#644: Keeping people on task when you run the meeting.

Hi there,

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.

Thank you,

Not-So-Rambling-Rose

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?

126 comments
  1. I agree that it would help if you get good / better / more comfortable at interrupting politely and redirecting. Opening with “Thank you, but …” is great and probably the best way to interject as the person in charge of the meeting.

    On a related note, it’s also good to know how to politely interrupt peers or clients when they start to get off-track, but I would open with “Excuse me, but …” in that case.

    • I’ve evolved what – if I may say so myself – is a pretty finessed redirect that doesn’t use any ‘triggering’ words like ‘but’:

      “Eileen, thanks for that. What I’m hearing is that you feel strongly that volunteers should hand-draw flowers on the fundraiser invitations. Interesting idea. In the meantime, your suggestion also reminded me that we want to hear from Joan regarding how volunteer recruitment for the fundraiser is going. Joan?”

      I also get a lot of mileage out of, “That’s an interesting topic. I’m going to add it to the bottom of my agenda, and if we’re not able to get to it during the meeting please send me an email about it.”

      • Those are great! I will have to remember those.

        • Thanks. A level up is to say, “Eileen, thanks for that. Since you’re concerned about the volunteers, I’m sure you’re eager to hear how recruitment is going. Joan?”

  2. paddlepickle said:

    Oooh this is helpful, particularly the gentle reminders that it is not helpful to just harp on “UGH WHY WON’T THIS JERK SHUT UP!” I have an Old White Man on my nonprofit’s board who not only creeps me out and occasionally makes weird comments about my attractiveness and stares at my tits, but just goes On and On and On at meetings without contributing anything remotely useful, and he also never really helps with anything or follows through on commitments he makes. On top of that, most of the board is women of color, so I just end up sitting there listening to an old white guy drone on so that women of color don’t get a chance to speak, on topics that primarily concern people of color. This has given me some really useful action steps, as my current strategy involves fantasizing about somehow getting him a spot on the next space shuttle launch.

    • JenniferP said:

      I have…met this man.

      • paddlepickle said:

        The only upside to him is that it’s pretty funny when he suggests “We get on This Facebook. Do we have a young person who can Get On The Facebook?” despite my explaining to him multiple times that we definitely have a Facebook already.

  3. As someone who chairs various groups, I have had days where I felt I was rude / abrupt / cut people off, and then apologised to one of the members as we left. Their reply was that nothing was wrong and they thought I did a good job.

    So, is there another committee member you could ask for feedback? You might find you’re doing far better in other peoples’ eyes than you think.

    • NonramblingRose said:

      I haven’t asked for feedback but two other committee members have separately approached me (unsolicited) to say they think I’m a good chair. I don’t think I’m doing a terrible job but Captain Awkward is spot-on when she says I’m not that used to exerting authority in this way. So I still have ickyfeels about it. I’ve been chairing meetings for about four years, and it’s definitely got way easier in that time, but I’m new to chairing this particular group and I’ve never dealt with an Ethel before!

  4. Kua said:

    You can also try switching out “Thank you, and…” for “Thank you, but…” It sounds less confrontational and still redirects. (Versus: It sounds less confrontational, but still redirects.)

  5. birthcycle said:

    Maintain a speaker’s list! Actually, have two of them. The first is where people’s names go the first time they want to speak about a topic. The second list is for where they go when they want to speak a second time. The second list happens after the first list is complete. This lets everyone talk at least once and prevents any one person from dominating. Attendees can indicate to the chair that they want to be added to the list and then the chair has the list in black and white to use to remind good Ethel about process and fairness. “Sorry Ethel, you’ve spoken once on this topic. Other people need to be allowed to speak as well. We’ll come back to you if you still have something to add after hearing what Bob, Qin, and Jasmit have to say.”

    • minuteye said:

      This is a strategy I’ve seen used to great effect! It’s often the case that everyone gets used to the same people contributing all the time, but a speaker’s list makes sure that if one of the quieter members wants to jump in they can do so very easily.

  6. quinalla said:

    OMG, it’s been awhile since I was at university, but holy cow the guy who treats a full classroom like it is one-on-one office hours and the guy who blurts out questions whenever instead of asking them at appropriate times, we had that guy in my major but he was the SAME GUY. Good God, the few professors that didn’t shut that down immediately were infuriating!

    Anyway, so LW, what you are doing is definitely a relief to the group and is the right thing to do, so don’t feel bad about shutting her down, but I really like the advice to find ways to channel Ethyl in a positive way. It may not work, but it is worth trying. Just think if you could channel even 10% of her interruptions into something productive, I bet she would get a lot done!

    One of the best folks I’ve met running meetings is the department head at my new job. He strikes an amazing balance between staying on task while still making it clear that he truly wants honest input from everyone. He knows when you just need to take the time to discuss something in a meeting and when to table it for later or when to assign a task to a person or small group to report later and so on. Having a flexible agenda that specifically invites input also seems key. Making people not feel bad for speaking up, even when talking about “lessons learned”, which usually are here is how I fucked up badly – or almost did – and how we can not do it in the future. It’s tough to create an environment where people are willing and comfortable (as you can be anyway) speaking up about their mistakes. And soliciting feedback from folks specifically sometimes if they haven’t spoken up in awhile.

    Some of the worst group management I’ve seen are those that tolerate and encourage lateness (not that they think this is what they are doing) by not starting things on time, but instead waiting 15 minutes until all the stragglers arrive. You know what happens after this style for awhile, even the people that tend to show up 5-10 minutes early to things because their souls can’t stand being late start showing up late because it NEVER starts on time (can you tell I am one of these people? Having young kids has somewhat cured me of this compulsion, but not really!). The ones that ask for feedback, but then jump down the person’s throat attacking or belittling whoever speaks up. Those that can’t stay on topic or let all people or certain people (usually old white dudes with all the privilege) ramble on about whatever wasting everyone elses’ time. Those that call a meeting and are completely unprepared. Those that call on people to attend a meeting without telling them what they expect from them and then ask stuff those folks are completely unprepared for, worse if this happens in front of clients!

    Anyway, great response Captain and good luck LW. It can be exhausting being the meeting leader for sure, but know that everyone is appreciating your work!

    • TR said:

      We had a student in my roommate’s major who had was non-neurotypical and could not let go of an idea until he understood every last little detail. Very excellent for his grades and understanding; not so great for the professor trying to get through an entire lecture in her allotted time.

      One prof, very soon after classes started, gave him 3 index cards at the beginning of class, told him he got one question per index card, and the rest all had to be brought to office hours. It worked beautifully – something about the physical representation of the cards, the clear-cut rule, and the fact that the professor was willing to spend lots of time with him out of class really kept his questions down during class without causing him undue stress.

      • Cactus said:

        Oh, how I wish my grad school profs had done this. There was a woman in my cohort who would constantly–CONSTANTLY!–start in on a topic, go on 5 different tangents, somehow connect it to one of her previous careers, and waste a whole lot of everyone’s time. It absolutely infuriated me. Somehow no one had worked out how to rein her in. (Though I eventually learned that I could get out of her trying to talk to me, or join in conversations I was having with other l people before class or during break times, by just refusing eye contact. Passive-aggressive, but effective.)

  7. thaxted said:

    People bring different values and expectations to how meetings run as well, in my experience. Some people expect to be fully shepherded–they don’t pay attention to the time will just keep coming up with things to say and filling the space until moved along to the next topic and don’t mind at all being interrupted and redirected (still exhausting for the “sheepdog” though, especially if other people in the meeting have an expectation that each participant will keep an eye on their own contributions and the overall time constraints). Checking in with Ethel may clear this up (“Hi Ethel. I hope you don’t mind if sometimes I have to cut you off to get along to the next topic. I really value what you have to say and your dedication, but unfortunately I also need to make sure that we have enough time to get to everything we need to cover.”) She may very well be absolutely fine with it and not offended at all, in which case she’s unlikely to change but at least you can let go of feeling guilty.

    Sometimes it can help to let go of the ridigity of the agenda at times, if the issue is Ethel jumping ahead to things planned to be covered later. Unless there’s an absolute necessity for the particular order, this can actually be a good way to move a meeting along, “Hey, thanks for bringing that up, Ethel–let’s jump ahead and discuss that now”. Then strike the topics off the agenda as you go to keep track and make sure everything is still covered.

    Finally… is it possible that Ethel views these meetings as an opportunity to socialize? This can happen for people who are isolated and have very few social outlets. In which case she is also unlikely to change, but it may help to incorporate a social element to the meeting that takes place outside of the stated meeting time, such as suggesting that people who want to chat further about [off-topic issue A that Ethel keeps bringing up] can hang around after the meeting, or suggesting that people meet up for coffee and chatting beforehand (though doing it before runs the risk of creating spill-over socializing into the meeting itself). If it’s only Ethel who wants to socialize, this might not work, but if there are at least a couple of people who might enjoy this (and the logistics, like limited access to the meeting space doesn’t allow for lingering after) don’t prevent it, it might help to encourage this kind of activity in its own space in order to keep it out of the meeting itself.

    • SpinachInquisition said:

      Excellent advice, thaxted. Esp the social aspect – I wouldn’t even consider that, given the way I look at the function and purpose of meetings (digging into my already precious time!). Lol.

    • …and if spill-over socializing is causing meetings to take FOREVER, considering moving to a venue with a limited time span. “We only have this room for 2 hours, so we’ll want to stick to the agenda” has made my convention organizing work much better!

      • NonramblingRose said:

        The venue we’re in does have a limited time span! We’re allowed to use it for free as long as we clear out by a certain time. Under the previous chair we often went beyond that time, which made me uncomfortable because the building staff need to lock up and go home. (And also because I just hate long-ass meetings.) Now I’m chair we don’t go beyond that time, but often at the cost of missing an item off the agenda.

        • thaxted said:

          I’m not sure where you meet, but if there’s another appropriate venue nearby (like a coffeeshop) that people could be shifted to after, that could also work.

          • thaxted said:

            Ah, I just saw your followup comment below about the pub.

