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Author: Rebecca Knight (hbr.org)
You did everything you were supposed to do: Invited all the right people, sent out an agenda in advance, and got everyone’s agreement on the process. Despite your diligence, your meeting is being hijacked. How should you handle a persistent interrupter? Will it work to just ignore the person? And how can you get the meeting back on track?
What the Experts Say
Whether it’s a team member who disagrees with your approach, an employee from another department who brings up irrelevant information, or a colleague who wants to use your meeting as a soapbox for his own personal agenda, dealing with interrupters during a meeting is challenging. “It’s the workplace equivalent of having someone steal the parking spot you were aiming for or jumping ahead of you in the line at the grocery store,” says Judith White, visiting associate professor at the Tuck School of Business. “When someone interrupts you, blocks you, or otherwise thwarts your intended action, it’s natural to feel upset,” she says. “This is a basic instinct and you will always have a flash of annoyance.” The key to successfully dealing with interrupters is to quash your frustration and instead “operate from a mindset of curiosity,” says Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. Here’s how to handle this often frustrating situation.
Go in prepared
A “well-designed agenda” provides both “a structure for the meeting and serves as a point of reference,” according to Schwarz. People are less likely to disrupt a meeting if they feel like they had a hand in shaping it. Send out a proposed agenda ahead of time and ask your team for input. Give them a time frame within which to make recommendations and ask that they include a reason why they think the item is worthy of discussion. Everyone should have a say but “the team leader gets the final decision about what to include.” While an agenda does not entirely prevent interruptions, “it becomes the basis of your intervention,” says Schwartz. Once you’re in the meeting, if someone interrupts with an off-topic remark, Schwarz suggests saying something like, ‘I don’t see how your comment connects to the issue we’re talking about now. Help me understand how the two relate.’ If he can’t do that, “then you use the agenda to pick up where you left off,” he says.
When someone interrupts or challenges you in a meeting, it’s important to respond in “a leaderly way,” says White. “Don’t get emotional — if you look threatened or angry, you will lose the trust of everyone in the room.” Rather, your goal is to “react with humor, kindness, inclusion, and assertiveness.” Modulate your tone of voice and inflection, too. When you respond to the person who is interrupting, Schwarz says, “You should talk in a genuinely curious, not frustrated way.”
Listen, validate, redirect
Don’t be tempted to ignore the interruption and move on. At the point of interruption, “you need to stop talking and listen to what the person has to say,” says White. Then summarize his points “to let him know he’s been heard.” Let’s say, for instance, you’re leading a meeting about new corporate initiatives, and your colleague, Bob, interjects with, “Why are we bothering to discuss this? We don’t have money in the budget to execute these ideas.” You should then say, “Bob, your point is that we don’t have money in the budget for this. And that’s a good point.” After “validating his comments,” one strategy for moving on is to “redirect the discussion.” The people around the table — even the interrupter — “are counting on you to lead the meeting in a productive direction.” Start by “restating the purpose of the meeting.” In this instance, you could say something along the lines of, “We have great minds in this room and the president of our company asked us to work together to come up with cost-efficient ideas; I am confident we can do it.”
Don’t always rush to redirect the conversation, however, warns Schwarz. Your goal is not necessarily to move through the meeting agenda as quickly as possible. Rather, your aim is to “address issues efficiently, but also in a way that leads to a sustainable solution,” he says “When a colleague interrupts you with a comment you think is off-topic, that’s not a fact; it’s an inference,” he says. Ask your colleague to elaborate on his point; if you’re still unsure how his point relates to the topic at hand, ask others at the meeting for help. Frame the interruption as “an opportunity for learning a new perspective,” he says. “Think: What does he know that I don’t know?” It may be that he has a point you haven’t thought of. “Take time to address legitimate issues because they’re not going away,” says Schwartz.
Be resolute and direct
When a colleague persists in interrupting, is off on a tangent, or keeps on making the same point over and over, be direct and firm, says White. She suggests saying something like: “Rich, you’ve brought this issue up before and we heard you. If you would like to stay after the meeting and talk with me, I’d be happy to discuss the matter further, but now we need to get back on track.” Or you could directly address the colleague who keeps on interrupting. Schwarz recommends a script like this: “Bob, I’m seeing a pattern, and I’m trying to figure out what’s happening here. Is there something going on that’s leading you to bring up these items?” While some might contend that strategy puts Bob on the spot, Schwarz says, “you need to deal with the issue in the place where the data lie — within the team.” Handling situations in the open also allows you “to model to your team how to have challenging conversations” and provides a forum for others to “add relevant information.”
