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
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
- Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting
chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little
catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- 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.
- Start the Meeting with a Check-In
- Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things
are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.
- Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine
alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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