    • Mom said:

      Excellent points about socializing. I chair a committee meeting that happens at 7:30 AM and I need to do it efficiently because people have to get to work as soon as possible. Before I was chair, the members chatted for at least 10 minutes after the start time. I always start the meeting right at 7:30–people can get there early or stay late if they want to chat. The previous chair would also say “I know I’ve told you all this story before but…” and then proceeded to waste everyone’s time by retelling. After a few of those I made sure I was nominated to be chair!

    • lee b said:

      re: meetings as socialization for ethel:

      this was my first thought!! i didn’t see much about her role as her husband’s caretaker in the response or comments so far (fair enough, this was mostly about practical responses for a practice-focused role) but i hope it will help LW at the minimum to consider that aspect of her. i can’t speak for her or her relationship with roger, obviously, but as a young chronically ill person who has done my share of caretaking for other chronically ill people – it is HARD to be someone’s primary support, especially when it requires emotional energy. it is worthwhile for people you love, and at the same time, when you’re sitting in yet another damn group of people you don’t know so that your partner can do some of the things they care about, you can end up bored and lonely and tired and talking just to connect.

      so yeah – would encourage social opportunities to let her (and possibly roger too!) hang out with people and make it a little more separate from formal meetings, if possible – and if that’s not feasible, maybe a dose of thinking in her shoes to make it easier for LW to grit their teeth and say the polite moderator things 🙂

      • victoria said:

        If this is part of the problem (and I totally agree that it could be), and if informal coffee/social time is possible for half an hour before/after the meeting, that’s something that might help. When I’ve been in groups that had regular meetings we’ve normally found it tougher to arrange off-schedule social time than to tack something social onto the regular meeting. YMMV, of course.

        • NonramblingRose said:

          Since taking over as chair I’ve tried instigating a regular post-meeting drink. Partly as an incentive to keep the meetings on track – “George, let’s save that conversation for the pub!” – and partly as a fun bonding thing. Ethel and Robert never join us for a drink, though. (All too often it’s just me and two of the most silent members of the group and then the pub feels like even more HARD WORK because I’m desperately trying to make conversation and they’re just sitting there in silence and aarggh. But that’s another issue.)

          We do have two “official” socials a year and the rest of the group always puts a lot of effort into finding somewhere that will work for Robert’s wheelchair and his other needs. They both attend these and Ethel is much easier to deal with in a social setting. But I wouldn’t say either of them are exactly fun, and at the last social they basically ended the meal early by getting ready to leave just as we were finishing our main course and asking the waiter for the bill. So the waiter thought we were all leaving and brought the bill for everybody and then I had to say “Actually, the rest of us haven’t finished yet and we wanted to order dessert.” The whole thing involved a lot of confusing explanation and glares from the guy who’d brought the bills and basically broke up the party, although a couple of us stayed for dessert.

          I do agree with your main point that she’s probably lonely, though.

          • Jenna said:

            Ok, on pubs. This is just a note to say one size doesn’t fit all.
            I used to love going to my local pub! I did. Now I don’t because I cannot drink beer, and their food is also a complete no-go area for me(celiac. Even their custard has modified food starch there, and I can’t eat that.)
            So. I’m aware that I could find *something* just to fit in, but, I’ve done that(dry salads and tea). However I don’t really feel like I fit in that way, somehow.
            This is a long winded way of saying that a coffee shop might fit better for some folks, or, alternatively, somewhere with a wider or different selection of food and drink.

            However. You say they are leaving early from dinners. This means that an extra thing on top of a meeting and a possible change of locations too may be too much energy expenditure or time away from the house for one or both of them. She may want to socialize but be constrained by her concern for his energy level. Or, she may be tired. Location changes can be taxing, and I know I have bowed out or wanted to when asked to relocate and continue socializing.
            Also, for anything requiring relocation. Have you ever been stuck in a wheelchair or had to maneuver one in a building, along a sidewalk, or in and out of a vehicle? They are an absolute pain, sometimes, even in supposedly ADA compliant spaces. People who don’t have to use them or shift a wheelchair into or out of a vehicle sometimes haven’t thought about this.

            I have been the caretaker, and I have been the ill person. My eyes were opened to a lot of things that people do or plan with the best of intentions that just wouldn’t work for us or for me. The two of them may be starving for company, and yet, still unable to deal with being out of the house for more than a certain amount of time, or be able to deal with a location change, or able to/willing to drink or have the energy to deal with explaining why not. Sometimes you need to go out and then just have to go home and recharge.

    • DF said:

      Seconding the suggestion that Ethel’s desire to socialize may be a contributing factor.

      I’ve noticed where I work that the previous generation of workers (baby boomers, etc) feel that meetings should start with polite chitchat, and incorporate social niceties, while the gen X and millenials are like, let’s get to all the things right away ASAP, because, for us, social time and work time are pretty much in different niches. That’s a generalization, and not true of everyone, but if Ethel doesn’t have any other demands on her time and/or other social outlet, and, more importantly, if she feels the rest of the group also would prefer to socialize, then she’s going to actively derail and try to *teach* the letter writer right back. (Which is what the baby boomers in my working group do to my boss – they’ll go off to the side, and plan to start the meeting by asking about so-and-so’s weekend/life event so that she will “learn how to conduct a civil meeting.”)

      If the letter writer can formalize some time for chatting – either 15 minutes before and after the meeting – that might go a long way to making Ethel less inclined to disrupt during the actual meeting.

      • NonramblingRose said:

        Hmmm, I’m not sure – Ethel isn’t taking up the meetings with personal/social chat, she’s talking about issues (tangentially) related to the topic at hand. Several times I’ve turned up early (like, half an hour early) with the intention of going through my notes in peace, and ended up with accidental Ethel Time because she turns up half an hour early too. In that one-on-one time she basically carries on in meeting mode, but more intense because I’m her only audience: giving me endless leaflets, talking me through what’s in the leaflets because obviously I can’t read, talking non-stop about the issues related to our voluntary work, etc.

        I’ve now stopped turning up early because spending half an hour alone with her before the meetings leaves me drained before the meetings have even started. So I go to the coffee shop over the road, prepare there and then arrive at the meetings at the last minute.

        If she was lonely and wanted to socialise, wouldn’t Pre-Meeting Ethel be Chatty Friendly Let’s Not Talk About Meeting Business Ethel? I don’t know.

        • TR said:

          She might not remember how to socialize about non-business stuff, too.

          • Jenna said:

            Business stuff may be the acceptable reason for getting out of the house. It can be an internal or an outwardly imposed thing, but, leaving the house for frivolous fun things may be…harder…than getting out the door for important official things. For many reasons.

        • Cactus said:

          I agree with some of the others that she sounds like an Extrovert with no outlet. She wants to use these meetings to talk about things. Hence showing up early and having mini-meetings with you. But maybe she has a bit of anxiety/shame about her life? What with her husband’s recent disability and all? So that’s why she won’t talk about herself, and (maybe) why she avoids pubs and left the big dinner early. She may think you have nothing in common except your volunteer activity, but golly, she will talk about that then!
          I understand your frustration and others’ sympathy. I also understand the caregiver blues, since I’m leading that life as well at the ripe old age of 26. If you want to be friendly and supportive of her, and shuffle things around for her, have at it. But that’s not exactly your job, and it might not solve anything, and there are other people in the group who might benefit more from fewer changes.
          Basically I have no answers, just lots of thoughts. And lots of experience with other extroverts with no outlet.

    • ordinarygoddess said:

      Agreed. One of the things that leaders in all-volunteer organizations – social or professional – need to balance is the happiness and enjoyment of the membership against getting stuff done. I’m in a club that requires a HUGE amount of administrative underpinning to keep it functional, and some local chapters do dinner, coffee, or cocktails after admin meetings and some don’t. I’ve found in the course of moving around that the ones who do? Are generally MUCH more functional all-around, not just more efficient at meeting management. One of the best-run local chapters I’ve ever seen combines the strictly time-limited venue for meetings with an offsite social after (aids in self-selection – only the people who really have things they need to talk about, or really want to spend time with whoever’s organizing/choosing/”hosting” the social this week, will bother to go), and committee/interest group meetings in people’s homes separate from the main admin meeting.

  8. SpinachInquisition said:

    Ugh. There is nothing worse than someone who can’t or won’t control their own meetings. Trust me, everyone is thanking you for keeping this woman on point.

    My go-to method for derailers: use a “Parking Lot”. It works – but only if you actually follow up on the questions/issues you place there. [Example: off-topic question or issue comes up; “That’s a great point, but we need to stay on-topic for today… blah, blah, blah… Let’s put that in the Parking Lot for next time.” You physically write down the OT or follow-up item in the Parking Lot – I use a big sheet of Post-It paper on the wall or write it on a whiteboard. THEN recap everything on the list at the end of the meeting AND put them on the agenda for next time.] I’ve found that if attendees actually get their questions answered and/or OT items on the next agenda, they are satisfied that their needs are taken seriously and might be less inclined to interrupt, etc. going forward. I said “might”. 🙂 And, if one of the Parking Lot items gets answered or is otherwise responded to during the current meeting, you physically cross it out so everyone knows it’s a dead issue and won’t end up on the next agenda. Either way, it’s a really effective tool to retain worthy follow-up topics.

    • VG said:

      Oh man, the Parking Lot is a great idea. I’m going to try to incorporate that into my meetings at work. Thanks!

    • panda flannel said:

      Yes! In the organization I’m part of we call it the Garden. The other thing that rules: we have a huge sheets of butcher paper up in the volunteer spaces at the event we organize, so that volunteers can write down things for the Garden – it works really well for people who wouldn’t speak up otherwise or wouldn’t be able to make meetings, and we get super valuable feedback to incorporate into our organizing process.

    • pleurothallid said:

      I keep a bunch of post-it notes at meetings, and when someone derails I ask them to write it on a post-it and put it in the parking lot.

      Sometimes something amazing happens where I see a regular derailleur open their mouth, pause, and then take a post-it and write down their thing instead of saying it out loud.

