How to Save a Meeting That’s Gotten Tense

By Harvard Business Review
February 7, 2018

It can be surprisingly easy to bring order to a chaotic meeting — and turn conflict back into conversation — if you know how.

Perhaps you don’t have an angry mob yelling at your meetings, but there are lots of crises that managers face when a conference goes off the rails. 

Regardless of what’s happening in a meeting, the principal cause of most conflicts is a struggle for validation. This means that most conflict is not intractable because the root cause is not irreconcilable differences but a basic unmet need.

With that in mind, here are four steps for turning conflict into conversation:

Interrupt the chaos: One of the best ways to change the emotion of a group is to change its tempo, from fast to slow. As you attempt to intervene, decelerate your pace of speech. You may need to raise your voice a decibel or two to be heard above the rumble. But once you’ve attracted attention, lower your voice and speed.

Shift to process: Call attention to what is happening in a matter-of-fact way. Be careful not to shame anyone for his role in the confusion. Lay out what appears to be happening and the consequences of continuing the current path. Ask the group to confirm your observation — a critical psychological step. When others explicitly acknowledge the process problem, they become committed to supporting the solution.

Propose a structure: Offer a process that ensures all will be heard and slows the pace to quell the emotions. Then ask for commitment to it. You might say, “Carmine, I don’t think we’re giving you a chance to lay out your arguments for the office remodel. How about if we hear you out first. The rest of us will attempt to restate your arguments until you feel we understand them to your satisfaction.”

Honor the agreement: Odds are that even with the new structure, lingering emotions will incite a few attempts to breach the boundaries. When this happens, point out the discrepancy, and ask if they want to continue with their commitment.

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

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