Interrupting Conversation At Meetings

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about disturbing conduct in meetings.

We have a Lion’s member, who is constantly interrupting others when speaking at our Lion’s meetings. How can we tactfully stop her from talking out of turn so much? Some member are so disgusted with her, they actually want to quit our club.

Signed, Tactful

Dear Tactful:

Apparently, you and other club members are so tactful that you tolerate rude behavior. When young, we should have learned turn-taking. When in school, our instructors insisted or should insisted on polite interaction. When in a work staff meeting, a wise leader holds those there to speak to the agenda and prevents anyone from monopolizing the deliberations.Your head Lion ought to tighten up the conduct within a meeting. It is she/he who sets forth the order of a session and that calls for establishing a friendly climate and reasonably, but not slavishly, attending to the agenda.

It is wise for a chair of a meeting to set time limits upfront, and during the meeting to use his/her judgment in allowing others to have the floor–who speaks when and how long. For your regular sessions, your head Lion or a designee usually introduces a speaker, specifies and maintains time limits for speaking and questions, and that also should entail allocating a fair distribution of comments/questions.

During a business session, your head Lion is responsible for holding members to the agenda, soliciting opinions for all quarters, and following procedures for debating and deciding matters. Whether in a public or business meeting, whoever is in charge should be responsible to stop excessive interruptions. It is easier to establish a rule that individuals, who interrupt, will be stopped than to correct that one who interrupts. But a chair should be prepared to say to one who interrupts, something like, “John, please allow our speaker to finish what she is saying” or “Jane, we understand you have something to add, but not now while another person is speaking.” Sometimes a hand raised with a stop gesture can help make that point.

In short, the chair of a meeting is responsible for civility. I don’t know your position in the club, but if the situation is as disruptive as you describe, someone, probably one of your officers, needs to arrange a private time-out with your interrupting member. Such a time-out, of course, is a delicate matter, but there need be no apology for firmly voicing displeasure with too many interruptions. “Jane, I’ve ask for this session with you because it seems you are not aware that you have a pattern of interrupting. I find this distracts and is impolite. I’m speaking for myself, but other members also told me they feel this way too. I have hesitated to say anything before because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Our club needs enthusiastic persons like you, but somehow you haven’t learned to monitor and manage when it is appropriate to jump into an on-going session. What do you understand that I’ve said?”

Such a conversation should lead to a follow-up agreement to learn if this person is willing to try to mange her future impulses to interrupt. Or if you would feel it more tactful, in an informal private conversation, you or someone might take a more indirect questioning approach, such as, “John, how do you feel our Lion meetings are going? Do you enjoy them? Is there anything that we might do to make them better?” This should lead to a conversation in which you might make clear what is on your mind about the rules of polite, yet vigorous, interaction.

Or yet another approach to this problem is to make talk an important item in a business session; or at least in a meeting of your officers. When officers meet they should ask: how well are we doing as a club? Undoubtedly if the problem of interruptions is as potentially member losing as you say, then in that meeting, the problem of interruptions would call for establishing a policy that would prevent and control them. Talk about talk thus can result in surfacing both feelings that something hurts your club and thoughts that might correct that hurt.

Possibly a short set of rules about how the decorum of a meeting can be engaging and civil. You, for example, might create a short list of communication rules for those who chair a meeting and for those in attendance. (As you probably know the reasons of Robet’s Rules of Order were created to control and manage meetings. Likely your club does not need or want rigid rules of order, but some talk rules apparently are needed to manage interruptions.) Presenting such a list could serve as educative and informative. Your officers or club as a whole could then hammer out what talk-rules make sense for your club. Then they could determine how to post what is agreed and whether to give them a try for the next several meetings. Remember scheduling a trial and a review of a new policy is good business. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that is a byproduct of the Lions. You have a mission that begins and continues via good communication and communication that is both functional and enriching in the company of other Lions. My best to you.

William Gorden