Use body language to take back control
When your meeting is in danger of derailment because of insistent or hostile interrupters, you can take back control using body language and non-verbal communication. “If you’re already standing, take a step or two toward the person who’s interrupting you,” says White. “Face that person and hold his gaze for five seconds — it will feel like an eternity.” Never cross your arms. “You should appear open,” she says. Then, walk slowly around the table, “stand directly behind the person who’s disrupting the meeting, and address the rest of the room.” Proceed accordingly. This, of course, requires confidence and finesse. Even though it’s not always easy, “it’s a powerful way to exert influence,” she says.
Consider having a one-on-one conversation
After a meeting filled with tense and numerous interruptions, you might spend a little time alone “reflecting on whether you’re doing anything to contribute” to the problem, says Schwarz. It might also be worth approaching the interrupter for a one-on-one conversation. “Don’t argue with him after the meeting and never scold,” says White. “He wants to feel heard.” Instead, pose questions and listen. Ask: What is your thinking on this issue? What would you like done differently? What’s important to you? “It may turn out that you and he want the same thing, in which case, propose that you become allies,” she says. On the other hand, “you can agree to disagree.”
Principles to Remember
Case study #1: Think about interruptions as learning opportunities
Adam Goldstein, President of Royal Caribbean Cruises and the Acting Global Chair for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), acknowledges that workplace hierarchy is a big factor in an employee’s likelihood of interrupting the person who’s in charge of a meeting.“There’s a strong consciousness of rank when it comes to people’s ability to speak out in meetings,” he says.
A couple of weeks ago, two of Adam’s colleagues at CLIA — we’ll call them James and Kate — interrupted him during a meeting to bring up an issue that was not on the agenda: Their concern that certain revenue generating programs CLIA ran were actually a disincentive to some international sales staff.
Adam was not aware of this potential problem, so he asked James and Kate to elaborate. Adam wanted to make sure he understood. “I challenged them a little bit, and I pushed back,” he says. “I wanted to be crystal clear on their objections.”
From Adam’s perspective, it was not a particularly tense exchange. However, a senior staff member told him after the meeting that James and Kate were worried they had “damaged their standing” by interrupting him. “I didn’t feel like I was harsh, but I was told there was a ‘significant level’ of nervousness,” he says.
Through an intermediary, he assured James and Kate that he was grateful for their willingness to speak out during the meeting. “I learned something because they were willing to speak.” And when he sees them next, he’ll tell them in person.
“If you want to get the best out of people long-term, you want to hear what they have to say,” Adam says. “You want people to leave feeling positive about the meeting and their participation. It’s very daunting for someone to raise his hand. I want to send a signal that I want to hear that person’s opinion.”
Case study #2: Listen to concerns and be willing to address them in future
Melissa Anthony Sinn, the founder and CEO of anthonyBarnum Public Relations, an Austin-based communications firm, leads a regularly scheduled meeting with her senior staff. The week before each meeting, Melissa distributes the agenda through a shared online folder.
“If people on my team have additional items they’d like to discuss, they need to call me or email me beforehand,” she says. “I know from past experience that if we make up the agenda on the day of the meeting, there are all kinds of things that may be bothering people [that they’ll want to add to the agenda] and the meeting veers off course.”
A couple of months ago, however, one of Melissa’s direct reports — we’ll call her Susan — interrupted the weekly team meeting to bring up a topic that was irritating her: individual workload challenges. Susan hadn’t warned her that she planned to broach the topic.
Melissa was caught off guard by Susan’s interruption, but she was aware that some employees had problems with the workload. “Capacity is a high voltage issue here because people have myriad responsibilities at any given time, but those responsibilities change as we evolve as a firm,” she explains.
Melissa listened to Susan’s complaint and did not outwardly react. “As the leader of the meeting, I have to be very contained,” she says. “I didn’t respond emotionally as that would have been unproductive.”
She was reluctant to delve into the issue because the agenda was chock-full of other, more time-sensitive items. So Melissa paused and took a deep breath. She addressed the team by repeating Susan’s key points. Then, she said, “I hear you, and I appreciate that capacity is an issue. This meeting is focused on other matters. If you would like to discuss capacity at the next meeting, we can do that.”
After Susan’s interruption, Melissa stuck to the agenda. “I admit I wasn’t always able to get meetings back on track in the past,” she says. “But I need to value people’s time. It takes discipline.”