You're in a meeting, and the discussion has gone on for a while. Eric is just now raising an issue that Inez mentioned ten minutes ago, and which everyone, including Eric, had agreed could be deferred until tomorrow's meeting. Time is short. Do you interrupt Eric to tell him that Inez has already raised that issue? Or do you sit quietly while precious minutes slide away, to be lost forever?
During meeting discussions, interrupting others is sometimes useful. But interrupting is risky; it can cause offense and thus lead to bitter, destructive conflict. Some approaches to interrupting without these risks depend on a wide array of politeness tactics. I'll address some examples of these techniques next time. But first I'll explore an alternative method for interrupting without these risks. It depends on "institutionalizing" the interrupt function so as to limit the need for individuals to interrupt each other.
For example, During meeting discussions,
interrupting others is
but it's riskyin "First Aid for Painful Meetings," Point Lookout for October 24, 2001, I suggested the usefulness of a role I called Designated Digression Detector (DDD). This person — who could be the Chair, or Facilitator, or anyone else — is empowered to interrupt at any time to alert the group whenever it has strayed from discussing the current agenda item. These interruptions are unlikely to give offense because the DDD is empowered to keep the discussion on topic.
As a second example, in "An Agenda for Agendas," Point Lookout for May 25, 2005, I suggested the need for a timekeeper to ensure that discussions of agenda items stay within the time bounds set in the agenda. The timekeeper is empowered to interrupt the discussion at preset times — for example, when only five minutes remain, when one minute remains, and when time is exhausted for the current agenda item. These interruptions are unlikely to give offense, because they're objective and pre-arranged. And they indirectly urge people to be concise and to-the-point when they speak, even before the timekeeper has announced any of the preset times.
Finally, a Designated Repetition Detector (DRD) can also be a useful role. The DRD is responsible for interrupting contributors who appear to be repeating the remarks of previous contributors, if they haven't exhibited something new within some predetermined approximate time after beginning their remarks. This person must have a mastery of the content of the meeting, and must pay close attention to all contributors, so as to be familiar with all previous remarks. It's a risky role that must be executed with skill and diplomacy. Humor helps, too. In some instances, if no single person has sufficient mastery of all agenda items, DRDs can be appointed on a per-agenda-item basis.
Appointing an individual to a designated interrupter role has an effect beyond mere execution of the responsibilities of that role. The appointment reduces dramatically the probability that the appointed individual will exhibit behaviors that the designated interrupter is charged with identifying. For example, if Person A habitually digresses, appointing A as a DDD is likely to cause A to reduce his or her own digression behavior. Or if Person B is known to be long-winded, appointing B as timekeeper is likely to cause B to be more concise when he or she makes contributions to discussions.
Rigorous speaker queue management is another approach to limiting the need for individual interruptions. By consistently controlling who speaks, the manager of the speaker queue (usually either the Chair or Facilitator) encourages people to withhold their comments until recognized. Two approaches to speaker queue management are first-in-first-out (FIFO) and polling. In FIFO, people "sign up" to speak by indicating to the queue manager their desire to speak. The usual indicator is a raised hand (either real or virtual). In polling, the speaker queue manager offers speaking time to each participant in turn, round and round, repeatedly, until a complete round results in no requests to speak. Both methods tend to attenuate the urge to interrupt.
Finally, for standing meetings — that is, repeated regular meetings — we can adopt a "process check" custom. At any time, any participant can interrupt the goings-on to invoke a "process check." The Chair or Facilitator is then obliged to halt the meeting to address the process check. The person who invoked it then describes what motivated the process check, which must be one (or more) of a number of predetermined process violations. For example, if the DRD has failed to interrupt a contributor who's merely repeating the remarks of others, anyone in the meeting can invoke a process check and explain that he or she feels that the DRD should have interrupted a repetitious contribution. Similarly, meeting participants can call process checks if the DDD or the timekeeper has failed to discharge his or her responsibilities. By prior agreement, the group can have a list of other conditions that are eligible for process checks. Examples:
- People are shouting at each other
- Someone has interrupted someone else
- Two people are over-talking each other
- An agenda item has been addressed out of order without approval of the meeting
- Someone is dominating the discussion, excluding others
- Someone seems to be "checked out" and isn't contributing
- An invalid process check: the invoker is objecting to something not on this list
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:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone
or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II
of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes
lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- Meeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
- Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public.
When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
- Allocating Airtime: II
- Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised
processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
- How to Hijack Meetings
- Recognizing the tactics meeting hijackers use is the first step to reducing the incidence of this abuse.
Here are some of those tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.