4 ways to engage the disengaged people in your meeting

Jackie Colburn
4 min readApr 12


Hard-to-handle participants are par for the course if you frequently facilitate meetings and workshops. How many of us have been in meetings where one person throws off the entire group with their remarks, disinterest, or general resistance to the task at hand? While it’s stressful when these things happen, it doesn’t need to be the thing that keeps you up at night.

In a recent conversation, a peer asked me about the best ways to engage the people who, quite simply, don’t want to be there. It’s not a fun feeling for anyone involved to be in a gathering where someone clearly doesn’t want to be in the room. That’s why I’ve put together a few tools I like to use to make it less likely that you’ll encounter a disengaged-participant situation, and to help you assuredly address the issue when it arises.

Here are 4 tips for managing the checked-out or disengaged attendees in your meeting.

1. Make sure every attendee has a purpose

Let’s call this a preventative step. When you organize a meeting or workshop, make sure you know exactly who’s attending and the role they’ll play. When each person is there to contribute a specific perspective, it automatically reduces the risk of inviting in a participant who doesn’t need to be there. When folks don’t know their role, they’re more prone to feel like the session is a waste of their time, and that leads to disengaged behaviors.

At the beginning of the meeting, I like to acknowledge that everyone in the room is there for a reason and has a meaningful perspective to contribute. Sometimes, people just need to be told that their voice does in fact matter in order to lean in and participate more fully.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the head count with your client/organizational leader. If they can’t clearly explain why someone should be in attendance, push back. It’s in the best interest of the group (that’s why the recommended number of seats for a Design Sprint is only 5–7; more than that is counterproductive!). Minimizing the number of attendees for focused and collaborative workshops will safeguard against distracting behavior.

2. Embrace structure

Your workshop design should include structured methods that help set the tone for the interaction. Have a plan for how feedback should be given, employ the use of timers, stick to planned activities — democratizing things leaves less space for personal agendas or conflict to overtake the group. Plus, the structure asks for everyone to engage in a way that makes it hard for a single person to sit out or dissent without looking unfavorable.

Here are some of my favorite ways to embrace structure during a workshop, as well as tips for managing expectations. This is another important step for deterring disengagement.

3. Put away the technology

I know this is harder to manage in remote settings, but if you’re in person, absolutely insist that people put away their phones and any device that isn’t essential to completing the work at hand. This removes distractions, helps participants stay present, and keeps people from disengaging because “they have more important business to attend to.” If someone says they really need to be on their devices, ask them to leave and come back when they can be fully present.

I commonly say to groups “Our time is truly all we have and if we aren’t present with one another, we are stealing from the group and ourselves…because when you’re trying to be in two places, you’re actually nowhere.”

4. Acknowledge the resistance

Despite all your efforts to safeguard against disengaged behavior, it can still happen. This suggestion might feel bold, but as the facilitator you have a responsibility to the group to address problematic participants. This can manifest in a few different ways.

Resistance can sometimes come in the form of derailing questions (“Why are we here?” “What are we even doing?”), which you can tackle head on by reminding that person what the group agreed on prior to starting the work. Here’s a guide to help you with this interaction.

Sometimes a disengaged participant might present something that needs to be addressed directly. Use your best judgment to determine if you can tackle it in front of the group, or if it would be better to pull them aside for a private conversation during a break. You may find they need to air a grievance or share frustrations. Sometimes, simply being heard can go a long way in getting them to re-engage. Ask them if they are willing to recommit to the gathering and work at hand. If not, perhaps it’s time to ask them not to participate at all (they can either exit the session altogether, or simply observe the group if they’re able to have a good attitude about it).

At the end of the day, it’s important to note that there’s only so much you can control as the facilitator. A disengaged participant’s bad attitude / resentment / etc., isn’t about you. Don’t take it personally, but remember that it is your job — to the best of your ability — to create an environment where people who may have a history of friction can work together successfully.

For a little additional reading about helping people feel more comfortable in meetings — another method for discouraging disengagement — check out this article.

Have you ever dealt with a disengaged participant before? How did you handle it, and what worked well? Share your thoughts in the comments. I promise, I’ll read them and respond!



Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas. www.jackiecolburn.com