How to Control a Quarrelsome Group

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Some groups are tough to manage. When members have conflicting interests, personal agendas, or aggressive personalities, meetings can deteriorate into pointless debates or angry conflicts, thereby wasting time and harming relationships.

If your team seems to be headed down a destructive path, set some ground rules before blindly leaping into a discussion of issues. Unless your group is truly toxic, members will usually agree to a reasonable set of guidelines. Then, when things start to get out of hand, remind the wayward members of these agreements.

Ground rules should be posted in the meeting room, with copies given to all members. Although every group has specific needs, here are some guidelines that are generally useful for conflict management.

  1. Stay focused on the purpose and goals.
    If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not likely to get there. At the beginning of a discussion, clearly define what is to be accomplished. This makes it easier to get wandering conversations back on track.
  2. Listen when others are speaking.
    Instead of listening, people often mentally rehearse their next comment while someone else is talking. When this happens, the discussion can deteriorate into a pointless debate. Ask members to focus on the person speaking.
  3. Be sure that all viewpoints are heard.
    Most groups have both talkative and quiet members. Try to keep the talkers from dominating the discussion and invite the quiet folks to share their thoughts.
  4. Consider different points of view.
    People easily get “locked in” to their own opinions and don’t even think about the possible merits of other ideas. Encourage members to think beyond their own point of view.
  5. Look for areas of agreement.
    Argumentative people often agree on more things than they realize. Before discussing disagreements, help members identify the things they do agree on.
  6. Discuss differences respectfully.
    Hostile, insulting remarks add nothing to a group discussion and can permanently damage relationships. Remind members about basic “good manners” for meetings.
  7. Remember that facts can be wrong, but opinions are just different.
    Most of the time, people are expressing different views, not arguing about facts. Yet they often act as though they are “right” and others are “wrong”. Help people separate facts from opinions.
  8. Look for the good points in new ideas.
    Useful ideas may die if people are too quick to find flaws. Help members explore the benefits of an idea before they become overly critical.
  9. Focus on the future, not the past.
    Disagreements often deteriorate into finger-pointing about past problems, which accomplishes absolutely nothing. Use past experience to inform decisions, but focus the discussion on future goals.
  10. Look for solutions, not someone to blame.
    The worst debates about the past are those which involve placing blame. If the conversation turns to blaming, shift the group focus to a search for solutions.
  11. Don’t use group time for individual issues.
    When a few members start discussing their own issues in a group meeting, it just wastes everyone else’s time. Ask the people involved to continue their “sidebar” discussion after the meeting.
  12. “Park” any issues that are important but off-topic.
    Occasionally, important matters are raised that have nothing to do with the goals of the meeting. To stay on task, but avoid losing the issue, create a “parking lot list” where these topics can be captured and dealt with later.
  13. Agree upon specific action steps.
    Most discussions need to end with specific “next steps” to be taken after the meeting. Otherwise, the time spent may be wasted So end your meeting with a list of action items and assign each one to a specific person.