Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 5;   January 29, 2003: Discussus Interruptus

Discussus Interruptus

by

You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?

Sally looked around the table for anyone who wasn't trying to talk. To her relief, most weren't, but the usual suspects had their megaphones on, blasting each other at full volume. "Hold on, everyone. Hold on!" she said, raising her voice way past the comfort level. Greg — no surprise — was the last to stop.

Senator Mark Warner (Democrat of Virginia) meets with mayors

Senator Mark Warner (Democrat of Virginia) meets with mayors regarding the consequences of federal budget cuts in 2011. Photo courtesy Senator Mark Warner (CC by 2.0).

In a more normal tone, Sally continued: "If we're going to discuss this, we'll have some order in this room. I want only one person talking at a time. Clear?"

In her attempt to bring order to chaos, Sally has just intervened, but she's unlikely to be successful unless she can enroll the entire group in the effort.

Chaotic, interrupt-driven discussions are expensive. Here are some of the costs that we can avoid with more orderly exchanges:

Delays and confusion
When we interrupt people, we sometimes prevent them from making their points in the way they planned. This introduces delays and confusion, if they ever actually make their points.
Lost contributions
Often we put the
responsibility for order
(or disorder) in a meeting
on the shoulders of
the meeting chair,
but everyone in
the room plays a role
Some people are especially sensitive to interruption. Some hold back, for fear of interrupting someone. Others are intimidated by the prospect of being interrupted. In an atmosphere of interruption, the group loses access to much of its creativity.
Erosion of self-esteem
When some people are interrupted, they can feel devalued. The interruption can be painful and humiliating, and it can move them to anger, even if they don't express it in the meeting. These effects can extend beyond that meeting and beyond that team.

Often we put the responsibility for order (or disorder) on the shoulders of the meeting chair, but everyone in the room plays a role. Even those who sit quietly have the choice of objecting to the disorder. Here are some tips for maintaining order.

Prevention is easier than repair
It's much easier to create an environment in which people resist the temptation to interrupt than it is to deal with interrupters.
Establish norms
Have a discussion of group norms. One possible norm: we will not interrupt each other. Post the norms on the wall. Review them at the beginning of each meeting.
Create mechanisms for necessary interruptions
Certain interruptions are helpful. Examples are requests for information, requests to make critical corrections, and requests to modify the group process. Establish key phrases that team members can use to make these requests.
For especially tense topics, get a facilitator
A facilitator who isn't part of the team is more likely to be objective than any team member is. A skilled facilitator knows how to maintain a "queue" of people who want to comment, and provides the trust required to encourage everyone to wait patiently. Executive teams: hire a facilitator from outside the organization.

If you have a serious problem with interruptions, chances are good that you no longer notice. Track interruptions over time. What's the trend? Is there a pattern? Can you do better? Go to top Top  Next issue: You and I  Next Issue

For an exploration of interruptions from the point of view of the one being interrupted, check out "Let Me Finish, Please," Point Lookout for January 22, 2003.

Reader Comments
Mary Pope
We had this problem once and instituted a talking stick. You had to have the stick in order to speak. Only when you relinquished it could the next person have the floor. It slowed the meeting a bit but was worth it. An unexpected side effect was that it added some levity to the meeting of a contentious group of people. Plus it made everyone feel like they had the floor and everyone's undivided attention. Better yet, after a few meetings with the talking stick it was no longer necessary and gradually fell from use.

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