I don’t think you’ve covered my particular issue – how to stop difficult people disrupting meetings when you’re notionally in charge of those meetings – so here goes.
Six months ago I took over as chairperson of a local voluntary group. My problem is with the behaviour of a group member – let’s call her “Ethel”. It’s a real struggle trying to keep the meetings on track because she derails discussions and interrupts people.
The previous chairperson was much more tolerant of Ethel, and, as a result, meetings frequently overran and went off-topic because of her rambling. This stressed me out, and I suspect it put other people off attending the meetings, but I figured it wasn’t my job to do anything, so I just put up with it. Now, of course, it is my job.
Ethel used to be only peripherally involved with the group, but now she comes so that her husband “Robert” can attend. He’s a longstanding member of the group who used to be very active. But he is now a wheelchair user who can’t get around on his own, so he can’t attend meetings without Ethel, who’s his carer as well as his wife.
So far I’ve tried to deal with it by formalising the way we run meetings (planning and sending round an agenda in advance, coming up with a rough idea of how much time we should spend on each agenda item before the meeting starts, and so on). I also find that a sense of urgency works well – “We’ve got a lot to discuss tonight, so we all need to work really hard to stay on track.” But I can’t pull the “urgency” card at every meeting.
So far I’ve just been shutting her down as politely as I can: “Thanks, Ethel, but can we discuss that when we get to it on the agenda?” “Thanks, but we really need to make a decision on XYZ now.” “OK, I’m sorry, we really need to move on.” But I end up having to do this perhaps five or six times a meeting (and that’s on a good day). It’s exhausting and I’m tired of feeling like the bad guy for repeatedly telling someone who’s half a century older than me to shut up. And we still barely finish on time!
I’m wary of taking steps to boot her out, because Robert can’t be there without her. But I dread every meeting because I know it’s going to be a battle and I’m going to leave feeling exhausted and horrible. Any advice would be gratefully received.
Dear Not So Rambling:
As the person who runs the meeting, staying on task and reining in people who interrupt is your job. It feels weird for you, because you are a focused, non-interrupty sort of person who doesn’t need others to manage your time or attention, so when dealing with Ethel you are like “but why doesn’t she know” or “why won’t she learn” and “how can she not see?” It also feels weird because she is older than you. But it’s not actually that weird for any group of people to wander off topic, and the meeting-runner’s task is to bring the lost conversational lambs back to the fold. Most people do not mind one bit when a moderator moves things along. Remember back to when you weren’t in charge. Didn’t you wish/silently beg the meeting runner to do exactly what you are doing now?
So, let go of the idea of what you think Ethel “should” know or how you think she “should” behave. For whatever reason (and it could be a cross section of “that’s how her personality is” and “that’s how her brain works”) she doesn’t know/see/do. Ethel may never, of her own accord, stick to the agenda or get into the flow of turn-based discussion, even if you became the perfect meeting runner, and it’s not your job to try to fix her in any way. So it may always take some effort on your part to moderate these meetings. I realize it’s exhausting you, but maybe it will be freeing to let go of the idea that this is changeable by you. You are already doing what you can to change the culture of these meetings, by sticking to the agenda and redirecting people (surely Ethel is not the only one) who go off topic. The meetings are better, and are going to keep being better because of you. You’re going to wear the mantle of your authority better as time goes on, too.
Being a college instructor is a daily exercise in figuring out exactly these kinds of situations in a way that is constructive and kind. When you’ve got a room that contains:
- The person that just really, really wants to ask questions about their personal, outside-of-class project (treating a classroom full of 16 people like one-on-one office hours)
- The person that just really, really wants to ask detailed questions about their specific amazingly fancy camera that is not in the room with us.
- The person who is super-interested in all the material and their mind is being blown, and they are also an out-loud processor & thinker, like Matt Smith’s Doctor.
- The person who blurts out questions as they occur to them, interrupting others (or me) mid-sentence with a question that has to do with something we covered an hour ago or something that we are about to cover if they would only let me get to the end of my sentence.
- A bunch of really quiet people who would never interrupt anyone, quietly doodling in their notebooks who I want to draw out into discussion.
- Limited time.
- A shitload of information to get through.
–it’s a juggling act. Especially since as a student/meeting attender, I was/am either a discussion dominator OR a distracted doodler. At the beginning of the semester, when all these trends are emerging but I don’t know anyone well, the days truly can be exhausting, because I don’t have my flow and we as a class don’t have our flow yet, and if I keep getting interrupted it feels like I will never get that flow. But we do, eventually, flow together. I am in a teaching role relative to the students that you are not in relative to Ethyl, but I think I can give you some tricks from classroom management that apply to meeting management.
1. Keep doing what you are doing, but with fewer questions and less apologizing. Turn “Thanks, Ethel, but can we discuss that when we get to it on the agenda?” into “Thanks Ethel! We’ll get to that in a moment. But right now, Sue, what were you saying about (current agenda topic?)” You’re not asking permission, don’t end your sentence with a question mark and give her room to make that a debatable thing.
