From In Mixed Company: Small Group Communication by J. Dan Rothwell, Harcourt and Brace publishers

How do you deal with difficult group members? Individuals who create turmoil in the group by engaging in chronically disruptive behaviour, or whose communication behaviour is chronically inappropriate offer a challenge. Since groups are systems composed of interrelated parts, one competitive member can influence the entire group. It’s been discovered that when one group member is highly competitive, formerly cooperative members begin behaving in competitive ways also. This is especially true when the competitive member is not dealt with effectively by the group.

There are several fundamental steps that should be taken by the group when dealing with a difficult member. This action plan is derived from research, experience, observations, and from consulting the work primarily of psychologist Robert Bramson.

  • First, make sure your own house is in order. Has the group made a genuine effort to create a supportive, noncompetitive climate? If not, then refrain from looking for scapegoats to blame for group disharmony and conflict. The problem is you. Get busy and clean up your environment. You can hardly expect others to be supportive and cooperative when you haven’t made the effort yourself.
  • Second, stop wishing that difficult individuals were different. Chronic behaviours have been learned, usually over long periods of time. If your disruptive member is a bigot, don’t expect to change him or her into a generous, open-minded person. Change your communication in relation to that person’s difficult behaviour. Communication in-groups are a transaction operating within a system. What one party does affects the other parties. You may change the troublemaker’s behaviour toward the group, even though you will not likely change him or her from a difficult person into a likeable one. So how do you act in relation to the difficult member so the problem person becomes less of a disruption? Consider the next step.
  • Third, try not to encourage the disruption. There are several common ways that groups unwittingly encourage the disrupter. Avoid the following:
    1. Don’t placate the troublemaker. Permitting frequent interruptions from the offending party, enduring this ploy for conversational control, is a strategy of appeasement with little potential for success. Allowing the disrupter to manipulate the group in order to “keep the peace” rewards the troublemaker for objectionable behaviour.
    2. Refuse to be goaded into a reciprocal pattern. Resist the very real temptation to meet firepower with firepower. Becoming aggressive with aggressors escalates into intractable power struggles. Keep telling yourself that if you do, you’re engaging them on their terms and on their familiar ground, to your disadvantage. Resisting the temptation to fight fire with fire requires self-control.
    3. Don’t provide a soapbox for the troublemaker. Aggressors are more than happy to mount the soapbox and focus attention on their personal agenda. Defer the confrontation if possible, you can’t ignore disruptive behaviour especially when it becomes chronic, but sometimes you can defer it to a more appropriate time and place.
  • Fourth, attempt to convert disruption into a constructive contribution. For example you could attempt to divert the disrupter away from abusive remarks and toward constructive contributions to the group by responding, “Perhaps you could provide a better solution.” By requesting a pertinent contribution you substantiate comments in a group discussion and encourage a focus on content not on relationship conflicts. Disrupters are less likely to continue their abuse when they are focused on the substance of the discussion.
  • Fifth, confront the difficult person directly. If the entire group is upset by the behavior of the difficult person, then the group should confront the disrupter. Confrontations, of course, should be descriptive, not evaluative. Even when there is a power disparity, such as when your team leader is the difficult person, confrontation is important.
  • Sixth, separate yourself from the difficult person if all else fails. Communication is not a panacea for every problem that comes up in groups. Some individuals leave no other option except ostracism (a competitive choice) by the group. If the difficult person is powerful, however, ostracism may not be an option. In this case, try putting physical distance between you and the problem person. Stay out of each other’s way whenever possible. In a few instances, they may have to leave the group in order to restore calm within the group.

Difficult people can provoke intense anger and deep frustration from group members. Every effort needs to be made to deal with these people in an appropriate manner; however we are not strictly rational beings. Even if you have lost your temper and let your emotions get away from you, this is not as problematic as simply ignoring or enduring the disruptive behaviour. If your anger translates into personal attacks, at the very least you have served notice on the troublesome group member that his or her pattern of behaviour is unacceptable and will not be suffered in silence.

If you do lose your self-control, you will need to follow up at a later time with direct confrontation. You may find that your initial outburst got the attention of your troublemaker. A more rational, deliberate strategy may still work even after a shouting match. There is perhaps no greater challenge or more important task in a group than to establish a positive, cooperative, confirming climate. Defensive climates promote conflict and disharmony in groups. Supportive climates do not free groups entirely from conflict, but such atmospheres enhance the likelihood of constructive solutions to conflict in groups.