      Seconding the advice to make sure you deal with everything in the parking lot before the meeting is over. I usually have one of the last agenda items be “review parking lot.”

    • TR said:

      My group has a bunch of people who have different specialties and sometimes two of them get caught up in technical discussions that the rest can’t follow. It’s handled like this, “X, why don’t we take this discussion off-line? Let’s set up a conference call after the meeting to discuss it in further detail.”

      Works beautifully. (But my meetings are generally fairly formal.)

    • This! In my previous position, I worked with college students, and there is NOTHING like a smart 20-yr-old for derailing a meeting. This kind of thing helped keep them happy and on-track, and it helped build followups into the whole process.

    • DFTBAwkward said:

      Yes! This was the suggestion I was going to make. Have an agenda for every meeting. When someone brings up a suggestion to discuss that isn’t on the agenda for the current meeting, say something like “Thanks Ethel, that’s a great suggestion! We need to discuss X right now, but I will add it to the list to discuss next time.” That way, whoever is bringing up the suggestion feels heard, but you also maintain control of the meeting.

      If you don’t want to push the suggestion all the way to the next meeting, you could also build a designated question/answer/suggestion time into the meeting itself. The designated time works well, too, but I would suggest making sure you have strict time limits on how long you’re welling to spend on the Q&A time or otherwise you could be there for ages.

  9. Kenzie said:

    Keep a speaker’s list! Actually, keep two.

    The first list is where people go the first time they want to speak on a specific agenda item and the second is where they go if they want to speak a second time. The second list doesn’t happen until the first list has been completed, which prevents any one person from popping up to speak in between every other person.

    It’s also useful because it can be used as a reminder for enthusiastic talky people about fairness and process, “I’m sorry Ethel, it’s Qin’s turn to talk next. I’ll add you to the second list and then once Qin, Bob, and Jasmit have had their chance it’ll be your turn to speak, if you have anything to add after hearing what they have to say.”

    You also don’t have to keep a speaker list for every single topic. We only use a speaker list for contentious topics. The chair will notice that there’s starting to be cross-talk and interruptions and say, “Okay, it’s obvious that several people have something to say about this. I’ll start a speaker’s list. Who wants to talk?” They can write down all the names in order, and then go on from there.

    • monologue said:

      I love the speaker’s list for meetings of 10+. As a quieter person, I find it annoying and distracting to have to wait and pounce on free air in order to get a word in. I can’t really pay enough attention to the current speaker while doing this and I also get anxious. This is a great way to include everyone and reduce stress.

      • Cactus said:

        Same here. Official conversations can be hell for me without structure of some sort

  10. hangtown said:

    This is all excellent advice. Hang in their and run the meeting your way. I’m 99% sure that the other attendees are sitting there thanking you.

  11. ReanaZ said:

    I used to work for a small NFP that was run by a family. Like, dad was the CEO, and mom and son were both Senior VPs, and the only other member of the executive leadership team was a childhood friend of the son’s who would occasionally go to bat for things he really cared about (like things that direct affected effected his team’s jobs and wellbeing) but mostly tried to stay out of their fights. And man, did they fight. Not in a horrible way, but definitely every disagreement over a work issue was a Family Fight and not a professional discussion. Sometimes, the CEO would try to put hi foot down and say “I am the CEO, so we are going with my decision.” and the other two would basically just look at him and laugh (as if your dad had tried to say that at the dinner table.) And I often had to run meeting of the executive leadership team as a low-level employee to get decisions made on projects I was running. (Some people let them run their own meetings and then complained about the lack of productive outcome, so I just strong-armed them into following my agendas.) They were lovely people, but sometimes I get asked in interviews about my experiences managing difficult stakeholders and I am like; I HAVE ALL THE STORIES, LET ME TELL YOU.

    I think you’re already well on your way to running meetings like a baller–you have an agenda. You stick to it. You create a sense of urgency. You interrupt the talkers and get the people back on track. Jennifer has some excellent suggestions and scripts for continuing to work on this.

    But running a meeting well IS exhausting and draining. It’s like herding cats and running a triathlon and still making decisions all at once. Being exhausted=you’re doing awesome, not you’re dropping the ball. People who leave long meeting they ran not being exhausted are most likely people who did no actual leading during the meeting.

    The only things I would add:
    -I love the phrases “I hear you” and “Okay, to sum up what you’re saying” and “I’ve noted that”+ 1 sentence summary of their point, to interrupt people on long ramblings. “Okay, Ethel, I hear that you want the ball to be themed X. I’ve noted that, so let’s move on to…” It validates their opinion while shut down further discussion on the topic.
    -Agendas, agendas, agendas. Theses are the KEY. Write an agenda, stick to it religiously. I do think it’s okay to deviate from an agenda if it’s by mutual consent and productive. If you’re having a really good discussion that’s important, then ask: “I want to keep discussing this, but we’re running short on time. Do we want to table this for later or do we want to bump X from the agenda until next time?”
    -Likewise, meetings should never run late without consensus, and people should be given the option to leave. If you think you’re gong to go over, 5 minutes before end time, I’d say: “Okay, it’s almost 9pm, and I don’t want to keep anyone late. But I want to finish up this last thing–can people stay an extra 15 minutes to finish? If you need to go, you’re welcome to excuse yourself.” I think creating a culture that meetings Always End on Time is important for keeping meetings running efficiently.

    But I agree you already sound pretty baller at this!

    • Cactus said:

      This last thing about being able to excuse oneself is great–there were some avocational organizations I was part of back when I worked an extremely demanding job with hours that changed from day to day, so I would get off a long-ass shift, go to the other meeting, and not know whether it would end at 9 or 9:15 or 9:30 and meanwhile I hadn’t eaten yet and had to be into work at 8 am the next day…thus why I am now such a hermit.

  12. Speaking as an enthusiastic discusser who gets horribly embarrassed by thinking/knowing I’ve gone on too long and probably annoyed everybody… I am so thrilled when I know someone is controlling meetings. It means I don’t spend the whole time second-guessing myself, since I know they’d let me know if I was doing that. It means I’ll actually speak instead of staying silent to make sure I don’t make an ass of myself! All the good thoughts to people who do this difficult work, it’s seriously appreciated.

    • Me too! I have been accused of speaking in paragraphs rather than sentences… and even though it was intended as an insult I immediately began describing myself that way, because it’s just so *true*! The best thing someone can do for me at a meeting (well, aside from dispense chocolate) is to take me firmly by the figurative shoulders and march me around to the parts of the agenda in which I should be talking, and away from the ones where I shouldn’t.

    • Kaz said:

      Ditto!

      I’ve actually been attenting a support group recently where I’ve been having a fantastic time, except that last meeting I suddenly realised I’d probably talked the most out of everyone at the table and might have contributed to every single discussion point so far. Cue me going “oh crap am I dominating is everyone twiddling their thumbs waiting for me to shut up” and actively trying to talk less. Now I’m worried that the anxiety of “have I been talking too much?” is going to poison what have been truly awesome meetings and lead to me shutting up entirely – I’m thinking of catching the chair after the next one and asking about whether I’ve been okay so far or whether I should step back more. My brain is genuinely not well-suited for figuring out this kind of balance or being concise/on-point when I try to explain something, which means I’m really glad when there’s someone around who will give me feedback and nudge me when I’m starting to dominate the discussion or veer off-track.

  13. I’ve been running meetings since Captain Awkward was in short pants. I do the gamut from condo association meetings, consensus-based decisionmaking hippie meetings, classroom management, speaking on panels, running panel discussions, etc. The best strategy I have is to throw Time under the bus. That is, I blame the clock for my not being able to allow someone to speak longer than I want them to. I say something like, “These are some great ideas, but we are running out of time for this agenda item, so we have to move on.”

    If it is a meeting of hippies where I’m facilitating to get consensus, I can say, “So, hey we’re just about out of time for this agenda item. If we are going to stay with it, that’s great, but I need to get consensus from the group to take time from another agenda item and stay on this. Do we want to do that?” then wait for yes/no, then, “Which item will we take time from?” This strategy makes Ethel take ownership of all the meeting time she is using up. But it also honors the wishes of the rest of the group, which may genuinely want to allocate the meeting time differently. Sometimes it comes down to facilitatorship if the group can’t easily decide to allow Ethel to take more time. But if there’s no consensus to allow more time, then the group has answered “no,” and I say so and move the meeting along.

    If it is a meeting of non-hippies, I’ll be a little more fascist and say, “We have only n minutes allotted to this agenda item, and we have about one minute left. Ethel, I think you have some good input that we need to hear. Would you please take further comments to the committee or working group on this topic? Thank you.” This strategy helps me keep my power as the meeting leader (of course this is sometimes “excellent meeting management” and sometimes “bitchiness”) and lets everyone know that I respect their time by keeping the meeting moving. I’ll take a gentler tone with a community meeting than a business meeting. But I think I’m not doing my job running the meeting if I don’t, you know, run the meeting.

    One last strategy you can try, which I don’t usually recommend, is simply to hit up Robert’s Rules. I don’t like it because it’s too formalistic and can feel rude to groups who have never used it. But if a group or meeting is seriously dysfunctional, it can help a lot to get the situation under control. And you can throw Robert’s Rules and Time under the bus in your work to correct someone’s behavior.

    • JenniferP said:

      :bows down:

      That consensus thing is a thing of beauty.

      • glomarization said:

        Aw, shucks!

    • Lizzy said:

      What’s Robert’s Rules? I have never heard of it.

      • Beth B said:

        Robert’s Rules of Order: http://www.robertsrules.org/

        It’s a formal set of rules for running a meeting, apportioning meeting roles, making proposals to the committee, moving between agenda items, etc. Like all formalized rule sets, it works much better for some groups than others. But it’s got some useful stuff, even for groups that cherrypick and soften the language rather than actually making and seconding motions and directing all remarks to the chair.

        • TR said:

          I did parliamentary procedure for a high school organization I was in and they were the best-run meetings!