2. Straight up interrupt her sometimes. Interrupting someone who just interrupted you or interrupted someone else is sometimes necessary. “Ethel, great point, but Kima was speaking. Kima, can you finish that thought for us?” This will feel impossibly rude to you, and if you interrupted somebody who behaved and thought like you it would be rude, but if you interrupted an enthusiastic talky person like me when I am in full talk mode I would not only not think it was rude, I would be grateful for the direct cue. I’m not saying that everyone who reads this should just start wildly interrupting everyone everywhere, but there are some instances where “It sounds like you have a lot of questions and ideas about this. For the sake of the meeting (or class), we have to move on, but can you put your thoughts in an email to me/the rest of the group, or write them down now in your notebook so we can discuss them later?” is a kindness. To everyone. In that room.
3. Channel the energy and enthusiasm and include her more, not less. Students 1-4, in the bullet points, above? All could be translated as “an ambitious and enthusiastic person who wants recognition.” Could you try to view Ethel like that? You say that she is a peripheral member of the group right now, but comes for the sake of Robert. Can you figure out the topics that she really cares about and ask her for her input sometimes? While the behavior right now is disruptive to the meetings, what you may be seeing is a person who passionately wants to contribute to the organization but who has been sidelined by other responsibilities (or aging). If your only interactions with her are interrupting her or shutting her down, of course it will be draining for you, and it will reinforce the “nobody really listens to me” cycle that’s happening for her.
Find out what she’s good at and what she wants to be doing and channel her energy. Even in a small way, like, if you have to cut her off because she’s jumping ahead on the agenda, when you get to that agenda item, invite her to speak. “Ethel, you mentioned some ideas about this earlier, why don’t we start with you?”
4.Be an active moderator and actively include/call on people to contribute in a way that helps the meeting flow. If Ethel speaks first it gives you an opening to invite someone else to comment (“Wonderful, thanks Ethel! Dave, did you also have a plan for how we could do that part of the work?”) and to even interrupt if you need to for time reasons. “Ethel, thanks, I can see some other people are itching to speak, let’s hear from Gomer and Sue also.” Asking someone to wrap up for the sake of time vs. interrupting someone to make sure that other people are heard seems like splitting hairs, but the second way goes down easier. Time is abstract. Gomer and Sue are here. Moderating like this, while it takes some work, makes everything less tense – Ethel’s not waiting to pounce the second someone takes a breath, you’re not dreading that moment, you have more control, you’re bringing other people into the discussion in an organic and active way, and you’re not the bad guy shutting her down, you’re the moderator managing a discussion.
5. When you ask if there are any questions (or open a topic up for discussion), some questions will be “answer/discuss right now while everyone is together” questions, some questions will be “big picture, let’s all think about that for next time/THE FUTURE” questions, some will be “one person, go research this one thing and tell us about it” questions. Get good at sorting out which kind of question is which and creating a structure for triaging them, which is another way to channel the energies of the people who care about the stuff into getting the stuff actually done.
People who keep going on and on or back and forth in the meeting about one issue are basically volunteering to go figure out a solution to that thing together. “Keith, Mildred, it sounds like you both have the seeds of a plan, want to discuss it more between you and come back to this next time?”, “Amara, you’re right, we do need exact numbers, is that something you can put together for next time?”, etc. This can be used to divide up work organically even when no one is a problem, but it’s especially useful when you need to channel a problem team member.
The greatest meeting runner I’ve ever know, a former boss, had a philosophy that how much you get to talk in meetings is directly proportionate to the quality and output of your actual work. This often meant flipping the script from rooms where only the old white dudes fill the room with their voices while the young women silently take notes (and then quietly do all the work later), and this person was especially a badass at dealing with The Guy Who Will Poke Holes In Everyone’s Plan But Has None Of His Own by saying “Guy, you’ve explained that wonderfully! So what do you recommend we do next?” When “Guy” had no immediate recommendation, Boss would say “Well, you’re right, it is a big issue. Why don’t you come back next week with a few proposals for solving that, and we’ll discuss those first thing.” Boss would back this up in the interim by praising Guy’s initiative and putting Guy’s name on the agenda next to that thing. “We’ll talk budget first, and then Guy will take the lead.” I’m telling you, it was masterful.
If Guy did some work and solved the problem, great! By far the most desired outcome! If Guy didn’t, he would generally STFU for a while, and let the rest of us get on with it.
6. Maybe this isn’t for this particular person or this situation right now, but a good practice if you had to cut someone off for the sake of time (or they are bringing up off-topic things or big picture questions to a small getting stuff done sort of meeting, or they had more to say than you had time to hear) is to follow up with them in a positive way if you possibly can. For me & class, it’s as simple as an email, “Student, you asked some great questions in class today, want to set up a meeting/here are some links that might interest you/seek out this film, I think it does what you want to do very well” etc. If you don’t want Emails From Ethel™ in addition to the time you spend with her in meetings, I totally get it (this is a time when my role as a teacher is very distinct from yours as a volunteer meeting runner). But it can be a way to connect with people and let them know they and their ideas are important to you if you feel like you’ve had to be a bit brusquer than you’d like. I would recommend this, for instance, to managers who want to mentor their employees a little or to people who couldn’t talk as long as they liked to someone at a social gathering.
Well, turns out I had A LOT of thoughts on this, who knew? I’m sure readers do as well, so I’ll put the questions out there:
1. Who is the best meeting-runner you know?
2. What do they do that’s great?
3. How do they deal with derailers and time management?