How to stop meetings from turning into venting sessions

Time to get things back on track.
Time to get things back on track.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Some meetings lead to major a-ha moments that meaningfully move projects forward. Other meetings? Not so much. In fact, 47 percent of employees claim meetings are the biggest waste of their work day.

These boring, redundant meetings waste valuable time and energy. But what’s worse are the discussions that devolve into arguing, bickering, blaming, complaining, and the airing of petty grievances. When meetings turn unnecessarily hostile, communication breaks down. Progress stalls. Morale suffers.

As a leader, it’s important to stay in control of the meeting dynamic so that it doesn’t turn into one, big venting session. Here are ways you can stop complainers from controlling the time and make sure your meetings are constructive.

1. Unify the room

Creating a shared purpose and structure are keys to making any meeting productive, especially one that could be contentious and complaint-ridden. Before diving into the meeting content, lay out the agenda. Be clear about what topics you’ll cover, and in what timeframe. That way, you can steer the conversation back on track if it veers off course.

You also should introduce the discussion by offering a clear, future-focused objective such as, “We’re here to create a revised timeline for this project” or “Our goal today is to make a decision about the product launch date.” Don’t focus on why a project is behind or failed (unless the meeting is specifically designed to be a post-mortem or de-brief). Instead, reorient your team to the current context. Share a mission, vision, or purpose that they can get excited about and set your sights on an inspiring goal ahead.

2. Set ground rules

Whenever you want to facilitate a fair discussion, establish the norms for participating. At a minimum, yelling and name-calling should be off-limits. If the meeting will be about a contentious topic, set the expectation that you want to have a respectful discussion. In order to do that, there are certain expectations everyone agrees to follow while another person is speaking, including:

  • No interrupting or cross-talk
  • Critique ideas, not people
  • No distractions—phones and computers away
  • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence
  • If you are confused, ask for clarification
  • Don’t generalize; speak from your own experiences

These guardrails can help ensure you have a spirited, passionate discussion that doesn’t descend into venting. If the conversation gets heated, go back to your ground rules. Reinforcing an atmosphere of respect and civility will bring down the emotional temperature in the room.

3. Defuse defensiveness

In general, people vent because they want to be heard. To snuff out complaints, you need to show you genuinely care about your team’s challenges and concerns. Devote time during the meeting to hearing them out. Validate and empathize with phrases like, “I understand why that must be challenging” or “I hear you. That must be tough.” Then dig deeper. Ask clarifying questions such as, “Can you tell me more?” or “What impact has that had on you?”

These questions will help you get to the source of people’s frustrations and elucidate what’s blocking their progress. Just be careful not to linger on problems for too long, because you risk feeding into negativity and pettiness.

4. Partner in problem-solving

After you’ve released the pressure valve and actively listened to the complaints, it’s time to shift into solutions mode. While under pressure, many leaders make a common mistake at this phase: They prematurely jump to assigning roles and responsibilities. In other words, they tell their team exactly what to do.

While an autocratic approach can be efficient in the short term, it typically leads to push back and resistance. When people are aggravated, it’s not a good idea to rob them of a personal agency and power. Coaching people to find their own solutions, on the other hand, is significantly more effective.

One my clients, Abigail, used a coaching strategy while managing a multimillion-dollar technology roll-out for a healthcare company. Cross-departmental meetings were fraught with fighting. The project was at risk of falling behind, but people still whined about lacking time to get everything done amid their other priorities. Rather than having her dictate next steps to the parties involved, I coached Abigail to invite others into the planning process. At her next meeting she posed a few questions, including “What would support you in accomplishing this by the end of the week?” and “How can I best hold you accountable?”

When you coach people to find their own solutions, it makes them feel like part of the team. They’re more likely to follow through because they have a sense of responsibility and buy-in. You encourage them to access their own resourcefulness, counteracting some of the helplessness that leads people to vent in the first place.

Finally, don’t end the meeting until you have firm commitments in place. Get agreements for what each person will do and by when.

Remember that in the normal course of work, petty annoyances are par for the course. How you choose to handle frustrations makes all the difference.

Melody Wilding is a leadership and executive coach who works sensitive high-achievers. She is also a licensed social worker and professor of human behavior at Hunter College.