Tips for diffusing difficult group dynamics

Dear Joan,  
I’ve been asked to lead a cross-functional project for my company. Some of the personalities are strong and I am looking for some tips on how to lead these meetings effectively. I’ve been a part of some very poor meetings where people went on and on or broke off into their own little buzz group. One of the members of my project is notorious for flying off the handle. Any advice for how to manage some poor group dynamics?  

Here are some common problems and strategies for diffusing them: 


He seems to like the sound of his own voice. He can turn a simple question into a storytelling session or meander from topic to topic as thoughts occur to him. The problem is that the group gets lost or impatient. Topics don’t reach closure and the group spins its wheels.   

Set the stage with ground rules that keep people focused. For example, some of the ground rules I use when I’m facilitating a meeting are: Limit side conversations; Equal participation; Respect all opinions; Silence is agreement; Start and end on time; Follow through on action items. You know your group’s track record of meeting participation, so you can set the parameters with any ground rules that will work for your group.  

A specific tactic for reining in the wanderer is this: Once it’s clear that he is off on a tangent, summarize his original point and toss the topic back to the group. Wait for him to take a breath and say, “So you see benefits in the idea to spend the extra money on this machine. What do the rest of you think?”  

Side conversations

They might be discussing the merits of the current topic or discussing their social plans after work. Regardless of the topic, an extended conversation can be very distracting to the rest of the group. If you don’t step in after a few minutes, the group will be irritated with you. But if you step by embarrassing the pair, the group will lose respect for you. (Remember your third grade teacher? “Okay boys, why don’t you share your little secret with the rest of the class?”)  

If you’ve set up ground rules that everyone agreed with, there is a good chance the group will monitor itself. You’re likely to hear from one of the participants, “Hey guys, no side conversations, remember?”  

I typically ignore the pair for a minute or two, to let them finish their discussion. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pause briefly  (with a friendly smile on my face), which usually gets their attention, or causes someone near them to make a comment that brings them back. 

If that fails, refer to the whole group (“everyone” or “we need”) and mention a task that needs to be done (“finish on time” or, “hear all opinions”). For instance, “Can I have everyone back on this topic…we need everyone to hear all opinions before we decide what we’re going to do.”   

If you prefer a more direct approach, use a non-judgmental tone and say, “Hey guys, could I get you back into the conversation, we really need to focus on this if we’re going to finish on time.” 

If I am facilitating a large group of 30 or more, I might look for someone sitting near the pair-- who is paying attention-- and ask that person for his or her opinion. Usually the nearby voice is enough to break up the discussion and regain their attention. 

Angry or inappropriate comment

This can shut down a meeting, or at the very least, make participants very uncomfortable. And if a disrespectful comment is made to another person in the group, it will hang in the air and be the group’s focus until you address it. If you don’t, they will not trust you as a meeting leader.  

As the facilitator, the trick is to address an inappropriate or angry comment in a way that keeps control of the discussion, yet doesn’t alienate the offender. The most successful approach I’ve found is to neutrally restate the comment-- without the venom—in my own words. (Example: “Senior management is a bunch of idiots! They don’t have a clue about how to run this company!” The restatement: “It sounds as if you think senior management hasn’t made the right decision in this case.”) This neutralizes the anger and reframes the specific point the person is trying to make. 

If a member of the group attacks another member in a disrespectful way, “Tom, what would you know? You haven’t been up to date since 1990!” the group expects you to jump in quickly to stop the assault. “Hold on Pete. You’re entitled to your opinion but not when it’s at the expense of someone else.” If Pete’s like most people, he will quickly back off and mumble a face-saving excuse. You may want an off-line conversation with Pete and/or Tom at the end of the meeting, to contain the damage.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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