Work meetings are getting wrecked by people who won't shut up

Pilita Clark: An ability to interrupt yammering windbags who steal time is a sorely underrated skill

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The other day I had a conversation with a woman who said she was dropping out of an evening class she used to enjoy for one depressing reason. Another woman had joined who would not shut up. On and on she would drone, usually about herself, regardless of the topic, the time or the occasional polite effort to staunch her remorseless blabbering. It made the whole class a tiresome mess.

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“Why doesn’t the instructor tell her to be quiet?” I asked.

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“He can’t,” came the answer. “He doesn’t seem to have any idea how to do it.”

Listening to this tale, my first thought was that the instructor had no business running any sort of meeting. But it was also a reminder that the ability to interrupt the yammering windbags who make work meetings a misery is a sorely underrated skill.

If you think this an inconsequential problem, you are wrong.

Researchers estimate that workers went to about 55 million meetings a day in the United States alone in 2015 and more than 80 million in the lockdown year of 2020. By 2022, it is thought there were still at least 62 million.

It is difficult to calculate precisely how many were wrecked by tiresome talkers because the way we rate meetings depends on whether we called them or not.

As U.S. meetings expert, professor Steven Rogelberg, has written, meeting leaders consistently rate their gatherings more highly than non-leaders. And if you talk a lot in a meeting (as leaders often do) you are more likely to think everything went well.

Still, Rogelberg’s studies have shown that 15 per cent of workers overall deem their meetings “poor or very poor.”

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There are many meeting menaces that could explain this: the consistently late, the passive mute, the ideas-crushing critic and, most tediously, the routine meeting that was never needed in the first place.

But even if only a fraction of that 15 per cent hold this view because their meetings are overwhelmed by overtalkers, that still translates into many thousands of meetings sabotaged by unnecessary or sidetracking blather. This probably helps to explain why the number of books on how to hold a meeting continues to multiply.

Amazon offers titles that include 2022’s How to Chair an Effective Meeting, 2021’s Hold Successful Meetings and 2004’s Death by Meeting. Rogelberg’s comprehensive The Surprising Science of Meetings arrived in 2019 and he has followed up this year with a guide to one-to-one meetings called Glad We Met.

These books always make me grateful I work at a newspaper, where tight deadlines generally make meetings short and life difficult for the would-be drone. Also, journalists are often asked to moderate panel discussions, where tactful interruption skills are honed.

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One of my colleagues likes to go on stage and announce he has a loud and obnoxious phone alarm that will go off as soon as any panellist goes over their allotted speaking time, a ploy he says works remarkably well.

Others simply apologize to speakers in advance for the fact that they will be brutally cut off if they go on too long, bore the audience and steal time from the rest of the panel.

Back in the office, more subtle methods are required.

The best meeting leaders do something that too many avoid: set a firm deadline for the meeting to end and figure out if dominant speakers are stopping others from contributing. This makes it easier to interrupt culprits by reminding them time is ticking and then saying something like, “That’s a great point but I’d like to hear what Alex thinks.”

Some leaders prefer the so-called jellyfish rule, where anyone in a meeting can interrupt if they feel the discussion is being derailed or drifting, as jellyfish do, by simply saying “Jellyfish!” This is allegedly fun and effective but reminds me of a scene from The Office and is clearly not for everyone.

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Still, other interruption strategies abound, even for non-leaders. They can politely butt in to ask, “Sorry but can I just check I understand that?” or “Can I just jump in to add something on that?”

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All this is clearly harder if the meeting leader is also the chief prattler. Here, a measure of guile is required. Attendees must make it clear ahead of time they have to be elsewhere shortly. This allows them to check their watch, sigh, and utter those marvellously welcome meeting words: “Ah, look at the time, is there anything else we need to cover?”

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.

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