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:
- Recovering Time: I
- Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get
so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring
your working day in larger chunks.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are
some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions
no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily.
- How to Waste Time in Meetings
- Nearly everyone hates meetings. The main complaint: they're mostly a waste of time. The main cause:
us. Here's a field manual for people who want to waste even more time.
- Costs of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: I
- Your meetings start on time, but some people are habitually late. When they arrive, they ask, "What
did I miss? Catch me up." This is an expensive way to do business. How expensive is it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.