Why Meetings Suck if Bullies Speak

(Appeared in Smart Brief on Your Career on April 22, 2010) (Appeared in (Practicing Law Institute) PLI Smart Brief April23,2010). See innovative meetings e-handbook here for dozens of practical strategies that bring meetings alive where you work.

When bullies pop an irate question or cynics insist on opinions that provoke anger at meetings, thoughts of brain chemicals may be far from your mind. Yet a cynical word or a diminishing gesture to even one group member, can alter an entire room’s mental chemistry with speeds of lightning strikes to an iron rod on a barren hill.

Without warning, your amygdala reacts to tone problems tossed into communications in meetings. If your meetings end in gridlocks or if you leave a flopped workshop disheartened after what could have been a hot innovative discussion, you likely see why Dr. McMaster names bullies as deadly triggers.

In toxic workplaces you rarely find meetings where serotonin fuels creativity, builds openness to change, and regulates moods that impact confidence to lead even in tough times.

Have you ever compared a meeting where people use good tone skills to build a shared vision – to one where someone vents or vies for notice? Just as the human brain builds forward with serotonin for innovative exchanges, it also shuts down creativity with altered chemicals such as cortisol.

Does that mean people must agree on controversial topics? No – the opposite is actually true. To  disagree in fact offers amazing new zest for genius, when you build goodwill across differences.


Tone skills shape words to create calm under pressure.  The same communication proclivities within human brains,  also balance mental chemistry, and can make or break your group’s outcomes.

Neglect brain chemicals at meetings, and courtesy rarely remains as part of communication. When somebody slights your sensibility, you’ll simply toss rude barbs back, from stored reactions in your brain.

One way to regulate cortisol and slow a bully’s damage is to model tone for curiosity over contention, and show how you learn from those who differ.  Yes, even those who come with crankier tone.

Ignore cortisol levels, though, and you can expect people with weaker tone skills to react rudely whenever  harmful hormones surge during disagreements.

Before your next meeting, why not try a brief tone test to help create deeper understanding out of differences. Then lean on your own genius transparency to rebuild the trust your meeting needs if it is to lead innovation.

Here are a few tips for disagreeing in ways that build goodwill.

If you tend to avoid disagreement or run from conflict … you’ll enjoy these tools:


1. Affirm another person’s thoughts before sharing your views on the other side – to show that you really heard, sorted, and valued them. (notice I did not say agree with them)

2. Thank people for different ideas presented and show how you’ve tried or considered them further. Toss your own ideas into the ring to show and explain differences you see.

3. Share personal experiences respectfully as another angle to think about together – rather than as a need to replace the original ideas that were presented. Remember you are looking to stir and learn from diverse sides of the issue.

4. Ask two footed questions… rather than offer your own opinion too quickly. . For instance…  Have you thought about…? What if…? Could another possibility be …?

5. Add unique ideas to the mix – to inspire with confidence – more as part of a good discuss – than a need to top the original points. Make sure you support your best ideas with concrete examples to help people see possibilities presented.

Congratulations, you have just used differences to segue into a broader vision for your next meeting – one that draws on multiple talents.

See further tone posts related to this topic.


  1. Great post.
    I enjoyed how you explained that the bullying and cynics are not just being “jerks” or “challenging”. What they are doing is pulling the collective air out of the room
    I often wonder what would motivate one to be so cynical in a meeting environment.

    Additionally by asking questions and having leadership (either implicit or explicit) model questioning and curiousity the group can again re-gain constructive thinking.

  2. eweber says:

    Mike, it’s amazing how the brain chemistry in a room changes – and sadly – how that impacts a leader’s ability to lead transformation. Innovation requires a very different brain chemical that the ones that surge when a person uses poor tone.

    Another sad point is that – with good tone — disagreement helps everybody to change and grow and build a shared vision that is bigger than any one mind.

    So you are right — it takes a great leader to regain the curiosity that rebuilds trust and other segues into learning. Thanks for the way you do it, Mike. Not easy – and it requires supportive help from others. Guess that’s where collaboration comes in.

  3. […] Learn­ers has writ­ten a piece on meet­ings that suck because of the pres­ence of bul­lies.  Bul­lies from a brain angle — I love it. She offers a few ideas on deal­ing with “bully conflict.” […]

  4. […] Why Meetings Suck if Bullies Speak – Brain Leaders and Learners In toxic workplaces you rarely find meetings fueling creativity. Show how you learn from those who differ http://bit.ly/-R40 by @ellenfweber – Pierre Cohen-Bacrie (captic) http://twitter.com/captic/statuses/12327377741 (tags: pkrts) […]

  5. […] Why Meetings Suck if Bullies Speak: I love the look at the brain’s involvement in the process. I’ve learned a lot about the amygdala, serotonin levels and hippocampus and how they play with our emotions. I’m a fan of Dr. B. Bryan Post’s “The Stress Model,” which says the all behavior comes from state of stress and we have two primary emotions: love and fear. […]

  6. JP says:

    I’ve never realized all the physical changes that happen in such a workplace. My office environment is terrible. Luckily I work from home. But on the rare occasion I have to go into the office, I spend the time with my stomach in knots and a headache at the end of the day. Now I know why! I can’t wait until quitting day…it’s coming soon. Thanks for this information.

  7. […] several fundamental problem with meetings at work.  I’m not talking about ways to run effective meetings, I’m talking about why most don’t work. Running effective ones is another topic. And I […]

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