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:
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Agenda Despots: I
- Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting chairs,
meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control,
they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
- Ending Sidebars
- We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without
having been recognized by the chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can
we end sidebars quickly and politely?
- Favor Symmetric Virtual Meetings
- Virtual meetings are notorious for generating more frustration than useful output. One cause of the
difficulties is asymmetry in the way we connect to virtual meetings.
- Why People Hijack Meetings
- When as chair of a meeting, you have difficulty completing a reasonable agenda, you might be the target
of a hijacking. Here's Part I of a series exploring meeting hijacking.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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