Know-it-Alls, Naysayers, and More Board Member Conflict Starters

In Part 2 of Problem Board Members, we offered suggestions for managing The Storyteller, The Dominator and The Interrupter. This blog will provide some help with other board member conflict creators: The Know-It-All, The Naysayer and The Topic Jumper.

As a reminder, many of these problems can be minimized with your board expectation agreement that outlines basic expectations of behavior and strong ground rules that are posted at every meeting.

Related: Fierce Conversations and Healthy Dissent in the Board Room

nonprofit problem board members advice

Here are some suggested ground rules:

  • Start and end on time.
  • Give other speakers a turn.
  • Respectful listening
  • No side conversations.
  • Soft on people; hard on ideas
  • No phones during the meeting

    Problem Board Members


    This board member always seems to have the definitive answer to any question. Sometimes she may also be a Dominator, so you may be able to appeal to her in a conversation outside of the meeting for help in getting others to speak up. If she continues to shut down discussion, the board president will have to make sure that others can speak up. “We know what Helen thinks about this and now I’d like to hear some other points of view.” You may not get a response when you ask for opposing viewpoints even though you can see that people disagree by observing their body language.

    We all know that if someone moves back from the table, it may be that she or he disagrees. Ask that person to play “Devil’s Advocate.” For example, if Tamara looks like she doesn’t like what Helen is saying, ask, “Tamara, would you play Devil’s Advocate and tell us what we aren’t considering here? What other point of view might there be?” It allows someone who may have a differing point of view to talk about it in a non-confrontational way because you requested them to do it. This is a sure-fire way to defuse board member conflict.


    “We tried that, and it didn’t work.” Or, “We can’t do that.” Sometimes it’s, “No one will want it.” Add a big sigh from the rest of the board members to each of those statements. It’s hard to be creative and collaborative when someone seems to  think everything is a bad idea.

    When your Naysayer says, “We tried it and it didn’t work,” one of the best responses is, “Tell us what would have worked better.” When he says, “We can’t do that,” ask, “What could we do instead?” When he says, “No one will want it,” respond with “What do they want?”

    Your strategy with the Naysayer is to make him contribute more than just negative energy that seeds board member conflict. Don’t let him simply shoot things down. You turn the negative response into a question that puts him on the spot to offer an alternative. And maybe, just maybe, he will provide another way to look at the issue. At the very least, always turning the negative into a “share something positive” will cause the Naysayer to have to participate in idea sharing.


    The Topic Jumper is probably well meaning, and yet moving the agenda along is hard when someone changes the subject in the middle of a discussion. The best strategy for managing the Topic Jumper is to use a “Parking Lot” for unrelated topics that come up. It’s a tactful and useful way to keep your agenda on track.

    A “Parking Lot” is a flip chart or white board used to list topics that come up that are not relevant to the subject at hand. Listing the item on the flip chart or white board that is designated as the “Parking Lot” gives respect to the speaker who has jumped topics but keeps the discussion where it belongs. When the Topic Jumper veers off into new territory, the board chair asks to put it in the “Parking Lot.” At the end of the meeting, the parking lot items are reviewed for placement on the next meeting agenda, sent to a committee to discuss and report on, or given to the staff to prepare a report.

    Part 4: Board Member Conflict Starters “Cell Phone Junkie” and “Whisperer”

    In Part 4 of Problem Board Members, we’ll discuss The Whisperer and The Cell Phone Junkie. Recently, we were asked by one of you to include The Procrastinator. We’ll include The Procrastinator in Part 4 as well. Are there other problem board members you would like us to discuss? Just let us know and we will include that problem in the next blog.

    RELATED: My Nonprofit Journey, by Boardable CEO Jeb Banner

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