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What should I do when I am facilitating a discussion and someone is deliberately attempting to sabotage the discussion to promote an external agenda?

There are a few way I have considered dealing with this:

  • Come down hard on the critic and possibly alienate him but convince the other people in the room
  • Try and win the critic by being gentler and less forceful but risk losing/weakening the position of the others in the room

Is there a better way to handle these situations?

Edit:

Thanks to everyone who has pitched in, just to bring a little more context in here I've outlined a few scenarios below which I've been involved with.

Solution socialisation meetings

In a meeting with a large enterprise customer and multiple other vendors at the table. Several high up Execs (CTO type people) are also at the meeting who are also in the meeting. The meeting is to discuss how the solution fits into the wider organisation.

Prior to this meeting extensive talks have been had around which vendor solutions are the best technical fit. A solution has been decided on and all of the vendors have had a chance to raise concerns ect.

During the socialisation meeting one of the vendors who's solution was discarded speaks up with a highly technical reason why the selected solution doesn't work (from where I'm sitting it looks like a direct play to undermine the selected solution in-front of Exec ect). I have a really good reason why the particular concern raised is completely invalid as we have discussed this in detail in earlier talks.

Do I:

  1. Entertain the question, and talk through why it isn't an issue but risk looking like we haven't done due diligence in the solution selection phase.
  2. Should I step down hard on the person, raise the fact that we have already discussed this in earlier talks and that its already been 'proven wrong' essentially shaming the person involved.

Product forums

You are on a product forum discussing new features for the product. You are quite a long way into socialising the idea and working through what it means and what could go wrong.

Someone posts with a post saying something along the lines of the following:

This idea could never work because of X Y Z. Its obvious the product shouldn't even be doing this particular function. By the way I'm writing an alternative to this product.

In this case X Y Z had already been discussed in detail earlier in the forum and some great solutions had been found to the issues raised.

Do I:

  1. Come down hard on the question and cite the fact that it appears he hasn't actually read the discussion, and be dismissive about his arguments. This will alienate him and risk coming across as blunt and unwelcoming for other users. But will dismiss the problems and maintain confidence in the feature.
  2. Talk to his points and talk through the issues which have been raised (again). This may appear to other parties that the feature has less credence. It may also provide credibility for his competing product.
  • Are you positive that this person is deliberately trying to promote an external agenda for no reason other than to sabotage the discussion? Usually when someone does this it's pretty transparent to everyone involved, and there's little to no risk of losing the support of others in the room. Your concern over that possibility implies that the "saboteur's" position actually has some merit of its own. Are you sure he doesn't just have a legitimate disagreement with your point of view, and a solution that he genuinely feels is better? – aroth Aug 3 '12 at 14:26
  • @aroth: Why are you so suspicious? This type of behavior has been happening since at least the time of William Shakespeare [please see Banquo in MacBeth]. – Jim G. Aug 3 '12 at 14:31
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    @JimG. - Because only one side of the story is being presented here, with relatively little to go on in terms of concrete detail. I think it's reasonable to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, and worthwhile to point out that sometimes behavior that appears to be deliberately disruptive isn't actually anyone's intentional attempt at sabotage or hijacking. In many situations involving other people it's a wise step to make sure your subjective perceptions corroborate with an objective viewpoint. I'm just making sure the OP has done this. – aroth Aug 3 '12 at 14:50
  • @aroth: Fair point. – Jim G. Aug 3 '12 at 14:58
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    Vendor = sales. The fact that you're talking about a vendor makes the motivations of the disruptive person visible and understandable. Perhaps he doesn't see anything to lose in making one last effort to appeal for his agenda. Whatever the case, of course you should briefly re-iterate the problems and "shoot it down", however, this can be done in a totally gentle and polite way. If there are a lot of parenthetical details offer to address them after the meeting. Just because you're not "humiliating" him doesn't mean you're being too soft. – Angelo Aug 5 '12 at 15:12
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Power Distance

As others say, be respectful of the power differential. Handling obstreperous peers is bound to be different than difficult customers or superiors. In most cases, I will try to assume for a (limited duration) that the concerns raised are well-intended - even if they come off as rude. I try to assume that everyone in the meeting has a productive goal and try to bring the discussion to a productive end. Usually in almost any power dynamic, that works although I may have to target my response to the experience/position of the asker - a customer being more cost sensitive, for example, while a peer in a different organization probably has expertise in his area, but not mine.

