Meetings: This Guy Just Won’t Shut Up!

Question:

I am on a small team of five people. We have had the same issue over and over again. Every time we have a meeting that includes one of our peers, he sees that time as his opportunity to continually pontificate on issues that he has worked on, state and re-state his ideas for how things should go, and just generally go on and on and on. The issue is so extreme that I have found myself wondering if he has some mental or emotional issues. When someone else is speaking, I get the feeling that he’s not listening, so much as he is waiting for the other person to shut up, so that he can talk again. He will continue talking about his issues, concerns and experiences regardless of whether or not we have limited time, an agenda, or engagements following the meeting. I’ve yet to have a meeting with him in which we haven’t gone significantly over time because he keeps on talking. When we finally do tell him that we have to end the meeting, he sits there looking at us as if we are being insensitive. What can his peers do in order to 1., help him realize what he’s doing and 2., keep our sanity?

Signed,

Tired Of Listening To The Talker


Answer:

Dear Tired Of Listening To The Talker:

Thank you for following up with some clarifying information.

There’s no way to know your co-worker’s exact feelings and thoughts. However, his actions and reactions indicate that he feels the same way many long-time employees feel about newcomers who seem to arrive and take over. The long-time employee has seen people and processes come and go, feels he has paid his dues, has loyally stayed with the same company, and should be considered the go-to person and the informal leader of the team. You can bet that almost from the first day you and your group started solidifying, he started feeling shutout and not treated as a significant member of the team, and resented it terribly. It also seems that those feelings may be valid for him, in that you and the others do feel that he is not at the level of thinking that is needed by the group and that he doesn’t have what it takes to keep up; and you may be right. It will be up to your manager to find out what he is contributing that is needed by the team, or what he contributes on his own that is valuable for the organization. It would be beneficial for you to consider those things as well, if only to allow you to tolerate him if that’s required.

In the meantime, talking excessively in meetings; the issue you specifically asked about and that seems to be the most disruptive right now; seems to be his way of establishing his role as an experienced, knowledgeable senior employee; and gives him a chance to impress the new manager. Whatever his motivation, the fact remains that he is being uncaring of others, being offensive, and should change his actions before he completely isolates himself and keeps the team from being effective.

It sounds as though your new manager will take some action eventually. However, often that takes awhile, since the new person doesn’t want to be punitive right away. I think your role right now is to be the catalyst for managerial response, while working from a peer level as well.

Consider some of the following: 1. Write a memo or email to the manager and briefly state your concerns about the time factor with meetings. Suggest a stop time that can only be changed if the information is so crucial that more time is clearly needed. Your manager will probably know what problem you’re referring to!

You could volunteer to draft a brief message to accompany the notice of the next meeting, reminding people of the time frame and telling them to plan so the time can be used most effectively and with respect for everyone involved. You could also volunteer to have a leadership role by keeping time, helping prepare the agenda and making sure all items are covered, or do some other task.

This type of involvement for you is a touchy situation because you don’t want to appear to be setting-up the co-worker, nor do you want to appear to be telling the manager how to manage. You know your situation and culture best, and may not think that is a good option. However, without some action of that kind, your manager may think he is alone in his feelings about the over-talking employee.

You could ask to meet with the manager and express all of your feelings about this employee. However, I think it’s better to let the manager get the full picture on his own. If it seems he isn’t going to take action, it would be very appropriate, then, to express your frustration and ask for his help in finding a solution.

2. Consider suggesting a meeting to discuss the goals of the team and how to accomplish them. Suggest that one topic be communication, especially in meetings. At least that way the opinions of all can be expressed. Say in the open that you think there have been problem about staying on-topic and within the time frame. There may have to be an out-in-the-open confrontation, but at least that would let the manager know where people stand.

3. Consider the two components of every conversation with this employee; someone else and him. Take away the audience and the conversation stops. That also applies if you are dealing with someone who gossips, complains, talks politics, or simply talks too much, and it applies in groups and individually.

Personality and organizational culture has a lot to do with how such situations are handled. In most situations a civil approach is best, if for no other reason than that you don’t want to appear to be part of the problem.

Think about what has been done in the past to stop unnecessarily lengthy conversations. If people have tried to be nice, pleasant and subtle, that indicates it’s time to ratchet it up a notch or ten. You never want to say something that is designed to be hurtful or deliberately rude, but this person isn’t your close friend, and all you need is a working relationship, so you can be tougher than you might be otherwise.

