It’s Show Time: Managing the Cast of Characters in Your Meeting

Have you ever noticed the similarities between business and theater?

A director manages the personalities of the actors they cast in their film.  Some of them are quiet and easy but most of them are “larger than life.”  The director works hard to get the best work out of each actor and help the cast work in harmony. 

Meeting facilitators must also manage the personalities and characteristics of the participants to get the best results.  And the participants – who may have an important role in the meeting and be subject matter experts – can be angry, silent, argumentative, distracted and more. 

Do any of these characters sound familiar?  Here’s a description of the cast in one of your meetings – past or future -- and suggestions for managing their difficult characteristics.  In a moment you will meet Tammy, Andy, Wendy, Charlie, Ollie, Max, Donna, and Victor! 

Keep in mind that all of your meeting planning is critical to limiting disruptive meeting behavior.  By getting input and buy-in on the agenda, communicating meeting date and logistics, and inviting the right people, you will set your meeting up for success

For difficult participants, consider asking them for assistance in making the meeting useful and effective, giving them an important role on the agenda to get their buy-in, and offering them coaching or feedback on the impact of their disruptive behavior. 


Talkative Tammy

Talkative Tammy loves the sound of her own voice and it’s difficult for her to listen to other people talk.

Why does she have a hard time listening to other people? She might be talking because she thinks that’s the expectation or she might keep talking because she doesn’t feel that her knowledge, experience, or expertise are appreciated. In that case, giving her a specific role in presenting the content or asking her to serve as a mentor to others in the session or at their small table can be helpful.

Don’t insult her but don’t let her dominate the meeting either. 

What can you do?
  • Thank her for her contribution, experience, or expertise and call on another person to comment.
  • Turn your eyes (and body) away from her – do not look at her again. 
  • Use humor (or at least a smile) to invite others to engage in the conversation
  • Cut her off with a summarizing statement.
  • Pretend you don’t hear the person and call on someone else.


Andy the Arguer

Andy the Arguer is quick to find fault with the ideas or plan.

Andy’s anger might not have anything to do with the meeting; he might have gotten a parking ticket or had a bad day.  You can try to understand why Andy is angry but don’t fuel the flames of his anger.  Your goal is to dignify him but limit his disruptive behavior.  

What to do
  • Keep your cool
  • Acknowledge Andy’s level of passion and ask for the reason behind it
  • Request that Andy back up assertions; ask for evidence
  • If Andy asks an angry question, refer his question to the group and then back to him
  • Try to win him over by finding some good reasons to agree with some points
  • Pretend not to hear him
  • Agree to disagree
  • If nothing else works, suggest that your differences be cleared up later
  • Use humor to invite others to speak up
  • If Andy is voicing the anger held by others, it may be appropriate to allow a limited amount of time for group venting or for posting constructive recommendations from the group
  • If Andy gets personal, ignore it, reframe it as an attack on the problem, and use “we” instead of “you” and “me”
  • If necessary, let Andy know that he is free to leave the meeting


Withdrawn Wendy

Withdrawn Wendy sits like a bump on a log, not contributing to the conversation and barely making eye contact.

You can’t assume she’s trying to be difficult or not interested. She might be listening intently, shy, depressed, afraid, or just tired.  She might be uncomfortable speaking in front of groups or she might be fearful of speaking in front of someone specific in the room.  Or maybe she feels like her comments aren’t valued or respected. 

You can’t spend all your attention during the meeting trying to engage her, nor should you ignore her.  You might try to talk to her before the meeting to engage in small talk or ask if there is anything that you can do differently so that she will feel more comfortable speaking up.

What to do
  • Treat Wendy with respect.
  • Engage her by posing a question that directly relates to her situation or concern.
  • Subtly incorporate Wendy into the group by using her name in hypothetical examples or stories or call her name and ask for an opinion.
  • Ask an easy question that she is sure to answer, then praise her.


Charlie the Complainer

Charlie the Complainer complains about anything and everything. If the complaint is valid, there probably is a workload or organizational issue that is distressing him. You should acknowledge the issue and thank him for raising it, apologize for the inconvenience, figure out the remedy and timeline for resolution, thank him again, and move on.

If the complaint is not valid, Charlie is letting off steam and you’ll need to manage his behavior. Don’t let Charlie dominate the meeting.  Don’t argue with Charlie, insult him, or get defensive. 

