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Volume 18, Issue 27;   July 4, 2018: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II

Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II

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Last updated: April 20, 2020

When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by Polycom

A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone, a popular type of teleconference speakerphone. By Polycom.

In a previous post, I examined several approaches to interrupting fellow meeting attendees relatively safely by using formal roles or informal customs. These methods cover many situations, but not every situation. For example, the meeting in question might not be a "standing meeting" — it might be a meeting of people who don't meet regularly, and who therefore haven't established formal roles like the Designated Digression Detector, or customs like the process check.

In addition to the tools described in that post, some other tools include seating position, courtesy, wit, deftness, confidence, courage, and whatever reserves of goodwill are present in the relationships among everyone in the situation, but most especially, in the relationship between the interrupter and the person interrupted. In this post and the next, I offer some thoughts about all these resources and how they can meet the needs of the interrupter. For convenience, I'll use the name Inez for the interrupter, and Steve for the speaker. Apologies to all the Inezes and Steves out there.

Seating position
In face-to-face meetings, seating yourself centrally gives you advantages when you want to interrupt. At the periphery of the meeting, interrupting is difficult because you're more likely to be out of the line of sight of most of your fellow attendees. This invisibility reduces the effectiveness of gestures such as raising your hand slightly off the table surface, or turning to face the speaker you're intending to interrupt. Seating position is even more important if the chair or facilitator is diligently managing the speaker queue.
In In face-to-face meetings,
seating yourself centrally
gives you advantages when
you want to interrupt
some virtual meetings, when most attendees are co-located and you're the one calling in, and when you're attending via the speaker/microphone placed in the center of the table, you have license to interrupt that co-located attendees do not. Unlike the co-located attendees, you can start speaking at any time. When you do, there's a good chance that everyone will fall silent immediately. Try it. The license derives from a belief that when remote attendees begin to speak, they haven't always discerned that someone was already speaking. Generally, that belief is invalid, but many people believe it anyway.
The relationship between interrupter and interrupted
If the relationship between Inez and Steve is limited, wounded, or otherwise in need of repair, or if Inez is less powerful organizationally than Steve, interruption can be dangerous. It can further wound a wounded relationship, or complicate the formation of a healthy relationship if one doesn't already exist. Unless the relationship is relatively healthy, with the exception of relatively dire emergencies, the wisest course for Inez is to sit quietly and let someone else interrupt.
So if you've repeatedly felt the need to interrupt a particular person over a sequence of meetings, strengthening your relationship with that person would be a wise move, because it will enable you to interrupt him or her with much lower risk of offense.
Courtesy
To be courteous is to show deference and respect for others. In some sense, then, the term courteous interruption is an oxymoron. One key to success is executing the interruption in a way that most will interpret as showing deference and respect for the person being interrupted.
For example, if Inez begins her interruption when Steve pauses to breathe, her interruption can seem like something else, because she began speaking during a pause. Similarly, she can interrupt when Steve pauses at punctuation — at the end of a sentence or in the space between two clauses.
Asking permission to interrupt is another way to use courtesy to disguise the interruption. And the really good news is that you don't actually need to wait to receive permission — asking is enough. Examples: "May I add one thing?" or, "Can I add one point?" Using the word add is helpful, especially when addition is not what's actually happening.
Courtesy-based techniques can seem to some to be a bit of a subterfuge. Using them too often renders them transparent and ineffective.

I'll continue next time with an examination of wit, deftness, confidence, and courage. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: III  Next Issue

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