Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 26;   June 27, 2018: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I

Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I

by

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?
Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treat

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treat, much like meeting participants waiting intently for a chance to speak

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
sometimes useful,
but it's risky
in "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

Next time we'll survey techniques for individuals to interrupt each other while limiting the risk of giving offense.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II  Next Issue

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See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing 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.
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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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