moderate meetings

How to Moderate Meetings Without Mayhem—Virtual or Physical

Moderators for several of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates have received harsh criticism—most notably the CBS moderators, who at times seemed stressed that candidates were not following their debates rules.

Although you may not be moderating a debate, chances are that you have to lead meetings with strong-willed attendees. Articulate, passionate, and confident, they demand to be heard and feel the “rules” are only for other people. That’s a triple threat to order and productive communication.

So the next time you anticipate being in such a hotspot, lay claim to these techniques that tend to cool passionate conversations and conflicts.


4 Keys to Keep Meetings on Track


Clearly Communicate Any Rules

The moderators often run through the meeting rules with the same passion as flight attendants giving safety guidelines: Rushed. Monotone. Auto-pilot predictability. Granted, when you lead a meeting, you may not repeat the group’s rules (or those set by precedent in your organization) each time attendees gather. But when you expect controversy, repeat them clearly—as if you intend to enforce them—and get the group’s agreement upfront to follow them.

Your group’s rules may include a number of things: Time limits on speakers.  All phones off.  No late arrivals or early leavers. No recap for the late arrivers. Whatever rules you’ve agreed on as a group, stick to them. If none have been set, state your own rules.


Avoid Rewarding the Obstinate With More Air Time

When a participant breaks the “length” rule, stop them and remind the group of the time limit on individual contributions. If you fail to enforce the speaker rules, attendees quickly learn that you don’t really intend to follow them.

Then as you continue to allow other speakers more airtime than agreed upon, you’re actually rewarding the rule-breakers. Soon, you’ll feel like the inconsistent parent who tells the three-year-old at bedtime, “Johnny, this is the LAST time I’m going to tell you this is the LAST time to pick up your toys.” What they hear is, “Keep dawdling and playing until I really mean it and fly off the handle.”


Remain Front and Center

Body language plays a huge part in group dynamics and control. TV debate moderators start at a disadvantage in that they’re seated while candidates stand. Standing increases authority while sitting decreases authority and control.

When business discussions get unwieldly with crosstalk, meeting leaders frequently have the tendency to back away from the turmoil. That’s particularly the case when attendees hold higher rank than the meeting moderator. The moderator’s thinking seems to be, “These people are my senior executives. If they want to sidetrack the discussion, who am I to stop them?”  That’s understandable—but a crippling view.

If you’re in charge of leading a discussion, others expect you to set boundaries and control the flow of traffic so that everyone can use time productively. That means physically taking control of what happens in the session. If you’re in a physical room, that means physically taking control of what happens in the room: Stand or sit so that you’re clearly front and center and visible to everyone in the group. If you’re leading a virtual meeting, then decide how best control the flow of traffic: Mute all mics upon entrance and ask participants to unmute themselves when they want to speak. You get the idea—you’re in charge of traffic flow so that all attendees get heard—but in a reasonable, productive manner.

Project your voice. Assign roles such as timekeeper or scribe. Introduce new topics. Provide transitions. Summarize conclusions. Assign next actions.

That’s physically and figuratively remaining “front and center.”


Control the Environment

TV debate moderators clearly control the mics for each candidate. All they need to do is to have the sound engineers to mute the candidate’s mics when their speaking time ends. Of course, you may be leading a meeting without microphones, but that doesn’t mean you can’t control the environment.

Your choices for control in a physical setting:

  • Set a timer that goes off—loudly—when any speaker exceeds, say, 3 minutes.
  • Use another prop such as a “trophy” mouth (plastic chatter teeth) to designate talkers who become loud mouths. As a gag, keep the “trophy” in the middle of the table. The rules state that anyone can move the “trophy” and place it in front of anyone else speaking too long, rambling, repeating points. Yes, this can be touchy, but if done in a lighthearted way, the long-winded speaker will get the point.
  • Position chairs and yourself so that attendees aren’t distracted by passersby.
  • Add a sign on the door that says “meeting in progress” to prevent outside interruptions.


Remember: Your skills as moderator matter a great deal in leading a productive meeting.

Learn more about how to take charge in meetings with Communicate With Confidence!: How to Say It Right the First Time and Every Time.

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