How to deal with defensive meeting participants

A simple strategy to manage defensive meeting participants

Clients are constantly telling me that dealing with defensive meeting participants is a common challenge in their workplace, especially when it comes to internal or team meetings.

What may be driving defensive meeting participants

  • There are often polarised views around the table, with people feeling a bit threatened and wanting to ‘defend their turf’.
  • People are often ‘instructed’ to be part of a meeting that they don’t want to attend.
  • A ‘repeat offender’ continually brings negative and sarcastic comments to the table.

Your focus as a meeting facilitator is to get people to move from their ‘positions’ (what they publically hold) to ‘interests’ (the things that really matter to them).

Let’s go through a scenario that covers the above issues, this will help you to prepare for facilitating meetings with colleagues.

The Subcommittee MeetingDefensive meeting participant scenario

Say that you have a meeting about the new office plan.  Rhonda has arrived late, finishing a call on her mobile, just in time for you to ask her to introduce herself.  Instead, she clearly states her position when she says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the new office refurbishment!”

At face value, this seems like Rhonda is drawing a line in the sand.  And nobody is crossing that line!  Those folded arms of hers are sending a clear message!

Your defensive meeting participant alarm is ringing loud and clear!

Remember at this point that our job as a facilitator is to ask questions, not make judgements.

So at this point, we need to pause, count to three (silently is better – less disturbing for participants) and think of a question to ask Rhonda.

The classic, simple question to ask here is, “OK – tell me more.”

Be ready though, this could go in a few directions.  Just be focused on listening to her response and note some of the key points so you can reflect these back.  Here’s how the conversation may flow, with you using open-ended questions to get Rhonda to talk more about the situation.

Rhonda:        “Well in my last job, the office refurbishment was a complete debacle.  It got really messy, nobody was happy!”

You:                “How about you?  How did you feel about it?”

Rhonda:        “Not happy at all!”

You:                “So why do you think they were unhappy?”

Rhonda:        “Well, they were uptight about where they’d end up sitting and who they’d be sitting near.  Nobody got what they wanted.”

You:                “Why was that?”

Rhonda:        “Because nobody bothered to ask them.  People were allocated space based on their seniority.  It was a shambles.  There’s no way I want to see this happen again.”

You:                “What should’ve happened?

Rhonda:        “Well anything except that approach!”

You:                “This seems like a good opportunity for us to use this as a guide for our planning.

Rhonda, it would be great if we could harness your experience on this.  If you could please stay for another half an hour, you could help us to identify how we should involve staff in this process.”

Well done!

You’ve successfully used the ORID structured debrief process to get Rhonda to move from a stated position to talking a bit more openly about her interests.

Action: If you’re not currently on my email list, get in touch and I’ll send you a facilitation template that outlines and provides examples of the ORID process.


In this case Rhonda’s interests were:

  • Maintaining relationships between staff;
  • Maintaining morale within the workplace;
  • Making sure staff were properly consulted.

You followed the ORID process by:

  1. Getting Rhonda to state the facts (as she saw them) – known as the Objective level of the discussion;
  2. Checking on her reaction to this – know as the Reflective level;
  3. Getting her views on why she thought the situation unfolded the way it did – the Interpretive level;
  4. Asking for a plan of action for the future – known as the Decisional level.

This took just a few minutes – nothing to really upset the meeting agenda and time well spent.

By using these structured questions you were able to bring out Rhonda’s interests and get them on the table.  Doing this enabled other participants to better understand her situation and identify potential solutions.

Take-home message

  1. Reduce your concerns about dealing with defensive meeting participants by being prepared with structured questions
  2. Address the issues early in the meeting, otherwise they’ll fester and become more challenging to manage

PS – remember to contact me to get your ORID template

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Andrew Huffer

Andrew Huffer has over 25 years experience in working with organisations, businesses, managers and communities and at a state, national and international level. He designs and delivers specialist engagement processes, with a focus on facilitating open decision making processes and skill development of clients. He has delivered presentations and workshops at a number of state, national and international conferences.

Reader Interactions


  1. Carmela Ariza says

    Hi Andrew. I like the simplicity of the process. Would love to receive the ORID template. This is very useful indeed in these situations. What other techniques do you use in such difficult situations aside from ORID. Would love to learn from you again!!!

    • Andrew Huffer says

      Hi Carmela,
      Thanks for your feedback, the template is on the way. I think the key for us is to look for what people are really wanting. We need to help them to move beyond their stated position and get them to the point of sharing their (sometimes deeper) interests and underlying values. This often reveals that they have interests that may be similar to other people in the meeting, conversation or workshop.
      Questions like:
      Tell me more?
      What would work better for you?
      What do you want to see result from this?
      What’s a better approach?

      Of course, I’d love to hear about your approaches too.



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