During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on August 23, 2011.
Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you do when someone is rude or publicly cuts down another person in the middle of a meeting? When this happens, I have noticed that group dynamics change as people become quiet or even jump on the bandwagon and gang up on the speaker. I have given private feedback to individuals after such meetings, but the moment is damaged and the group’s ability to communicate and make good decisions is compromised. How do you handle group conflict in the moment and return to safety without publicly chastising someone?
Dear Cut Down,
If your team had ground rules, team members would know what is and is not acceptable, and they would be able to (courteously) tell each other when someone said something that was rude or cutting, and remind others that they need to act in accordance with their ground rules. The little amount of time it takes to clarify ground rules is a good way to prevent this behavior and presents a clear option for a quick fix.
If your team hasn’t already done so, you need to clarify expectations. In the best case, your team leader will help the team agree to three or four specific behaviors that will help them perform well as a team. Here are several examples:
- “When we feel a teammate has let us or the team down, we will talk to them privately in a courteous manner.”
- “We will give feedback to our teammates in ways that are honest, detailed, and courteous.”
- “We will keep confidential what is spoken in confidence in our meetings.”
But how do you handle rudeness when you don’t have pre-established expectations? One of the tactics we teach people in Crucial Accountability is to speak up in these awkward moments by making a statement about what is expected vs. what is observed. In the very moment when the cutting remark is made, any member of the team could state, “I think meetings like this work better if we speak courteously to one another. That last comment was less than courteous. Can we avoid rude or sarcastic comments?” It often just takes one person to make a big difference.
Now I’m not so naïve as to believe that one such comment will always stop the attack. It often can and does, but not always. This is why we teach people to clarify the conversation they really need to have. We define three types of conversations—Content, Pattern, or Relationship. When the comment is a one-time comment, the conversation needs to focus on content. The statement I mentioned above is a content statement. You mentioned in your question that you’ve talked privately to individuals about this. When they make rude or cutting comments again, you have a pattern. When you talk to the person, privately, you need to talk about the pattern and the negative consequences of this pattern. And you need to get a commitment that they won’t do it again. If the person continues to be rude, it is not only affecting the team, it is affecting your working relationship. If the person is rude again, you need to talk about the relationship and how their continued bad behavior is affecting the way you can work together. You need to be clear about the actions you will take if they continue to make these comments. If you are a supervisor, that can mean progressive discipline. If you are a peer, it might mean that you will stop the progress of the meeting and ask that the team figure out how to fix this issue.
What do you do to get the feelings and the meeting back on track? I suggest you take a short break—five or ten minutes. There are many reasons for doing this. When someone says something rude or cutting, everyone in the room becomes emotional because they are experiencing little (or big) bursts of adrenaline. If you say something like, “Let’s calm down and continue this discussion in a few minutes,” you are appealing to the cognitive system, which works fast. But when emotions are high, people need a little time to cool down. Call a time out. When you reconvene, you will have the opportunity to invite the group to act in ways that will help the team conduct the meeting in a safe and effective way.
So in short, set ground rules if you can, speak up when you need to, call a time out to restore safety, and remind the group that some actions help while some hurt.