Diffuse with Questions

Often annoying people don't feel they are being heard. At least the first time, I'll engage the difficult person with questions and then pointedly restate what I think he said in my own words, so he (and the room) knows that it's been heard and comprehended. This may take a few back and forth tries, but it can often get the discussion back on track if all I have on my hands in someone with poor communication skills, but a valid point.

Point is on topic

Having ascertained the actual point - if it's a valid point for the discussion, then we have something new to dicuss (whoohoo!). At that point if the person seems particularly dense (or language impaired), I will guide the discussion through this point, see if we can get to conclusions or action items, and pointedly resolve the issue.

This often ends with a theatrical "this is our conclusion - ta-DAH" that seems blatantly obvious to me, but isn't always to the person who raised the issue in the first place. It may also include a question to the original annoying person - "did we get it? does that work?" Putting them on the spot means they are doubly humiliated if they bring it up again - at the point the room has done the work of solving the problem, and I will not likely have to be rude about it - someone else will ask the guy to shut up. Probably his boss.

Point is off topic

Hit it right not the head - not need to be rude. But a pointed "that is not in scope for our discussion". Then follow up with "but I'd be glad to ... to help you resolve your concern". The ... is some action I can take. Maybe it's a follow up to figure out his edge case. Maybe it's networking to find the right place for this concern. Either way, I take it point blank and close it down.

Rinse and repeat?

No - I don't rinse and repeat on this one. Someone who is really trying to bring your discussion to a point of unproductivity, will raise edge case after edge case, dragging the discussion away from the main point.

At this point I will first guide to more productive discussers on the basis that some people have not had a chance to voice their thoughts, and I'd like to hear from everyone... If the guy still won't let go, I will engage directly and shut him down... unless the guy is so highly placed that this whole discussion is basically for his benefit.

Judgement Required

There is a real judgement call here. Is the guy confused, misguided or otherwise well-intentioned but off the mark? Or is he here because his agenda is so opposite of yours that only one of you can win? Figuring this out can sometimes be easy, but not often.

When I lead really high profile, really potentially fraught discussions, I have to do a fair bit of background research. Most of the organizations I work with are big, long term organizations where everyone is within 3 degrees of separation and people have axes to grind that are older than I am (and I ain't that young anymore!). So sometimes I have to dig around, get names, ask benign questions and figure out the real agenda before I go into the room. This is nearly impossible to do on the first meeting, so for anything important, I usually figure we'll have at least 2-3. The assumption being we are a big group, that isn't a 'team' - if this annoying guy is in your team, you may want to resort to team issue resolution that takes place outside of the discussion...

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    Very in-depth and thoughtful response! – David Navarre Aug 3 '12 at 16:25
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    I really like this. – Luke McGregor Aug 4 '12 at 0:22
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There are several questions that would clear the situation up:

  • Who is the critic, an ordinary employee or someone with higher position?
  • Do you know why does that critic do that? Does he have any vital reasons for promoting an external agenda?
  • Does he do this same thing frequently or this is the first time?

If the critic is someone with higher position, someone with a sense of responsibility and he doesn't have a habbit to so such things, maybe the second option is better. Anyway, the way he acts isn't constructive at all. I think its better to ask him if there is a serious problem since he acts like that.

Otherwise, speak loudly about the problem. Tell everyone that this guy here is obviously doing the wrong thing. I'm sure you won't be the only one who noticed that and many of your colleagues will support you on the matter.

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Don't compromise your position on important matters.

However, there's something to be said about "throwing a bone" to the saboteur when discussing inconsequential matters.


If you forced me to decide between your options, I'd favor confronting the critic "head on", early, with copious amounts of logic to support your position. I don't think that you should ever show weakness.

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This question is likely to prove impossible to answer because the dynamics of the relationships between the people at the meeting table would be hard to describe even if you were to try.

Personalities and relationships greatly influence the direction a meeting takes (even if there is an agenda) and how you end up being perceived by your peers. Depending on the mix, you can come across as pushy even if you try to be gentle, or weak even if you plead your heart out.

After all, having the boss around with his long time friend and a 20 year employee of the company cum head of department deliberately trolling is very different from dealing with a new manager that might just be trying to impress the crowd.

  • Hey, I hear what you mean and I've added in a couple of scenarios which I'm thinking of to perhaps give this a bit more context – Luke McGregor Aug 4 '12 at 0:24

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