          But, yeah, Robert’s rules are great if your group is having tons of troubles with meetings (or for important meetings with lots of accountability) and you can a) run a modified, less-strict version of them and b) once you get a general sense of meetings with them, you begin to have a good sense of what a meeting should look like and it’s super easy to apply that to less formal meetings.

          Ex: My college student board went downhill fast one year, and the Dean implemented Robert’s Rules/parliamentary procedure, right down to dressing up for the meeting (business formal, please), and addressing everyone by Mr./Ms. LastName. It was extreme, but it got the group functioning again. My student group was having trouble at one point, so we went just pulled in rules that we thought would be useful – acknowledging someone who had the floor, for instance, and waiting to be recognized to speak.

        • SarahTheEntwife said:

          One thing which would seem obvious by clearly isn’t to some people: if your group runs meetings by Robert’s Rules of Order, you should tell its constituents that, otherwise they ask questions out of turn (I raised my hand and everything; it’s not like I was interrupting) and not in the required proposal format and then feel extremely embarrassed when everyone glares at them and informs them that they have committed a breach in protocol.

      • aebhel said:

        Robert’s Rules of Order, ie, the general standard for running meetings. In a lot of organizations, they are explicitly operating under Robert’s Rules, which makes them a handy tool/excuse.

        • Runaway Shinobi said:

          I think my favorite part of The Wire was Stringer Bell trying to use Robert’s Rules to run a meeting of his new drugs business. Genius.

  14. Clementine Danger said:

    Oh, I’m afraid I’ve been the Ethel in one or two groups. The biggest kindness anyone ever did me was TELLING me. I had no idea. When I look back now I don’t even know why it wasn’t obvious to me the way it was to everyone else, but I’m probably not the only person in the world who can be a bit blind to their own flaws. To say the least.

    I do know why I did it though. I had to shut up at home, shut up in class and shut up in my relationship shut up shut up shut up, so when someone said “Clementine, what do you think?” what I chose to hear was “Clementine, RELEASE THE WORD KRAKEN!”

    I did become aware of that and change when clearly (but kindly) told that I had a habit of dominating conversations, but I was a teenager and had a lot more opportunity, incentive and time to change than Ethel probably does. I had ways to channel all that stuff in a more productive way while I was still slap bang in the middle of growing and finding an identity. So letting go of the idea that she could change is probably for the best. But we can be reformed!

    • JenniferP said:

      ❤ forever for RELEASE THE WORD-KRAKEN

    • Jae said:

      Clementine, you are certainly not the only one doing it and not knowing, but I think you are a very rare species in that you did listen and decided to change that, step back, let others be heard too. A lot of people I’ve met who do that do it to gain attention, feel powerful, manipulate others, you name it. And some are beneficial and only love to hear their own voice. But a lot of them are unable or unwilling to stop.

      Salutes to you! And ♥ for the WORD KRAKEN *lol*

      • Clementine Danger said:

        Fortunately, whether someone does it out of enthusiasm or unexamined privilege or nervousness or pure malice, it doesn’t change the way LW and other meeting runners can handle it. Whatever the reason for the problem, the problem remains the same, and so does the solution. Honestly I don’t even know why I brought it up. I GUESS I JUST LIKE TALKING A LOT.

  15. LouBee said:

    When leading groups, I have often found it time well-spent to facilitate a groundrules session with the whole group. This allows everyone to have input into how they think the meetings should be run. And it’s a great time to set the stage for everyone being helpfully aware of who’s talking a lot and who’s not talking very much. I think it’s totally OK to go through this exercise even though you’ve long been established as a group – say you just want to take a step back, you’re getting your footing as the new chair and trying out new ways to engage everyone, etc. One groundrule that I often contribute because it creates some levity while getting straight to the point, is the acronym WAIT – which stands for Why Am I Talking? It just serves as an internal filter prompt (and visual if you can post it somewhere) to be cognizant of that moment when you might be droning on too long. Also, once groundrules are established and everyone has agreed to them, then the whole group will feel responsible for enforcing them and you won’t be alone in holding that huge responsibility. AND if Ethel continues to take up too much time, you can just refer back to the groundrules, which supposedly she will have already signed off on (and helped create!) and will quickly step back so that others have the opportunity to participate as well.

    FWIW – I also always contribute the groundrule of allowing people the space to complete their thoughts. A mid-sentence pause is NOT a signal for someone else to jump in with their own thought. That is called interrupting and it’s rude and makes me feel really crappy and not listened to. For those of us who are more contemplative and need some time to articulate what’s been spinning around in our brains, this is invaluable. Good luck!!

    • LouBee said:

      Oh one more classic groundrule – listening is just as valuable as talking and everyone should be doing both. Or – listen twice as much as you talk.

      And of course just stepping back and observing our own biases/perceptions/isms we carry around. These have been the source of frustration for me before and tripped me up.

  16. Evelyn said:

    I suspect that every other person in that meeting is deeply grateful to you for reining in Ethel and I bet they all enjoy your meetings much more now than they did when she was allowed to go on endlessly.

  17. Artichoke said:

    This probably works better in a classroom than in a meeting, but as a college instructor, I’ve had luck in handing out 10 poker chips to each student at the beginning of class. I instruct them that each time they contribute to the discussion, they’ve used up one chip. I tell them to use at least four chips during the discussion. When they’ve used up all 10, they’re done – they can’t say anything else. You can adjust the numbers as needed. But this technique keeps Loud Talker from dominating and encourages Quiet One to speak up. It is a wonder to behold how much the quality of discussion improves.

    • JenniferP said:

      NICE!

    • Rana said:

      That’s a great technique! I’ve also done a variant of that where you use fewer chips (or M&Ms) and make it such that the enthusiastic talkers who use up their chips early can only talk again after everyone else has used up their chips too, unless they are encouraging other people to contribute by asking them questions, etc.

      Basically, if you’re talking for your own sake, you’re restricted to what your chips allow, but if you’re talking to further overall group discussion, you get a pass. It does take attentive managing and a willing class to make this variant work, though.

    • I’ve heard this version described as “poker chip bardic,” when used in filk music settings. There, it’s designed to make sure everyone gets a reasonably equal turn to sing if they want to, and we generally give everyone three chips to start. Once you’ve used up your chips, you can’t perform again until everyone else has used up theirs, or explicitly opted out by declaring that they don’t intend to perform that night (or any more that night). At that point, you redistribute the chips for another three rounds.

    • This is the first I’ve heard of such a strategy, but it seems very positive in that it would encourage the more shy students to contribute by emphasising that their contributions have value equal to those of others, and are actively sought. As a former-and-sometimes-still-current shy person, depending on comfort zones, I like that.

    • NonramblingRose said:

      I love this idea. Stealing it!

    • Serin said:

      It would be interesting to see how a group would respond if you demonstrated social privilege by handing out poker chips on the basis of race, gender, ability, etc. “And Bob gets one more because he’s dressed like a member of the ruling caste. Nice tie, Bob.”

      • winter said:

        It would probably totally implode, but that last comment made me laugh.

  18. antileah said:

    I had a manager (who taught our internal Time Management course at the company!) who taught us some good meeting running methods he learned from a former manager. One of the best was splitting up the roles of “managing” the meeting a bit. Aside from the person “running” the meeting, there would also be assigned someone to take notes/minutes, and then a third person to be “Time Cop.” The meeting runner would have created an agenda with specific time limits on it and the Time Cop would be in charge of keeping an eye on the time and giving time warnings like “2 minutes more for this topic” etc, throughout the meeting. This freed up the meeting runner to coordinate the actual discussion. Time Cop and Note Taker would be rotated so no one person always had to be one role. Depending on the meeting type, you could rotate the the meeting/discussion facilitator as well. Perhaps if Ethel was made a time cop early on she’d be more aware of the time!

    • SpinachInquisition said:

      Oooh! This ^ ^ !!! Love the Time Cop and distribution of duties. [Stealing.]

  19. trapezoid said:

    At my work I’m responsible for a large team of volunteers, and over the years I’ve learnt that if one person is taking up a lot of my mental time and energy, then that’s my brain telling me I need to sort out whatever the issue is with that person. I wonder if it’s worth having a conversation with her one-on-one, about the way she behaves in meetings and the impact it has. The key here is to not make it about her as a person, but about her behaviour. My template would be along the lines of: “Ethel, it’s great to have you in the group and I think everyone here really values [insert personality traits, things she does for the charity here]. The reason I wanted to talk to you today is because I’m aware that sometimes in meetings I know you find it really difficult to keep to time and stay focussed on the topic, and that’s causing problems because [talk about how this impacts you personally and/or the running of the meeting specifically – link it to the broader aims of your charity if possible as a reminder of the cause you share a passion for, and to remind her that she is there to serve that cause and her needs are secondary to those of the charity].

    Then let her talk/explain/get offended/whatever. How she responds will tell you a lot about what is causing her behaviour -is it a total lack of self-awareness? Is she desperate to contribute but is unsure how? Is she lonely and using the meetings primarily as a social opportunity rather than seeing their primary purpose as being to Get Shit Done? If she’s reluctant to acknowledge there’s a problem, make sure you can give specific examples (again focussing on the behaviour not the person). If she’s able to accept that there’s a problem and change needs to happen, then you can ask her to ‘help’ you work out a solution (eg if she says she genuinely doesn’t realise when she’s going off topic, could you have some kind of ‘fun’ secret signal that you will give her? If it’s coming from a desperate desire to be useful, maybe reassuring her that she is useful/valued + giving her some kind of Important Task to do (make something up if necessary eg “it’s our 40th anniversary in 2 years time, I was wondering if you could co-ordinate a project to make a special quilt in celebration?” (actual example))
    My experience is that people very rarely kick off if you’re this mercilessly kind and reasonable, but if she’s unwilling to hear what you’re saying then I would close things down by saying you can see she’s finding it hard to hear what you’ve said and that it would be best to meet up again in a week when she’s had time to think.

