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Coping with Difficult Group Members

This month we are going to look at a problem we all experience from time-to-time, even if we don't have to solve it ourselves.

Whether it's in a meeting, forum or just your everyday work group there can be people who are difficult to cope with and disrupt the flow.

Most team members will be easy to work with. They will contribute in a co-operative manner, share the air time and work hard to get it right. Sometimes, though, you will have to deal with difficult group members.

Here are a few ideas for coping with "sticky" situations:

  • Look at difficult group members as an interesting challenge rather than as an irritation.

This will help you maintain a positive tone when dealing with the group as a whole.

  • Resist becoming pulled into arguments and avoid put-downs.

If you adopt an antagonistic manner, the group may decide to rally around the individual you are finding difficult.

  • If possible, let the group deal with the difficult member themselves. Others will likely grow impatient with disruptive behaviour and the group can be quite effective at stopping it.

Listed below are some of the more common problem members present in groups, and suggestions for dealing with them.

Shy, quiet people who tend to blend into the background. They're often easily overlooked.


  • Divide the group into smaller groups - shy people are more likely to participate in smaller groups.
  • Call upon the shy person occasionally. Ask questions which are readily answered - one relating to everyday life experiences - to break the ice.

Monopolisers have the "gift of the gab" and can easily take up all the airtime if left unchecked.


  • Politely but firmly, suggest the group considers a variety of opinions. Ask others for their ideas and make sure others have a chance to speak.
  • If monopolisers take the conversation off track, bring the group back to the subject at hand. Suggest others issues are discussed outside of the meeting.

Rigid people who are convinced they know "the truth".

They will argue and quibble to the point of disrupting the group.


  • Encourage them to think about opposing views. Ask them to step out of their position in the discussion and come up with objective evidence that might support the other side.
  • You may not be able to change the rigid person, you can force them to recognise that other points of view do exist.

These are people who consistently see the negative side and anticipate problems to any course of action.


  • Listen to their views and indicate you understand their predicament.
  • Ask the individual and the group to find positives in the situation.
  • Indicate that whilst they may have a point, your task as a group is to find constructive answers to these difficulties.

They aim to "get your goat"! Hostile people ask challenging questions designed to embarrass or anger others.


  • Stay calm and rephrase the question in unemotional, objective terms.
  • Phrase your answers to the whole group, rather than just the hostile one
  • Acknowledge the person's strong feelings about the issue.

Arguers go beyond healthy disagreement and look for opportunities to show up other people and make themselves look good.


  • Avoid arguing, you will rarely win arguments in groups. Paraphrase your understanding of their position but stop the debate by agreeing to disagree on the point.
  • Encourage the group to deal with the arguer by asking them if they want to respond.
  • Point out that the group has given considerable attention to an issue. Suggest moving on to the next point, but offer to discuss the issue a later time.

Jokers impede the group's process with excessive humour, which is frequently inappropriate and irritating.


  • Encourage jokers to participate in serious discussion. Compliment worthwhile, serious input.

Attention seekers like to flaunt their knowledge. They will use big words, quote statistics and drop names.


  • Typically, it's best to let the group deal with show offs. Frequently, the group will become impatient and solve the problem for you. If the attention seeker begins to monopolise the group, try actions for the monopoliser.

Tangent thinkers are people who relate interesting, but not quite relevant information or experiences in the group.


  • Indicate interest in the information, but ask the person to relate it to the concerns being discussed.
  • Ask the group to discuss the topic as it relates to the current situation. Silence from the group may discourage further tangential comments.

Due to a strong desire to be heard, or a strong interest in the subject matter, poor listeners interrupt others to jump into the discussion. They simply have difficulty hearing others out.


  • Insist on sharing discussion time. Whilst acknowledging the value of the poor listeners' comments, point out that the other person hasn't finished.
  • Ask the poor listener to paraphrase other people's contributions to be certain that you all have the same understanding.
  • Request a comparative analysis, e.g.: How do your ideas compare or contrast with John's or Jane's?

We are sure you will recognise some of these different types of people within your groups and teams! Let's they don't include you.

Try using some of these suggestions to handle difficult group members - you should have less disruptive behaviour, more support from colleagues and meetings that stay on track and keep everyone involved.

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