In personal conversations the easiest way is to say the words that indicate you’re done with the conversation: “Hey Dave, I’m going to have to get back to work now.” Or, “I understand what you’re saying Dave. Now I have to get back to work.” Or, if you have to be more abrupt, “Dave. Stop. You’ve already covered that topic thoroughly, please don’t start it again. I have to get back to work.”

3. In meetings the challenge for you will be to accept that you really should be listening to your co-worker when he talks, even if he doesn’t seem to be contributing very much. If he’s not contributing anything, it’s up to the manager to deal with it.

Time management in meetings is everyone’s responsibility, to some extent. Personnel issues are the manager’s responsibility. In one-on-one conversations it’s up to you. In the meetings, if a manager is present, you can nudge action, but not blatantly initiate all of it. Here’s some things that might work in meetings, all based on one issue: You need to model the right way to participate. Never let it be said that you created problems too! The following suggestions are perfectly good ways to keep meetings moving.

Listen and take notes about the things the employee says, as long as the comments are valid. When there is no link to the topic and you can’t find a single reason to take notes or listen, deliberately put down your pen, set your notes on the table or push them away slightly, and take yourself out of the obvious listening mode. Don’t act bored or fidgety, just sit back somewhat to indicate the remarks are no longer on-topic.

(Sometimes remarks are off-topic but, what the heck, they’re kind of interesting! Nevertheless, the same guidelines need to apply to all. You and everyone else have to abide by the same guidelines.) Give your manager a chance to move things along. Look to him for cues about whether he is intently listening or not. If the speaker keeps talking, your next actions may involve some of these: *If you have a comment to make: Lean forward to make eye contact with the speaker and hold your hand up slightly to indicate you want to contribute. If he acknowledges you, make your comment and look for a way to ask someone else if they have thoughts about it.

*If you think someone else has a comment, do the same thing, and if acknowledged by the speaker, say, “I think John has something he wants to say.” Then turn to John and say, “John, didn’t you have something about this you wanted to mention?” (Look at your watch) I know we have limited time, so I wanted to be sure you had a chance to do that.”

(Getting together with co-workers ahead of time isn’t a bad idea for this strategy.) *If you want to stop the entire topic, lean forward, touch your watch significantly, make eye contact with the speaker, pause that way for about fifteen seconds, then jump in with, “Dave, sorry to interrupt you.” Immediately make eye contact with the leader, “I’m concerned about our time. There are a couple of other things we need to cover and it seems we’ve covered this one. Could this topic be continued outside the meeting so we could move on?” You’ll either get slapped down or appreciated!

*If you’re talking and the employee isn’t listening give him plenty of eye contact, but toss a follow-up question to someone else. “Bill, do you have anything to add to that?”

*If you want to be daring, as you wrap up your comments look at Dave, smile and say, “Dave, I can tell by the look on your face that you want to say something. I’m open for questions about my thoughts.”

That forces him to either ask you a question, which may be valid, or to say, “No, I want to talk about something else.”

If that’s the case, you can interrupt him briefly to say, “Oh, then let me finish this up, because there’s still a bit to cover. Hopefully your manager will provide the guidance for this, to keep the agenda going.

If he asks you a question, you can handle it appropriately, then go back to wrapping up before looking significantly at the leader for the next topic.

*If time is short and you are speaking, start with or add, “I see we only have fifteen minutes left, so I’ll be brief with this out of respect for everyone’s time.”

Or, if you need to ask a question of someone else, “Greg, we only have fifteen minutes left, but could you briefly share what we were talking about regarding the XYZ issue?”

*If Dave is talking off-topic and has done so for a while, say, “Dave, sorry to interrupt you, but we were talking about XYZ and I need to know more about it. Can we get back to that and continue this later?”

Throughout all of this you have to be careful to not usurp the manager’s role. That’s why communicating your concerns about meetings is so important ahead of time. The manager will be aware of what you are trying to achieve and will either support you or tell you right up front that he will handle it if it needs handling.

When the meeting is over and Dave continues to talk, be the one to look at the manager and say, “Ted, I have to get back to work now. Are we through?” Often that will break it up. At least you get to leave!

If you are walking out and Dave detains you, insist upon leaving. If he accuses you of deliberately brushing him off, be as honest as you can be, “Yes Dave, I AM avoiding you right now. We’re done with the meeting and I’m ready to go back to work.” Then, walk away.

