Expert Author Gihan Perera
Most conference calls - even when they involve participants from different organisations - are polite, orderly and even-tempered. However, occasionally you might be on a call that involves hostile participants or other types of difficulties - such as:
  • Nasty participants (hostile, rude, unhelpful and the like)
  • You can't get a word in
  • Someone wants to derail the process
  • Hidden or inconsistent agendas
  • Personal attacks on you
This sort of call requires particular skills.
Observe three guiding principles when handling difficult calls:
1. Knowledge is power
2. The earlier the better
3.Formality and structure give control
Knowledge is power
First, the more you know about what you're likely to face, the easier it is to manage it effectively and still meet your outcomes. This knowledge comes in many forms:
  • Knowing the participants on the call
  • Knowing what they really want out of the call
  • Knowing who's really got the power to make decisions (it might not be the person with the most senior job title)
  • In a negotiation, knowing their walk-away position and their "BATNA" (best alternative to a negotiated agreement)
  • Knowing your walk-away position and BATNA
  • Knowing who is on your side, both openly and secretly
  • Knowing your options if things start getting out of hand
  • Even just knowing you'll be facing a difficult call is part of the battle won.
The earlier the better
The more you can anticipate the potential problems and plan for them, the easier it is to manage them. There's nothing worse than being caught off guard when somebody "innocently" springs a potential deal-breaking question right in the middle of a call that was going smoothly!
You can do a number of things to prevent - or at least minimise - the problems before the call:
  • Do more background research yourself, so you're clear about your facts.
  • Do more background research about the other side (if there is one), so you understand their position as well.
  • Ask them to honestly share their issues before the call, to help you prepare (and of course you do the same for them).
  • Communicate in other ways before the call - by e-mail, one-on-one telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, or whatever is most appropriate - to understand or even resolve some of the issues.
  • Enlist the help of people who can assist before or during the call to resolve the issues.
Formality and structure give control
Formal meeting procedures are the chair's biggest weapon when facing a difficult or hostile meeting. All participants must speak "through the chair", which means the chair can regulate who speaks and for how long. The chair can reprimand participants for breaching points of order and, in some instances, has the procedural power to expel people from the meeting.
However, formal meeting procedure is becoming a lost art in business and may not be practicable to implement for certain types of conference calls.
Nonetheless, the principle that formality and structure give control is extremely relevant and can be implemented in other ways where a call might become difficult. For instance:
  • Certain technology will by their nature give the chair that level of control.
  • If participants agree to follow a conference calling etiquette they are less likely to misbehave and can be called upon to adhere to their agreed level of behaviour.
  • A structured agenda gives less scope for participants dragging the call off track or following their own agendas.
  • If participants argue with each other, keep interrupting or talking over each other, stop the discussion and introduce a debate format (For instance, each party has 60 seconds to put their point of view without interruption).


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