    When I started taking this kind of approach I found it incredibly scary as I’m very conflict-avoidant, but I’ve never ever regretted dealing with an issue head on, while I’ve often regretted not doing so. I’ve also realised that people tend to respect honesty and appreciate feedback, and that often on some level they were aware there was a problem (for example Ethel may well have picked up that some people seem to find her annoying even if she doesn’t understand why) and are relived to get a chance to talk about it.

    I’m aware that there may be other parts of the picture that make some/all of this advice irrelevant or unhelpful, but good luck with whatever you decide to do. It sounds like you’re doing a great job as chair.

    • Thank you for modelling Good Management, where it’s not about ‘shutting that annoying person up’ but ‘helping that person to be a better contributor’. Much, much appreciated.

  20. I have ADHD and it can cause me to be an Ethel, I don’t mean to get off topic or disruptive but I just had this great idea and everyone needs to know about it right now. I mostly catch myself but when I don’t as others have said, the best thing that I get is a good meeting organizer who can kindly say “Yes Chesh but we need to get back to X”. It might feel bitchy, but it isn’t bitchy it is you doing your job.

  21. All good practical advice, and strategies I frequently use as chair of an NIH study section that reviews grant applications in the biosciences for potential federal funding. All I want to do is reinforce the emotional point that it is 100% certain that when Ethel goes off-topic or otherwise derails/wastes time, everyone else at the meeting is silently begging you to cut her off and allow the meeting to continue to make progress. And when you do so, they are silently high-fiving you!

  22. A Timer said:

    Estimate how much time each agenda item needs. Put the time limit on the agenda. Set a timer during the meeting. When our goes off, interrupt the conversation to asl people if you should add an additional 5 minutes. If it goes beyond 10 minutes, say that it’s too complicated for this meeting and assign people to work on it and report back next meeting.

    I’ve facilitated a number of groups and without fail, timers work.

  23. psyence said:

    How to NOT do it: Interrupt and move the agenda onwards every five-ten minutes or so, regardless of whether the conversation is productive or not, and then spend the next five-ten minutes actively NOT LISTENING AT ALL and instead playing with your iPhone.

    This is the method of an astoundingly senior project manager who I am unfortunate enough to have ‘managing’ my latest project.

  24. Tehanu said:

    Such fabulous suggestions! As someone who chairs a fair number of meetings and sits through even more (I live for meetings), some other things I’ve seen work well include …

    — Assigning roles. If Ethel were, for example, asked to help monitor a timed agenda and to signal you when you were ten minutes then five minutes out from running out of time for an item, she may get more involved in that than in dominating the discussion. Or could she take minutes? Or be the parking lot manager and be adding items as needed? This gives her an opportunity to have a task that she can focus on.

    — Breaking up discussion. Especially in larger groups, when one person is talking, X other people are listening (as an aside in really boring meetings I calculate roughly everyone’s salary and if someone’s droning on, how much of our underfunded institution’s “money” they’ve just wasted). If there’s an open-ended topic that requires discussion, can people break into pairs/groups of three and come up with ideas, then each group reports back? Or have flipchart paper on the wall and markers, and people note ideas under different headings. And there are a bunch of other ways to make meetings more interactive and engaging. Sometimes using these techniques can be faster, sometimes slower, but everyone gets a much better opportunity to participate. As well, it tends to bring out the quieter people who may have excellent ideas but may not feel able to raise them in front of the entire group.

    — Dittoing the speaker’s list, including putting new speakers at the top before any repeats. It’s also an excellent way to introduce some equity in something like a male-dominated discussion, if you alternate between male and female speakers, assuming that there’s at least 50% men in the room. Works also for marginalized people, if they are a minority in the room, to help give them space/a voice.

    — I’ve also had one-on-one conversations with individuals after the meeting if their behaviour is particularly questionable. It can go something like this: “X, I wanted to talk to you about how you speak up in meetings. I’d noticed you are very involved in discussions, and today I decided to track it. You spoke for 25 minutes in an hour-long meeting. So you took up almost half the meeting time, which was unfair on the other six people there. Can we talk about ways I can help you be more aware of how much meeting time you’re using?” If they’re resistant, something that might help them, which has helped me as someone who likes to talk, is to ask them how this might be perceived by the other people in the group, and if their communication is effective if other people are just getting frustrated.

  25. monologue said:

    One thing my student council does is to actually ask the chair to be mindful of who’s talking and ensure that a specific group of people (like white dudes for example) isn’t dominating the discussion. They have authorization to reorder a speaker’s list or ask for other contributions before letting someone talk several times, basically. For larger meetings, we also use mics, so if you have something to say you need to go to the mic (or request a mic if you can’t get there). This means hearing impaired people can hear everything better, and it also means you can’t randomly interject from your seat if you disagree with someone.

  26. Amatyultare said:

    I consider myself a decent meeting runner, but most of the tricks I used have already been mentioned (and I’ve taken some notes for things to try as well!)

    One tip, which may be obvious for some people but was a revelation for me, is something I learned from a teaching/speaking coach years ago: use very literal physical gestures to reinforce your directions. Let’s say Ethel is talking on and on and someone else seems like they want to jump in. You might say “That’s a great point, Ethel, thank you,” while at the same time holding your hand up to indicate ‘stop’. Then you could say “What are your thoughts on this, Jane?” and gesture with your palm up/out to Jane. (If it makes sense based on where they’re sitting, keep your ‘stop’ hand up while gesturing ‘go ahead’ to Jane, and only drop your hands once Jane starts talking.)

    i would definitely recommend (1) practicing in a mirror, as this will feel weird and abrupt and traffic cop-esque at first and (2) not using this tactic ALL the time. But the first time I backed up my meeting direction with that kind of physical stop/go gesturing, I was *amazed* at how well it worked and how powerful it made me feel.

    • attica said:

      Ooh! Good suggestion! In some meetings (space permitting), I prefer to run them on my feet rather than from a chair, where I can walk around the participants. We’re hard wired to watch a moving figure, after all, and this little step serves to split participant’s focus from the Work Kraken (hee!) they’re dying to release, or from the text they just got. If somebody’s derailing, I can either walk over to waiting participant, and then hand signal the changeover, or walk to the derailer to acknowledge them — they get validation by word and by my presence, which yields surprising results.

      Of course, if you’re self-conscious about two dozen pairs of eyes following you around, this may not work for you. It does get easier with practice, for what that’s worth.

  27. solecism said:

    Everyone has such good recommendations! One thing I find useful is to consider is how the agenda is arranged. Think about how the conversation would organically flow from one item to the next and set up the agenda in this logical sequence. Sometimes the live discussion doesn’t follow the sequence but quite often it does. This makes managing the people a little easier because item A tends to raise question B, which just happens to be the next topic of discussion! Also, if you have a consistent sequence of items, such as old business before new business or whatever, it helps get people accustomed to the appropriate procedures and can help minimize derailing because everyone knows that first we talk about A, then we move onto B, and Z is the last item, you know that Ethel.

    Definitely keep going with the time management. The more predictable and reliable the experience for everyone involved, and the more fairness and transparency in the process, the more people will want to engage and less frustrated and hopefully less disruptive they will be. Hopefully, it will get less exhausting over time as you are more comfortable in your role and other people are comfortable with the process.

  28. the cat in the mask said:

    Everyone’s advice is awesome! But this in particular jumped out at me:

    “But I can’t pull the “urgency” card at every meeting.”

    Because… I think you actually can? People’s need to get stuff finished on time doesn’t decrease with each successive meeting. Sure, with each use, it’s increasingly clear that the “urgency card” is code for “Stop talking, Ethyl,” but spoiler, everyone already knows that, anyway. You could even announce that it’s one of your goals as leader to have an XX% on-time finish rate (where “finish” means going through all topics on the agenda), and make up a chart showing the on-time vs. over-time data. Treat finishing on time as a group success, and I think you’ll find more support from the rest of the group. When Ethyl starts to ramble, I’d go with a script like, “I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you there, Ethyl, so we can get all these points covered, but I’m sure those of us who have time after the meeting would love to continue that discussion later.”

    • Myrin said:

      I’ve been thinking exactly that!

    • jessalae said:

      “Sure, with each use, it’s increasingly clear that the “urgency card” is code for “Stop talking, Ethyl,” but spoiler, everyone already knows that, anyway.”

      This is so true. LW, everyone in your group knows what Ethyl is like. Everyone in your group probably wants her to knock it off just as much as you do. They’re probably overjoyed to have a moderator who’s trying to rein her in somewhat, and would be just fine with you continuing to do that, and doing it more often. It feels kind of mean to keep shutting someone down repeatedly, but she’s not going to change her behavior out of the blue, and the other group members will appreciate your efforts.

  29. plumbicon said:

    Years and years in academia mean I’ve had to attend countless meetings, and I know just about every type described in the post and in the comments. I’ve also chaired committees and made it a point to keep things moving, particularly when it’s a committee that needed to get a job done in a certain amount of time. My biggest challenge was running a disciplinary committee with a nine-member panel. We often met at the end of a work day when everyone was tired, the students who had to plead their cases were nervous, and we needed to get things done before reaching the “it’s too late; let’s reschedule” moment. Countering that was that we had to deliberate and be very careful that we did the right thing, but we also had panel members who would get bogged down in the dilemmas at hand. I faced a challenge of letting them be heard while trying to make sure we did our jobs efficiently, both so we could get our jobs done and so the students who were waiting to hear their fates weren’t left in suspense longer than necessary. That was a real balancing act, and I know I offended some talkative members when I’d indicate we were getting afield (one of the talkative ones once accused me of not liking when people asked questions; I held my tongue), but I was there to get a job done and keep us on task, and we did. I’d go around the table, make sure all the panelists had a chance to say how they felt, and from there I’d work to build a consensus. It worked.

    The flip side was helping co-moderate a support group a year or two back, which was not a happy experience. Try as I might, I had such difficulty keeping the support group focused on the group’s chartered tasks because several members treated it like a hangout session instead of a support group. I tried to keep us on task, but it went nowhere, and one memorable evening a particularly aggrieved member turned it into an extended This Is Why You Suck tirade directed against me because of it. That had a lot to do with why I quit co-moderating that group a short while later.

