7 effective ways to neutralize toxic people in meetings

Have you ever found yourself in an uncomfortable position of what can only be described as being under attack in a meeting? Dealing with toxic behavior is not only unpleasant, but it can leave you feeling unsafe and unsure about how to react.

Toxicity shows up as the opposite of vulnerability, curiosity and learning. It feels like a barrier to collaboration, it feels like controlling behavior, it feels like a lack of trust, it feels unsafe,” says culture strategist and leadership coach Erin Willett.

Willett says toxicity can look like patronizing language, passive-aggressive comments or regularly interrupting others. More subtle forms of toxic behavior can include taking credit for others’ work, saying “but..” often, making excuses rather than taking responsibility, or micro-managing.

And its impact can be pervasive. “Toxicity can start as a simple statement or one reprimand but the impact of that toxic behavior is felt more in the ripple effects that it produces in teams.”

According to Willett, teams that face toxicity on a regular basis react by putting their guards up and shutting down. “Meetings become negative and counterproductive, people start to assume negative intent, it could sound like silence or a lack of contribution, it can show up as gossiping, closed doors and whispering.

“Toxicity is not just friction. When left unattended, it can rot a culture quickly.” So what should you do if you find yourself in the crosshairs of a toxic person in the middle of a work meeting? Addressing it is a must, says Willett.

Yes, it’s scary. But it’s crucial. “Tackling toxic people and behavior takes guts. It isn’t easy to confront someone, it’s even more difficult to confront constructively, with care. But we do it because there’s an opportunity when addressing toxicity that goes far beyond simply rectifying the current situation.”

Neutralizing a toxic person in a meeting can have benefits like unleashing collaboration and creativity and turning an awkward confrontation into a win for everyone involved.

Ready to arm yourself with the tools needed to neutralize a toxic coworker? Here are seven effective ways to navigate a dysfunctional interaction with grace.

1. Start with curiosity and compassion

The first step to neutralizing a toxic person in a meeting is to stay curious and compassionate.

“Toxic behavior is a defensive behavior. We reduce toxicity by getting to the heart of what the person is feeling defensive about,” says Willett.

Remembering that the person in front of you has their own baggage and that you don’t know everything about what they are going through can help you respond instead of reacting.

“Get curious about what the root of the issue is. You want to play the role of problem-solver rather than ‘blamer.’ You do this by asking questions, actively listening and demonstrating that you’ve heard.”

Willett recommends using the following statements to address your toxic coworker:

  • “What I’m hearing is…”
  • “I can understand that being frustrating because…”
  • “What I’m feeling is happening is…”
  • “Does this resonate with you?”
  • “What can we do to address this together?”

2. Be direct and honest

Wondering whether you should address the situation head-on? While it can be tempting to brush things off and vent to other coworkers about the incident after the meeting, it might be better to address a toxic coworker on the spot.

“When addressing toxicity, be quick, be direct and honest. Toxicity can be insidious when left to fester, so get to it. Do not backchannel,” says Willett.

3. Address the behavior – not the person

So how do you go about confronting a toxic coworker? It’s really important to address the behavior and not the person — as well as to stick to what is happening in the moment.

“Share what impact the behavior has had on you. Give specific, concrete examples of the toxic behavior and the impact that behavior had. Try not to make generalizations about the person based on the toxic situations you’ve observed or heard about.”

4. Condemn personal attacks

“When it comes to personal attacks, these behaviors must be condoned asap. Clear statements about what is and isn’t accepted need to be shared to the team at large. Don’t shy away from using words like ‘We don’t accept…’ Take a stance. Be clear about the company’s guiding principles and rules of engagement, especially when it pertains to respect and team safety,” says Willett.

Doing so sets a precedent around transparent, constructive communication and sends the clear message that personal attacks should not be tolerated.

5. Diffuse the tension in a collaborative way

Dealing with a toxic person in a meeting is surely awkward for you. But it also creates tension for everyone around the table. Instead of avoiding the tension, lean into it and use it as a learning opportunity.

“Diffuse tension by helping the team name the source of it. Ask questions from different sides, reiterate what you are hearing. If you are facilitating, there is a lot of positive power in making the tension the central focus of the meeting. It is the main blockage and will continue to hinder collaboration until it is addressed,” says Willett.

Once again, make it about the issue and not the person exhibiting the behavior.

6. Follow up and follow-through

In order to nip toxicity in the bud, you want to make sure to close the loop on the incident with a follow-up.

“What are the next steps to addressing the behavior? What happens after the meeting? Set a time to meet with the person privately or decide on a next step collaboratively as a team,” says Willett.

7. Do not belittle or shame the toxic person

Pointing fingers counterproductive. It can be so easy to get defensive or retaliate when reacting on the spot, but in order to neutralize a toxic person in a meeting, you must take the high road.

“Belittling or shaming the person who is exhibiting toxic behavior will not result in positive outcomes but will actually create more of a guard and defense on their end.”