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:
- Discussus Interruptus
- 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?
- Games for Meetings: IV
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- Recovering Time: I
- Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get
so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring
your working day in larger chunks.
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Overtalking: III
- Overtalking other people is a practice that can be costly to organizations, even though it might confer
short-term benefits on the people who engage in it. If you find that you are one who overtalks others,
what can you do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.