  30. MamaCheshire said:

    One group I was part of had a small stuffed bird that indicated who “had the floor” – if you had the bird in your possession, you had the floor, and when you were done you tossed it on to the next person who had a hand up. Also adaptable to passing around the room one at a time when you want to make sure EVERYone is heard. 🙂

    • Clare said:

      I have been in social groups that have done this in conversation when coping with particularly loud or interrupty people. It feels much less awkward than you’d think in a social setting, and it’s *so* much less stressful than someone having to be an unofficial moderator and say “you just interrupted X *again*, please let them finish” all the time. It’s also kinder to the interrupter too; suddenly they’re not being singled out for a telling-off, they’re just following the same rule as everyone else.

    • Elsajeni said:

      I like this method for solving issues like cross-talk and making sure everyone gets a turn, but I would caution the OP that it doesn’t generally work great for shortening a long-talker’s speech. Especially if Ethel shades more toward the “deliberate conversation-trampler” end of the range, implementing something like this risks setting you up for some “No, you can’t cut me off, I still have the floor, I AM HOLDING THE BIRD.”

      • Cactus said:

        Yeah, I can imagine that the bird would work to silence an interrupter…but not a speechifyer.

  31. silverdreams said:

    I am yet another commenter who has at times been the “Ethel” in a conversation. It’s not out of desire to waste people’s time, but I get very excited about things and like to process things out loud, and the result can be long-winded. Like others have said, I really appreciate it when the moderator tells me to wrap it up, because I need that kind of direction some times. It’s possible that your Ethel feels the same way.

    For the record, it is also possible that Ethel will get very huffy and offended if you become more assertive in your moderating, and decide you are rude and disrespectful and start going on about how “kids these days don’t know how to respect their elders” and blah blah blah. And if that does happen? Not your problem. You can’t control how other people react to things, so do your best to be kind and respectful and then hope for the best. Your job is to run the meetings, not to manage Ethel’s emotions. Obviously it isn’t fun playing the bad guy, but I think it would be pretty obvious to the other group members that Ethel was the person being unreasonable in this situation.

    But I really don’t think that’s likely. Honestly, I would say that the MOST likely scenario is that Ethel is just a somewhat oblivious person who doesn’t notice things like how much long she has been talking/ how other people are feeling/ how late it’s getting. If that’s the case, she’s also probably not going to notice how much more frequently she’s getting interrupted, and you’re unlikely to meet much resistance from her.

  32. roadtrips said:

    It seems that the age difference hasn’t really been addressed, so I’ll contribute – for my job I facilitate discussion groups for seniors, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s (and one lady is 100!). Some have mild or moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. For context, I am in my early 30s. I am very aware, when I’m facilitating, that I could come across as disrespectful or patronizing. But I (think) that this rarely, if ever happens. This is due to two things:
    First, I demonstrate my respect by listening and, if I need to interrupt or re-direct, doing it in a kind, subtle way. This is definitely an art. Many of the other comments have given some really good suggestions for how to do this.
    The second thing is that I take my position as facilitator seriously, and I treat everyone in the group as equals all working toward a productive conversation. If I sat there and just let the discussion go, it would be frustrating for everyone, including the ramblers, because my role is to facilitate. I find that even though I’m much younger than the people in these discussion groups, it’s never really an issue, because I respect their role as speakers and they respect my role as facilitator. It’s not really about age at that point, it’s more about agreed upon roles. In my experience, as people get older, they also are listened to less and less. Paradoxically, this does not mean that when you are working with those much older than yourself, you should stand back completely because you don’t want to insult someone. Everyone wants to be treated as an equal member of the team – Ethel will probably (no guarantees, obviously everyone is different) appreciate being treated the same as everyone else in the meeting, as opposed to being treated like an emotionally fragile elderly person. Not that you are doing this! But I do think that sometimes there is a tendency to be extra nice and “protect” elderly people, which can come off as being patronizing.

  33. Palliser said:

    I worked for a company that for a time held all meetings standing up. People never over-talked 🙂

    • thaxted said:

      Oh god, sounds like an accessibility nightmare though. I’d steer clear of this approach.

      • Cactus said:

        Plus we already know they can’t hold meetings standing up by default if one of their members is a wheelchair user.

  34. Myrin said:

    Is it okay to post about not-exactly-the-same-but-adjacent topic? If not, please feel free to delete or ignore, if yes, here goes:

    Is there any way to deal with such a person if you’re NOT the person in charge of the group?

    This semester, I voluntarily and purely out of interest attend a few classes (they’re still in my major, I just don’t need the credits). One of these classes follows directly after a lecture on the same topic held by the same guy – it’s to deepen the understanding of the lecture’s topics, to do some text work, and, maybe most importantly, prepare students who choose this or a similar topic for their final exams.
    The problem is, there’s one guy, a senior student (I don’t know if there’s an equivalent to this in the English language? Not “senior” as in “in the last stages of attending uni” – that would be me – but as in “old person”; he’s like, seventy or something), who monopolises the class EVERY. SINGLE. TIME and it’s driving me and the other students nuts.
    He asks questions that clearly show that he doesn’t actually know a lot about our profession (so they’re entirely irrelevant to everyone but him because to someone majoring in this, the answers are obvious), he’s VERY shouty, he derails the conversation with irrelevant anecdotes of his life, and he interrupts others constantly, even our teacher. This is especially annoying since the course is only 45 minutes (which go by so fast) and is actually there FOR THE STUDENTS, not him who’s doing this for fun.

    I finally had enough when he was shouting so loudly you could probably still hear him three floors down last week and called him out on it, asking him to finally stop yelling goddammit. Our teacher looked at me thankfully and three other students came to me afterwards and said how glad they were someone was finally saying something, but 1. I’m not actually in charge of this class, 2. I doubt he himself even heard me over his self-absorbed shouting, and 3. our teacher is actually pretty firm (he asked the guy several times to not interrupt him, for example) but I feel like he wants to be polite and he’s also only about half Shouty Senior’s age so maybe some shyness like in the LW’s case also plays into it here?

    Thing is, I – along with several others – now contemplate not attending this class anymore because we often don’t get to ask our questions anyway and just sitting through a 40 minutes monologue of this guy is tedious and exhausting (and I actually LOVE this subject). I don’t know if it’s appropriate to approach our teacher about it or to just call him out every single lesson myself or if I should just leave. I really don’t know how – if at all – to deal with this situation. Any suggestions?

    • otterb said:

      I can recommend a book called “Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge” by Fisher & Sharp. It’s been a while since I read it, but I know one of their suggestions is to phrase things as questions. So perhaps you could suggest to the instructor, either individually or in class, that you feel like not everyone is getting a chance to talk and you heard about this strategy with poker chips (or something else here that seems like it might fit), and do they think it might improve the discussion if you tried it?

      Also, I wonder if Mr. Shouty might have a hearing loss, which might both tend to make him loud and make him more likely to interrupt. I don’t know that it changes the scenario, though.

    • MsM said:

      I think it would be totally appropriate to talk to your teacher about it (and maybe even offer some of these suggestions to him), but given that he’s already trying to take steps, I wouldn’t count on him to be able to do much more than commiserate. What you can do is loudly and firmly assert that you want to hear what other classmates or the professor have to say, and suggest that he save the discussion for the end of lecture or office hours when the instructor can go into it in more detail. Even if that means cutting him off. You might not be in charge of the class, but you are a participant, and you’re allowed to assert yourself just like he’s doing.

    • Put a sock in it said:

      On the upside, if you are already thinking about not going to the class, you now have an excellent chance to try and speak up and tell him to cut it off – worst case scenario, if it doesn’t work and you decide to stop going, that’s ok because you were going to do that anyway. (I do acknowledge that it can be hard and takes energy to engage with difficult people, but dealing with the regret and sadness of not going to class would also be effort for me, and so maybe also for you.)

      So I would definitely try to call him out each lesson. You might feel like you’re being rude, but that’s ok: he’s already being rude. You do not owe him politeness in return. Perhaps you can start by saying ‘[interupting guy], I know you have a lot to say about [topic], but I and the other students would also like to ask some questions and we only have [minutes left]. Can you follow up with [teacher] about it after the class? Now, [insert own question here]’. And if other people thanked you for speaking up, they might be happy to follow your example and back you up on cutting this guy off.

      Alternatively it might be worth approaching this guy after the class and asking him to back off? You could try the trick someone mentioned earlier of timing how long he talks for so you have a concrete example of how much class time he is using (eg you talked for 30 minutes and there was only 15 minutes left for the other 20 of us).

      It does sound stressful: good luck.

  35. Jae said:

    Dear Captain, dear LW, I much enjoyed reading this Q and A since I often have to lead discussions and meetings. It gives some very nice ideas how to do it, but then I can usually manage those (maybe less smoothly, but manage nonetheless). I’ve had one guy though, who might have been a male Ethel. Older than me, senior to me in the organization, but not my linemanager (than gods). He would interrupt but not be interrupted. If I did, any way you suggested, soft or hard, he’d just keep talking, claiming “but this is important” and if the whole room kept on the topic, he’d draw the attention of his immediate neighbour off the topic and carry on a private conversation, disturbing everyone.

    I confronted him once one-on-one after such a meeting, letting him know that this is disrespectful of all in the room, and he turned passive-agressive from there on. Every time he said something he would start with “if Jae doesn’t think this is disrespectful, I’d like to say…” and then carry on in his usual sidetracks, drawing the meeting to him and him only.

    Do you have any script for that? He was obviously ruder than anyone else I ever met, but sometimes you get those too.

    Also a remark on “The Guy Who Will Poke Holes In Everyone’s Plan But Has None Of His Own” – I work for a company now, where people have made this project obstruction and art form. Your suggestion of “bring me solutions” would earn you a) “Oh, this isn’t my field of expertise. I just pointed out a flaw, and dept. ABC needs to fix it” or if you insist, b) The Guy is using the next week to call in meetings with people who didn’t see it as a problem but are now forced to spend time on fixing it for The Guy. It interrupts work even more and The Guy has gotten even more important now (which I feel is often what they crave).