The key point is to stick with it and never give in, but always be professional. It doesn’t help to do heavy sighs, rolled eyes, wiggling and squirming in your chairs, making eye contact with others and acting disgusted; those aren’t professional and don’t model good behavior. What works is being a contributor, encouraging positive contributions and watching the time, within the limits of what your manager will allow.

A final thought is this: If you ever get the chance to express your frustrations and irritations directly to Dave, the talker, do so. Be as open and blunt as possible. “Dave, you just said you felt we shut you out in meetings. That’s because you monopolize the time and talk incessantly about things that aren’t even on the agenda. Everyone is tired of listening to you do that and we’re not going to let you anymore.”

Don’t get in a big argument with him, just state your case.

If he says or does anything else that you think contributes to the unpleasantness, say something right then. “Dave, we know you think there are problems with the company. But I’m trying to have a good day here, so could you hold off on the complaining until sometime when I feel like being depressed?” (That’s one way to put it!)

I think your key to success in this is to work with your new manager and on your own, keeping in mind that Dave may be there for years to come. You want to be able to work with him. You just don’t want to have to deal with his problem behaviors anymore.

Dr. Gorden has added his thoughts, which follow this. Best wishes as you develop a plan of action. If you have the time and wish to do so, please keep us informed of what happens.

Dr. Gorden’s thoughts: A team doesn’t work well by chance; nor is it ever free from conflict. A team can be excitedly productive accomplishing more than each of its members can working alone, but a team also can be exceedingly more frustrating than working solo. In your case, from what you tell us, you and at least three others of your five-team mates are at your wits end because one member appears to be obsessive-compulsive about expressing himself.

Here are the several approaches you might consider to cope with and possibly transform your frustration:

1. Think through the reason for the composition of your team membership. Is it a composed of a natural workgroup? Are its members each important to its mission? How did it get to be a five- member team? Is it possible that this disruptive individual might be transferred to another work group or might he be more productive working solo? Is it important that he reports to the team?

2. Think through the mission and communication needed for your team? If you had your druthers, what would make it maximally productive? Also, if you were its new manager, what would you do to move it in this direction? If you were he, would you reconfigure its membership? Would you take Mr. Talk-Talk aside and do some counseling/coaching? Might it be that this self-absorbed individual could learn how to contribute constructively, even though you might characterize him as not the best crayon in the box, and have something to bring your team because of his working his way up and other capabilities? Your answers to Tina Rowe’s questions tell me that you have given a lot of thought to this matter. 3. Now once you are reasonably clear in your own mind about the above questions, meet privately with your new manager. Share your thinking and commitment to making your team maximally effective. Also ask how he sees your team so far? This will focus your and his conversation on what might be done to make it more effective. Your new manager may or may not have experience with team communication; creating and adhering to an agenda, using varied problem-solving formats, encouraging constructive roles: building on, joining rather than judging other’s ideas, playing the devil’s advocate to foster rigorous weighing of possible answers, encouraging others to contribute, preventing domination by over-talkative members, rephrasing for clarification, internal summaries and summing up, etc. Also your teammates may not be as effective in team communication as is needed, especially when it comes to dealing with dysfunctional participation. 4. I suggest that your new manager should meet separately with each of your team members to learn what is their thinking. He then will have an opportunity to learn how each sees the team is functioning and what they each think might make it more productive. The new manager also will then have the opportunity to learn how each thinks her/his participation might be more effective, and he would thereby have an opportunity to counsel/coach with such personal matters as perceiving that other’s are not listening and being disrespected. 5. These conferences with your new manager are a prelude to team talk about team talk. Probably the most effective training a new manager might propose is that your team should audio or video tape a meeting or two and then to listen critically to it together; pointing up the communicative behaviors that facilitate and acknowledging those that frustrate. Possibly a group process facilitator might walk your team through such a learning experience. The important outcome of such a training technique is team discussion and construction of a set of dos and don’ts for team meetings.

6. The essence of a team taking time out to discuss its communication, either with or without the aid of taping its meetings, is that a team learns to talk about its talk. One of the overarching questions that teams fail to address often enough is: How well are we communicating? Team talk about team talk should always be on: What are we doing well and what might we do to be more effective in problem-solving and goal accomplishment? You have begun this team talk process by contacting us. Now it is time to see if our suggestions make sense and/or spur you to more creative approaches to solving your long-standing frustration with team meetings. I usually sum up my thoughts with the sentence; working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

Bill Gorden





Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.