw out his opinions before asking others or expressing your position.

The Attacker – Her style is confrontational, often without even realizing it. She mixes personal attacks with negativity and challenges others’ ideas with vigor. She has no regard for hurting others’ feelings as she opposes others and goes against the flow.

A good chairperson can refocus the Attacker to be positive, to remove the sting from her words and to facilitate cooperation. All meeting participants are entitled to stop the action when attacked personally. It’s essential that you separate the personality from the issues. Refocus on the topic at hand and ask the Attacker to hold off on opinions about others.

The Joker – Sometimes you’ll have someone who constantly jokes about issues or unrelated topics. While some levity is a good thing, he will make a joke about almost anything, throwing the meeting off track and muddling the discussion.

Jokes are OK at times, such as during the preamble or fellowship periods of the meeting, but when it’s time to get to business and it’s disruptive, the leader can remind people that the time for humor has passed, or is forthcoming, so as to control it.

The Robots – OK, these aren’t people – they are the machines that rule our lives. Cell phones, PDAs, and portable computers. They have a place in a meeting – such as when someone needs to check their calendar – but if a phone is constantly going off with text messages or a phone call interrupts, the meeting’s productivity can suffer.

Establish ground rules – make sure everyone knows to silence their devices, and to take unavoidable calls outside the meeting room. We’d like everyone paying attention to the discussion, not texting friends and family or Twittering. Scoutmasters should remind their SPLs of this and insist that they ask the same of their PLC members.

When you have a chance, visit Craig’s website, ExpressionsofExcellence.com. He has several articles on workplace communication that have ideas you can use in your troop or pack.

Next: Staying Organized

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