    I realize that what I write here I’m now The Guy Who Will Poke Holes In Everyone’s Plan But Has None Of His Own. Apologies. But any hint of how to handle those harder cases would be appreciated.

    Also, I’m trying to find a class for moderation training, which may answer a few of those 🙂 Which might be a good thing for LW as well. Those trainings help a lot.

    • miss_chevious said:

      With regard to male Ethel, it would be confrontational, but I would respond with “Jae *does* find it disrespectful, actually, so I’m going to cut you off there” combined with the stop sign hand gesture mentioned upthread, and a re-direct to someone else in the room about the topic at hand. People like that, who think that only their opinion deserves to be heard, will only respond (at least initially) to a forceful setting of boundaries that borders on rudeness. Some of them will adjust and become productive and some of them will have to be reminded of the boundary every…single…meeting…but it is a service to the other people in the room and to the purpose of the meeting to set (and reset) this boundary.

    • NonramblingRose said:

      We have a Guy Who Will Poke Holes In Everyone’s Plan But Has None Of His Own too! But he isn’t as bad as yours so I tend to handle it with: “So what would you suggest?”

      We also have a Guy Who Insists The Group Does A Thing But Won’t Help With The Thing, which is infuriating. We just end up in these dances of

      “I don’t think we have the resources to do that.”
      “But it’s really important – we should make the effort!”
      “OK, could you make the initial phone calls?”
      “No, I really can’t take anything on at the moment.”
      “Right, so it looks like as a group, we don’t have the resources to do that. I’ll contact them and say no. Does everyone agree?”
      “No, I still think we should really try to do it, it’s a great opportunity!”

  36. One of the better meeting runners I know starts by listing what the meeting will cover.

    She actively solicits volunteers for action item throughout the meeting. As the Captain describes, she spends a bit of time say “let’s cover that offline” and she sets up a time for covering “that”.

    I think that may be a biggie: providing a forum for “interrupters” to express what are often good and useful thoughts.

    The Captain brings up another point that’s dear to my heart: the silencing of older women. We do get ignored. Often. We have good input and experience despite that.

  37. aliasCelli said:

    My company is really big on consensus, which translates to HOURS of meetings. (If I have fewer than four meetings in a day, I check to see if I’m being fired.) A couple of things I do that people have liked:

    * We tend to schedule meetings for the full hour, which makes people late to the next one, which makes it start late, etc…I try to combat that by scheduling the shortest meetings possible. You can do a lot with two other people in 15 minutes; you can comment on and approve a document in 30. I also schedule for 45 minutes instead of an hour, so people can see the inside of a restroom at least once a day. 🙂

    * I send out the documents to be reviewed before the meeting. Silent reading time is not for meetings!

    * Even when I don’t have a formal agenda, I plan it for less time than I think it’ll take. That way, if there’s some additional discussion, I have room, and if not, people will all but hug you if they get time back in their day.

    * Toastmasters! Running a meeting there is a good way to learn when to stop and move on, and being a speaker means containing your speech in the appropriate time.

    Now if I could only get my boss to let me time people’s presentations in big meetings and catch their attention when they’re blowing past the alloted time…

  38. NonramblingRose said:

    Hello everybody, I’m the LW. I nearly gave up trying to leave a comment because WordPress was being weird. I just wanted to say that the Captain is really spookily spot-on with some of her insights – and yes, when the previous person was chair I would literally be screaming inside my head for him to move things on. I use that memory when I’m feeling bad about moving things on myself.

  39. SarahTheEntwife said:

    So many useful ideas! My workplace often has seriously inefficient meetings, and while I’m not usually running them, it’s good to keep these things in mind just in case. For a while I was in the tiny committee of incompatible meeting styles, which consisted of our resident “Ethel”, someone else who wasn’t a rambler in quite the same way but who was very extroverted and loud and talkative, and me, who comes from a family culture of being very calm and non-interrupty and slow-paced conversationally. In a larger meeting you could have had more in-between styles to kind of modulate things, but as it was it was just painful.

    One thing that isn’t quite getting at the central problem for the LW, but which might fall under “giving Ethel a concrete meeting-job”, is assembling action items. I will admit to irrational annoyance at the business-speak term, but they’ve been really useful for me in the sorts of meetings where there’s a lot of brainstorming and discussion and you end the meeting not sure if you’ve actually decided to do anything. To avoid this, one person — either the moderator or someone else — makes sure that near the end of each agenda item, they write down exactly what needs to get done (even if it’s just officially stating that this needs to get discussed more next time before anything gets done) and who is going to do it. It’s a good method for wrapping up ramblers or complainers as well, if you can direct them toward stating what they think should be done about the issue..

  40. Hi there! Longtime reader, first time commenter. I have seven other people who get input into what I plan (I coordinate educational programs at an NPO), and it’s the most frustrating thing. I recently had a complete anxiety meltdown over these stupid weekly meetings because I had seven other people all talking over each other and trying to tell me how to do my job. I came here about a year ago from a smaller institution where I never had to have approval from that many people about what I was doing, so it was very stressful for me to adjust to the environment here. They LOVE meetings here. I’ve never had so many meetings in all my life.

    In my case, it’s a Negative Nancy I deal with the most, who wants to interrupt EVERYTHING to talk about her “concerns” (i.e. why everyone’s ideas are terrible), while offering nothing productive. She’s much older than the rest of us, past retirement age, so it can be difficult to feel like I’m not offending her when I have to get her back on topic, and I don’t want to silence a person who has vastly more professional experience than the rest of us. I’ve taken to a strategy like the one Cap mentions, where you ask them what their solution is, and if they have none, move on. It generally seems to get her to either put up or shut up. The big problem is if she gets others worked up about what she perceives as problems, then I’ve got seven people freaking out over something that’s really not an issue at all. It’s like herding cats.

    Another thing that’s started working for me is covering small things at shorter meetings and saving the more in-depth discussions for separate meetings. So, once a month or so we have an hour+ meeting that covers more important topics, and the other three weeks are about 20-30 minute meetings just reviewing logistics and reminding everyone what their responsibilities are. There are times where the short meetings cover the same thing two weeks in a row, but it’s good to remind everyone about what’s going on, so they don’t forget.

    I send follow-up emails afterwards to remind everyone what we talked about and what they agreed to do. This allows me to have all of it in writing, and if there are any corrections (“I didn’t agree to that”, etc.), it’s all taken care of without having to have them all in the room at once. For the big, once a month planning meetings, where I present ideas and budgets for future programs (I tend to plan 3-4 months in advance), I create an agenda and email it ahead of time, so everyone comes prepared to speak only about their items.

  41. EJ said:

    I’m the president of my church board and have been for the last two years. I have an Ethel, who is not actually on the board but attends all of the meetings because he’s a key employee of the church. Now, we use a modified version of Robert’s Rules, instituted by the previous board president, which allows me to 1) limit discussion to board members and 2) call on anyone and refuse to call on anyone. So a couple of times I’ve said very specifically, “I want to hear from board members first and if we have time, we’ll hear from the gallery.”

    LW, I’m not sure how formalized your situation is–if you have official board members, or just members of the group–but it may be worth looking into Robert’s Rules or another more formal guide to meeting rules so that you have framework to fall back on. At least, it has helped me use the authority which I have in my position to have Rules to Follow rather than me being Meany McMeany Pants.

  42. sorcharei said:

    One trick I’ve used successfully is to have Ethel be your timekeeper. Lay out the schedule with estimated times. Then at the start of the meeting, review the agenda and say something like “In order to be done with this meeting on schedule, we need to spend 10 minutes on item 1, 15 minutes on item 2, 10 minutes on item 3, and 15 minutes on item 4, which will leave us 10 minutes for general discussion at the end. Ethel, could you help us all out by tracking time, and giving us 5-minute warnings?”

    Then during the meeting, whenever you switch topics, remind everyone that this is a 10-minute topic and ask Ethel for the warning. Thank her for her help (it is actually helpful) every time. And then at the end, when you make it through everything in good time, thank everyone “but especially Ethel, who helped keep us on track” for cooperating to make the meeting run so smoothly.

  43. Annalee said:

    Lots of great advice here from the Captain and others! I’ve served in various leadership positions in Quaker communities, which use a process that is often incorrectly described as consensus. Ethels are a perpetual problem–especially because they tend to confuse our process with consensus.

    Others have already noted that people will thank you for being the bad cop. One way internalize that is that when you have to shut Ethel down, think about it from a different perspective than hers. When you find yourself thinking “I’m interrupting Ethel again,” consciously tell yourself, “I’m protecting Amara, Bradley, Cho, and Diego from being Ethel’s captive audience.”

    The strategy I’ve found most useful is to delegate the heck out of everything. The Captain already suggested delegating to people who are talking too much/poking holes/derailing to get them to put up or shut up, but delegating to others helps, too, because it starves Ethels of an audience.

    For instance, if the group needs a new sign, delegating that task separates the folks who are speaking up because they really care about the sign from the folks who are speaking up because they want to be seen speaking. The former will volunteer to do the work, or else they’ll seek out those who’ve been assigned afterwards to make sure their input is considered. The latter will forget all about the sign the second the topic changes.

    My related strategy is that once a task is delegated, I take it off the floor. “we don’t do the committee’s work during general business” is one of my go-to phrases when running meetings. The meeting’s purpose is to tell the person(s) assigned with a task “yes” or “no.” If there’s a major problem, we say no and send it back. Anything too small to be worth holding up action on is too small for general business to worry about. The harder a line you can take on this, the better. If it’s not worth someone’s time to bring their concern to the committee in advance, it’s not worth everyone else’s time to derail a meeting with it.

    Other useful phrases here: “Are there any stopping concerns with this proposal?” “Are there any concerns about the substance of this document?”

  44. thebearpelt said:

    This is slightly off-topic, but ohhhh, reading about film students. Hah. My daily life right now. Definitely had that one kid in the class who wanted to discuss their personal project that had nothing to do with the class (as an autistic, every time someone is being awkward I both suffer empathetically with them but also want to shake them and tell them what they’re doing wrong). Definitely have that one kid who always wants to talk about their camera or their mic that’s at home. Ahhh. Film students.

