What if, in the middle of your meeting, two people start whispering, someone is continually signing purchase orders, someone verbally attacks another, or a person gets up, storms out of the room, and slams the door behind her?

Dysfunctional behavior can take many forms in a meeting.  Skilled facilitators recognize that dysfunctional behavior is “a symptom that masks the real issue, which is typically a problem with the information generated by the session (the content), the way in which the session is being run (the process), or some outside factor unrelated to the session.”

How should you respond to a dysfunction? Of course, your response depends on the dysfunction and other factors, including when it occurs, the number of people affected, and the probable root cause. However, consider the following general formula:

The General Formula

1. Approach privately or generally.

Either speak with the people one-on-one during a break, or address the behaviors generally to the group without singling out any individuals. At times, however, singling out an individual during the meeting may be unavoidable.

2. Empathize with the symptom.

Praise an appropriate aspect of their behavior or express concern about the situation they find themselves in.

3. Address the root cause.

Make an effort to get at the real issue by asking a question that will yield a response that confirms the issue.

4. Get agreement on the solution.

Get agreement on how the situation will be handled going forward. Be sure that the solution addresses the root cause and not just the symptom.

The Workaholic

Below is a description of a common dysfunction, its likely causes, strategies to take to prevent the dysfunction, what to do “in the moment” when the dysfunction occurs, and what to do “after the moment” to further address the dysfunction.

DescriptionThe person does other work during the meeting.
  • The person has a high-priority activity that requires attention during the meeting.
  • The person sees little value in the meeting and is attempting to make the best of having to be present.
  • Establish a ground rule: meeting work only (i.e., work on only the meeting during the meeting).
In the
If a private conversation is possible:


  • “It looks like you have some important work to get done and this meeting has put you in a crunch. We do need your full attention if we can get it. Is this work something you can do later?”

If a private conversation is not possible:

  • “I know we established the ground rule of only doing meeting work during the meeting. I want to make sure that the ground rule will still work for everyone?”
After the
  • Discuss the issue privately to ensure that no additional problems exist.

Adapted from The Secrets of Facilitation

Learn more ways to address and manage group dysfunction in Facilitating Masterful Meetings. This two-day course provides a structured framework for leading groups toward effective outcomes in every meeting – through highly-engaging, highly-collaborative facilitation techniques.