When you search the Web for tips about how to deal with people who chronically interrupt their peers at meetings, beware. Some tips work some of the time, and some do carry risks of their own. Here's Part III of some thoughts about commonly offered tips. See "Chronic Peer Interrupters: I," Point Lookout for May 30, 2018 for Part I.
- Be clear and unambiguous
- If chronic interrupters abruptly break into the conversation too often, they eventually create general resentment. So they must be clever. In one tactic, they use "interruption wedges" when they want to break in, because taking the floor from that point is less likely to arouse ire. One possible interruption wedge is ambiguity on the part of the person being interrupted. Anything that's somewhat unclear can serve. For example, suppose that the person about to be interrupted is describing a conversation with two males, Jim and Jeff, who together represent a vendor organization. Saying, "He said it would be delivered next week," could invite the interruption, "Who said, Jim or Jeff?"
- Pronouns are very handy interruption wedges. Avoid them. Also, avoid non-specific relative dates, like "next week," or "week after next." Say, instead, "Week of 12/3." Instead of "9 AM tomorrow," say, "9 AM Pacific time, tomorrow, Friday." If you're in the presence of a chronic peer interrupter who uses ambiguity wedges, it pays to be disgustingly specific.
- Be concise
- A crisp, direct delivery, trimmed of redundancy, detours, and other extras is less likely to be interrupted for two reasons. First, if you become known for being concise and to-the-point, people tend to listen up. Then, when chronic interrupters interrupt, they're more likely to look foolish, abusive, or rude. Second, because concise contributions are short, the time available for interrupting is short. Interrupting a short contribution is difficult because the interrupter must act quickly.
- Being Pronouns are very
wedges. Avoid them.consistently concise is tricky at first, but practice helps. After each meeting make a list of all your contributions, or anyone's contributions, verbatim if possible. Then rewrite them in fewer words. You'll get better at it.
- Speaking last won't help much
- An oft-recommended technique involves speaking last — waiting for nearly everyone to speak before making a contribution. The hope is that by that point chronic peer interrupters will have had all the opportunity they need to speak, and therefore they'll be less likely to interrupt someone who has waited politely for some time.
- This tactic can backfire. In effect, using it might be conceding the floor to the interrupters. But the real problem is that chronic peer interrupters do what they do not merely because of the need to contribute their ideas, but because interrupting others is an expression of power or dominance. Whenever someone else is speaking, the chronic peer interrupter must listen. In that situation, the power stances are inverted with respect to the favored configuration of the chronic peer interrupter, who then feels the need to "fix" the situation by interrupting.
- Set expectations
- If you surf around a bit, you can find recommendations that introducing your contribution by setting expectations can prevent interruptions. For example, you can start with "This is a complex argument, but bear with me," or, "I have just three points to make," or, "Give me just two minutes to lay out this story," or, "The last thing I'll add is…" or something analogous. Beware, though: long intros describing the structure of the contribution you're about to make can seem arrogant or condescending to some.
- But this technique works well if you're the recognized expert on the topic in question. Otherwise, in addition to condescension risk, it's vulnerable to itself being interrupted, because it gives the interrupters information about where you're going. And the assumption that chronic interrupters interrupt because they're unaware of how long you need to make your points isn't always correct. Chronic interrupters engaged in power or dominance displays are likely more concerned with displaying dominance than they are with whatever it is you have to say.
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right,
or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some
thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
- Allocating Airtime: I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended
to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
- Costs of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: II
- When we interrupt a meeting to recap the action so far for a late-arriving attendee, the cost of the
recap itself is just the beginning. There are some less-obvious costs that can be even greater.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 16: Performance Mismanagement Systems: II
- One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism, performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise objectives. Available here and by RSS on October 16.
- And on October 23: Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
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