What to do
  • Apologize for Charlie’s distress.
  • Use humor to defuse the situation.
  • Avoid getting personal.
  • Refer the issue to the rest of the group, to show that the concern is not shared.
  • Pretend not to hear him.
  • Set rules: criticism is acceptable, as long as it is constructive and offers viable alternatives.
  • Offer to write his comment in the meeting “parking lot” and discuss it at a later time


Optimistic Ollie

Optimistic Ollie sees the world through rose-colored glasses… literally. Whether due to youth or inexperience, Ollie is convinced that if everyone would just put their agendas and baggage aside, the world would indeed be a better place. These days, it’s far too easy to simply see the bleak side of life at times – and if you’re not careful, negativity can take root in your meeting – so be sure to acknowledge and thank Ollie for her positive outlook and encouragement.

New people – whether starting out in their career, or simply new to your organization –are often freer to think more creatively because they aren’t encumbered by the history of “how things are done here,” (in terms of what’s been tried before, or the limits of your organization). They can bring fresh perspectives – if you allow them to.

What to do
  • Be open to the gems of insight or a glimmer of an idea.
  • Remain positive and professional when providing context or history to problems when needed.
  • Don’t forget to ask questions: Ollie might have a valid point you’re not seeing. Help her to explain her ideas more fully with good questions.


Mobile Max

Mobile Max. Will not. Put. The phone. Down. Constantly distracted by his phone’s text notifications and reminders, Max even walks out of meetings he’s key to for that “all-important call.”

We have to make sure Max knows that we know that he’s busy – and that we’re busy too -- but that his participation is essential.  

Max really might have a crisis that needs attention, so we can’t assume that he’s just looking at Instagram.  He also might be unprepared for the meeting, not invested in the conversation or outcome, or unaware of meeting etiquette. 

It’s important to let Max know how important his contributions are.

What to do
  • State ground rules at the beginning and ask for full participation in exchange for a meeting that ends on time or early.
  • Consider giving Max a role in the meeting so that he’s engaged.
  • Keep Max engaged by asking a question that directly relates to his situation or concern.
  • Subtly incorporate the person into the group by using his name in hypothetical examples or stories or call her name and ask for an opinion.
  • Ask an easy question that she is sure to answer, then praise him.


Distracting Donna

Distracting Donna can’t help herself from having side conversations and distracting others from your agenda.  She might get up to go to the bathroom, pull out paperwork, rummage through her purse, or look at her phone. 

Maybe Donna doesn’t understand her role in the meeting, and so she doesn’t feel the need to give your meeting her full attention.  Or maybe she simply doesn’t understand the importance of the topic, or even sees the whole thing as a waste of time.

What to do
  • Engage Donna by posing a question that directly relates to her situation or concern.
  • Subtly incorporate Donna into the group by using her name in hypothetical examples or stories or call her name and ask for an opinion.
  • Ask Donna questions so during the meeting and make eye contact with her often.
  • Consider giving her a role in the meeting.


Victor the VP

Victor the VP immediately dampens the natural energy of any meeting. His mere presence is enough to keep people from expressing their opinions or “out of the box” creative ideas.

In this instance, as the meeting facilitator, you have to assess if this is unique to Victor and his personality (such as, does he have a tendency to shoot down ideas that don’t agree with his worldview)? Or is it because the employees are very conscious of “levels” in your organization and are intimidated by anyone from the executive suite?

While you’re not going to change organizational culture, as the meeting facilitator, you do help to set the “culture” of the meetings you run.

What to do
  • Assess if you really need Victor in the meeting if he (or executives in general) intimidate employees.
  • If Victor does need to be there, strategize solutions for maintaining creative, productive conversation. Try inviting another, more experienced employee who can model the level of creativity and discussion (even in front of an executive) you’re looking for. Consider prepping a few of the attendees in advance of the meeting (ie: your role is important because _____; Victor really needs to hear your experience with _______).


Remember: Organizations are filled with a cast of characters… Your meeting is just a subset of that cast. As the meeting facilitator, your job is to accomplish the meeting objective by bringing out each participants’ strengths and managing their challenging characteristics.  


If your firm’s meetings aren’t as productive or efficient as you’d like them to be, check out our Meeting & Facilitation Skills coaching services to help your employees get more from their meetings.

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