  45. NonramblingRose said:

    Hello again. Thanks for all the excellent advice. It’s really helped. I now have a plan:

    1. Carry on doing what I’m doing to move meetings on, and stop feeling bad about shutting Ethel down or being “rude” to her. (Getting “permission” from so many commenters to do this has been very helpful. I need to work on my thinking so I stop feeling guilty about this and instead think “OK, this is part of my job, and it’s tiring but it’s necessary.”)

    2. Continue with the strategy of creating formal agendas and allocating time to given topics – and make it even more formal by writing those time allocations down.

    3. Work on making it all feel more consensus-driven. I’ve already started circulating agendas in advance but now I’m going to circulate a draft first, so that everybody can have some input on the final version.

    4. Take steps to actively involve Ethel in the discussion. Some background on this: the previous chair once asked her to give a five-minute talk on a topic she cares about. You guessed it: the talk went on for over 20 minutes and the chair didn’t do anything to step in or wrap it up. Cue lots of restless shuffling (everybody in the room) and inward screaming (me). Since then she’s never been asked to give a five-minute talk again, though she does frequently interrupt other people’s five-minute talks or ask a super-long “question” at the end that’s four times the length of the original talk and basically consists of Here Is The Talk I Would Have Given. (She has been asked to give a “two-sentence summary” a couple of times, which of course turns into a five-minute talk…)

    But the Captain has made me realise: here’s someone who’s got energy and plenty to say, and we need a channel for that. So my plan is to actively ask her to give a talk or report on a semi-regular basis, but be strict about the five-minute limit. That will be tough to enforce but I think it’s the right way to go about it.

    5. I’m also thinking of formally allocating her the task of finding wheelchair-accessible venues for meetings and socials. Right now it’s always done by someone else, usually me, and I can never get it quite right because I’m not a wheelchair user. So I’ll ask the venue “Is your restaurant/pub/church hall wheelchair-accessible?” and get the answer “Yes.” Then I’ll bring that to the meeting, then Ethel will grill me with a bunch of follow-up questions I can’t answer, and then I have to go back to the venue, and then back to her, and she never answers her damn email, and it causes a lot of extra work. Now I’m thinking: maybe this is the perfect task for her to do because she understands her husband’s specific needs and I don’t. In fact, I’m amazed she never volunteers for this.

    6. I’m also going to think about implementing some of the “tricks” people have suggested, like the poker chips and the traffic cop thing. Not all of them, but maybe one or two. I will enlist the support of another group member who’s confided in me that they’re being driven crazy by Ethel too.

    We don’t have another formal meeting until January but maybe I’ll come back with a progress update in the New Year!

  46. Erika said:

    Hey folks! For my last (and perhaps favoritest job) I moderated permit hearings for a state EPA. That meant, in essence, that first a technical person from the stateEPA would stand up and describe details of what the company was asking for in the permit application, then I would moderate a Q&A session, then we would have formal testimony (transcribed by a court reporter). You don’t have hearings for all permits… just the ones that have “significant public interest.” That translates to “people are angry.”

    So imagine being up in front of anywhere from 10-650 people, who are angry. And they are very angry at YOU, because you are the face of stateEPA and they don’t like stateEPA. (No one likes the EPA. We used to joke that if everyone hated us, we were making good policy). People sometimes feel very strange taking charge. It does feel rude to interrupt people who are talking, especially because I am a person who doesn’t speak up in meetings much. But when you have 50 angry members of an environmental organization and 300 pro-permit union members in the same auditorium, then taking charge not only makes the meeting go more smoothly, it can prevent violence. My favorite tactic was a teeny bit of shame. I would shame people into politeness. First, the STARE. I learned this from a seasoned colleague of mine, who always wore red glasses and if anyone was rude at her hearings, she would stare at them over the glasses. It was beautiful. Secondly, was reminding them that they were all people and members of a community. “Sir, you are interrupting Mrs. Jackson. You may not be interested in her question, but there are over 300 of your friends and neighbors in this room and I’m sure many of them would like to hear this question. ”

    I know this was a long roundabout comment and that your meetings are never contentious like these hearings, but the principal is the same. Expect and enforce politeness, often by reminding the rude person that the others in the room are people whose opinions also matter. Never phrase it as a question even with your voice (Could you please? Would you please?), instead tell people straight out (Please…) And don’t be afraid of enforcing that boundary. I can’t tell you how many times I ran a hearing where people kept shouting at me (and I had them kicked out) or I had to ask people to sit down multiple times, etc. etc. And afterwards, I was ready to run out of town because I figured that people hated me. But it was always those tense meetings where people came up to me afterwards and told me what a great job I’d done running the meeting. Often the same people that I’d had to ask to sit down and be quiet. It feels rude to you to take control of the meeting, but that’s your job and people appreciate a job well done.

  47. Marie said:

    These are all good suggestions and I have nothing to add in that regard (call me Ethel, ha). But, in the interest of furthering understanding of why people do this, this behavior can also be a consequence of hearing impairment. While it may seem that someone hears just fine because you say things and they understand you, hearing loss can affect social behavior. Interrupting can result from both not hearing when someone else is talking, but also from an ingrained habit of guessing what others are saying even in hearing situations.

    Lest you think that hearing loss is the province of the ancients, a friend experienced early, significant hearing loss and did exactly those things and had no idea how annoying it was, despite my pointing it. Once her hearing was assisted, those behaviors gradually disappeared.

    Of course, you can do nothing about Ethel’s hearing, if that is even her problem, but sometimes identifying the source of problems makes it easier to be gracious. That said, being firm is still called for. Good luck and good on you for taking this leadership role.

    • Yup! My own Ethel, as it turns out, is very hearing-impaired. She wears a hearing aid, but I’m not sure how much it’s helping anymore, because she constantly interrupts, even when we’re all trying to make sure she knows what’s going on. No one bothered to tell me about her impairment until several months into my job. *headdesk*

    • NonramblingRose said:

      This made a lightbulb go on in my head! I already knew she had mild hearing problems – that’s part of the reason why we never have a meeting in a place with a lot of background noise. But I’ve only just realised that hearing problems might be responsible for one of her most irritating habits: interrupting people to ask a question to which the answer should already be clear. It’ll often go a bit like this:

      Speaker 1: “Actually, I managed to get a meeting with Barack Obama this week.”
      Everybody else: “Wow! Obama! The President of the United States!”
      Me: “Great, Lucy, could you give us a run-down of what Obama said to you about the provision of playground equipment in Slough?”
      Speaker 1: “Well, he agreed that the re-landscaping of Herschel Park is a positive development. He – ”
      Ethel: “Who? Who said this?”

      Cue people assuming she doesn’t know who Barack Obama is and explaining to her, and me feeling really annoyed that she is derailing the meeting because she can’t keep track of what’s being said.

      But now I think maybe it’s because she can’t HEAR what’s being said. And now I think about it, her behaviour in this respect is strikingly similar to the behaviour of another person I know who needs a hearing aid but doesn’t wear it. I think my plan about this is

      a) start closing the door to the room as soon as the meeting starts to block out background noise – don’t leave it open for late arrivals
      b) ask Ethel beforehand which part of the room she wants to sit in to help her hear the best.

  48. gravau said:

    If you have to look at it from a perspective of rudeness, look at it this way: Every time Ethel digresses, she is being unspeakably rude to everybody in the group by wasting their precious, volunteered time. It is you job to save Ethel from completely losing face.

  49. kerricklucker said:

    If you have allies in the group who are good speakers but often get talked over, you can strategize with them in advance of the meeting, while crafting the agenda. “Guadalupe, I know this topic is a really important one to you and you’ve done a lot of research. I’d like to give you three to five minutes to explain what you’ve found out to everyone, without interruption, and then have time for questions and responses.” “Beulah, I know you’re good at getting to the heart of critical issues with your incisive questions. I’m inviting Guadalupe to introduce this topic she’s already researched, but I hope you’ll be prepared with a few questions that will help us understand this issue more deeply.” Then introduce the topic at the meeting like so: “It’s time to discuss Critical Issue. Guadalupe has done some research and will share her findings with us, and Beulah has prepared some important questions for further consideration. After this, we’ll have time for general discussion, and because I know many of you will have burning questions I’ll keep stack.” (Does anyone else use this term? Keeping stack? I forget if that’s a co-op specific thing. Listing the people who raise hands in order and calling on people in that order. Sorry if it’s unclear.)

    An unethical facilitator could use these techniques to shut out voices they don’t want to hear from, but by keeping control of the meeting, you’re actually helping everyone talk about the business at hand.

    You could also give Ethel a job that precludes extensive talking. Maybe she could take notes? (I find if I’m taking notes at a meeting, I have a hard time coming up with anything to say unless I planned it well in advance.) It’s possible that she’s worried about being seen as just Robert’s tag-along attendant and wants to contribute somehow.

  50. Sarah said:

    A tool my boss uses (that I believe she got from a PD at the Kennedy Center) is the Parking Lot. When someone has a question or thought that is not precisely on topic, right in this moment, they’re invited to write it on a sticky note and stick it to the giant piece of paper labeled the Parking Lot. At the very end of the meeting you leave 5 minutes to ask the group if there is anything in the parking lot that should be discussed now. The majority has to agree for the topic to be discussed with everyone. Otherwise, the small group that feels the issue is important can find a time to talk separately.
    Sometimes just the act of writing the idea down is enough for the Ethels of the world! They’re being heard, but not taking everyone’s time. Also, it can become a “I’m hearing you!” alternative to constantly shutting Ethel down. You can just say “great one for the parking lot!” and hand her the stickies. The parking lot is a good thing! Not a chiding! And everyone can read everyone’s ideas on their own time, and you can adopt any important points into next week’s agenda!

    • NonramblingRose said:

      The Parking Lot has already been introduced and discussed by commenters upthread. I’ve taken note!

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