Interrupting contributors in meetings is a problem of long standing. Some interruptions are necessary and beneficial. For example, in rapidly changing situations, urgency might require pre-empting the normal order of a meeting. Because most groups have customs that permit these and other beneficial interruptions, they cause little difficulty unless the customs are abused.
More problematic are the interruptions that are little more than lightly cloaked power or dominance displays, or which arise out of anger, revenge, or disrespect for the person speaking. My focus here is the most common (and interesting) case, which involves problematic, frequent interruptions by one individual who's a peer or near-peer of the people he or she interrupts.
The effects of interruptions are growing more costly, because these days we conduct more of our meetings through electronic media — mostly telephone, but video and Web-based media too. Compared to face-to-face conversations, electronically mediated conversations are more affected by interruptions, because understanding two people speaking simultaneously is more difficult in electronic media than it is when we're face-to-face. And some electronic media can't even transmit the speech of two individuals simultaneously. Some systems choose just one at a time.
In electronically mediated conversation, interruptions induce frustration on the part of the person being interrupted. They can deprive listeners of access to important contributions. The results can affect the quality of group decisions.
Individuals who know how to deal with chronic interrupters can therefore help to enhance group effectiveness. Here's a survey of some tactics people use for dealing with chronic peer interrupters.
- Pause strategically
- I mentioned this tactic in an earlier issue, but it bears repeating. As we speak, some of our listeners are actually just waiting — they're looking for cues so they can jump in. They interpret pauses as cues. Pausing at punctuation — the period at the end of a sentence or the comma between two clauses — especially when accompanied by a breath, invites interruption. To avoid this, pause for breath only in mid-clause.
- Talking In electronically mediated conversation,
interruptions can deprive listeners of
access to important contributionsthis way is unnatural at first. For example, consider, "If only we had selected Vendor #2, <pause> the project would be on time." Compare that to: "If only we had selected Vendor #2, the project <pause> would be on time." Weird, but with practice it gets easier.
- Make valuable contributions
- If you're known for making valuable contributions, chronic interrupters are more likely to refrain from interrupting you, because others in attendance are more likely to object to interruptions when they occur.
- One problem with this tactic is that making valuable contributions consistently is difficult. But filtering your contributions to screen out your more mundane or questionable remarks does help. Try waiting occasionally to see if someone else says what you were about to say. The more frequently you find others contributing what you had in mind, the more necessary it is to work on enhancing the originality and value of your remarks.
- Don't ramble
- When people ramble, they're more likely to be interrupted, because of the incoherence of what they're saying, and because they usually pause more as they try to find something to say.
- Rambling is more likely to occur when you've started to speak before you really know what you want to say. So think before you speak. If you find yourself rambling — or about to ramble — stop talking. When you aren't talking, you can't be interrupted.
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!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- How We Avoid Making Decisions
- When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways
to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's
a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to
avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering
this kind of knowledge more systematically.
- Decisions, Decisions: II
- Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but
it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions?
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
- Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
- In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are
three examples of this pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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