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:
- When Power Attends the Meeting
- When the boss or supervisor of the chair of a regular meeting "sits in," disruption almost
inevitably results, and it's usually invisible to the visitor. Here are some of the risks of sitting
in on the meetings of your subordinates.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- How to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
- Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a
catalog of some of the worst practices.
- Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest
adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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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.