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.
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.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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.
- 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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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex
politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes
hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
- Virtual Communications: I
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some
guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- We Are All People
- When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that
we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
- Intentionally Unintentional Learning
- Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open
to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have
far greater impact.
- Just Make It Happen
- Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen."
We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated
by ambition or ignorance — or both.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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