How Do I Stop People From Interrupting at Meetings?

Meetings are the bane of office worker life, but they are even more painful when you can't finish your thought because people keep interrupting. Short of screaming "shut up!" What can you do to prevent this kind of rudeness? Our experts tackle this tricky topic.

"I can't wait for this meeting!" said no one ever.

But while no one likes meetings, they are a necessary part of working life and thankfully there are ways to make them less painful. But even if you do everything to make the meeting efficient and engaging, you can still get derailed by unexpected and unwelcome interruptions.

This week's reader question comes from CL, and is answered by CMO of Gannett Maryam Banikarim and cofounder of fashion site Zady, Soraya Darabi.

People are always interrupting with questions and comments during presentations and meetings. We've tried sending the presentation in advance, but it seems to happen all the time no matter what is done to prevent it. What are some effective ways to deal with chronic interrupters and keep everyone on task and meetings to run on time?

Thanks,
CL


Dear CL,

The first step is to set up ground rules at the beginning of your next meeting with the clear and stated goal of having more effective meetings/presentations going forward.

The key to a great meeting is preparation before hand (including making sure the right people are in the room), clear goals for the meeting, a set agenda and a good facilitator to keep everyone on track.

I’m a big fan of having clear next steps as well as follow up notes being sent out post meeting so everyone is on the same page.

Set who is in charge.
Establish a clear owner/facilitator for your meeting. This person should outline what the goals of the meeting are--in essence, what are you hoping to accomplish by getting this group of people together.

Create an agenda.
It is critical to have and distribute a clear agenda right up front. Your agenda should outline the various parts of the meeting and have clear times for each section/activity as well as a set “start and end” time.

Build in breaks.
Set breaks, and places for where feedback or questions are welcome. If your meeting goes for longer than an hour, you need breaks. It’s important to ask people to put away their technology so that you can have focused attention while you are all together. Breaks to allow people to check emails, return calls, and walk around so they don’t get antsy.

Redirecting during the meeting

During a meeting if people go off track, the meeting facilitator needs to feel empowered to redirect the attention and get everyone back on track. Stop the interrupters nicely and remind them that there is a window where there will be room for feedback.

A great trick, is to hand out notepads, where folks are asked to jot down ideas/questions that come up--in essence a place for them to park the idea that might spark, so that they don't feel its lost--and can refer to it and raise it during the discussion part of the meeting.

Productive meetings make everyone feel like their time was used well, that they accomplished something as a group that couldn’t have been done otherwise, and they will be appreciative of the process put into place to have accomplished the goal that was set out for the meeting. And the interrupters, which are getting in the way of your meeting will go by the wayside.


Hi CL,

I agree this can be problematic, because often the questions asked during the middle of a slide-based presentation are questions that the ensuing slides would answer.

To curb this problem, I wouldn't send the presentation ahead-of-time, but rather begin every meeting with a firm declaration:

"In my 12-minute presentation there will be 12 slides. These 12 slides will detail how our team plans to execute on ____ and ____ and ____ . Please reserve all questions until the very end. You may be tempted to ask questions in the middle, but if we could wait until the end, it would be helpful and will allow us to remain on track."

If your colleagues begin to ask questions anyway, do not answer their questions! Stick to your guns and state, "great points and if the question is not addressed in the next few slides, please be sure to ask me again at the end of the presentation." They'll get the hint.

Sometimes the question-asker will be a jerk and won't want to wait, at which point you can be cheeky and crack a joke about patience being a virtue.

And if that doesn't work, practice ahead of the meeting a solid response to every curve-ball you could be asked. Having a whip-smart answer to a question you didn't see coming could just become your strongest selling point.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

[Image: Flickr user Daniel Spils]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Heather Dahmer

    I think it is important that the Purpose and process of the meeting (ie. introduce, present, then questions) needs to be addressed in the invitation as well. There are different methods and presentation styles. Some presenters prefer questions throughout the meeting as it increases the involvement of the audience. Some presenters, want to get through their content and not be interrupted. If this is a Training meeting, it is important for your attendees to ask questions. Make sure you clearly specify the Purpose and Process of the meeting in advance, and reiterate it at the beginning of the session.

  • Joe Brown

    You sent the material out in advance and you don't want any comments or questions. Why exactly are you having a meeting?

  • I agree with Soraya's advice especially the part about not sending the deck out in advance.If all the information is on the slides there is really no need to hold a meeting! I'd also suggest having a check to see why the team feel the need to be heard so much at these meetings. Are they given enough opportunity to communicate their views to leadership outside of formal meetings? Interruption can often be how an extroverted individual demonstrates stress or a desire to be recognized. Their interruption may not be intended to be disrespectful of you, rather a bid to be heard.

  • Appoint a "traffic cop" who will make a note of any good ideas that should be discussed, but are not on the current agenda.

    "That's a great point...let's make a note to talk about it next week...back to the issue at hand..." Still allows the person to feel validated without totally sidetracking the discussion.