I was coaching a leader recently who is preparing for an ambitious three-day workshop with other industry influencers. Her goal: to generate ideas and recommendations for a white paper designed to influence industry and government policy. Big goal. Limited time. No pressure, right?
Together, we applied the communications best practices, tools and techniques to each scenario she’d encounter as host, facilitator and presenter ― until we got to the likely elephants in each room: the time-eaters. (We all know them. We may be them!) And this gathering of experts and influencers didn’t get where they are today by being wallflowers.
So how, she asked, do I keep us on time and on track to achieve our 72-hour goal?
The answer: “strategic interrupting.” Yes, this is a thing ― and here’s how to do it without making (too many) enemies.
Put Interrupting on the Agenda
Prior to the event, send an email to all participants that includes the following:
- The event objective and the limited time you have to achieve it
- Why it’s critical to gather everyone’s input
- How time will be managed so each participant can contribute
- Expectation-setting about time constraints, including a heads-up that you may have to interrupt and how you will do so. A couple of ideas:
- Prior to the meeting, think of a visual you will use to signal “time.” Your hand or a watch. Maybe an object that has relevance to your shared goal (product mockup, industry award or some other prize)In the meeting, when you need to interrupt someone, you can hold up the object for a few seconds, then politely but firmly say “[NAME], I need to interrupt due to time.”
- If their train of thought warrants future discussion, jot it down in some version of a “parking lot” or “idea bank” for follow up after the meeting or at the next one (just make sure you make good on that promise).
By doing this, you’ve created an environment in which interruption is an expectation, not an insult.
Follow Through Using Tailored Approaches
Begin your meeting by restating the rules of engagement from your pre-meeting email. Then be prepared to “interrupt strategically” based on the kind of time-eater you’re dealing with.
Identify and Interrupt Different Types of Time-Eaters
Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity at Loyola University in Chicago, and author of this article on strategic interrupting, has defined several types of time-eaters. Here are the three I see most frequently and how they can be characterized and managed:
1. The Meeting Dominators: Those who monopolize the meeting and jeopardize its goals because the other experts can’t get a word in edgewise.
How to Interrupt: Just like you promised in your email and meeting introduction, hold up the object (if you decide to use one) and say your go-to phrase (loudly if needed). Jack, I need to interrupt due to time. Thank you for your input. Let’s also hear what Allana and Blake have to say.
If you have repeat offenders on the team, Geisler advises connecting with them privately ahead of time: “Let them know you value their input but also need their help getting other voices into the conversation. Ask them to hold back as you encourage the full range of input ― and then join in.” For quieter team members; same thing. Before the meeting reach out and encourage them to share their input and ask if they’d like you to help insert them into the conversation.
2. The Subject Changer: The ones who seem to be on board with the agenda going in but are prone to detours with what Geisler calls whataboutism: Excessive overtime? What about the IT department’s record?
How to Interrupt: With gentle directions to the parking lot/idea bank. Janet, let’s bank your idea/question and give it the time it deserves at a later date. We need to get back to [the topic/outcome for the meeting].
3. The Meandering Messenger: Those who talk in research papers rather than headlines. Their points may be valid, but they take too long to make them.
How to Interrupt: Geisler recommends using strategic interruption to also provide helpful guidance. The appropriate level of guidance may vary depending on the event setting and attendees. Some feedback you may want to share in a one-on-one follow-up, but it’s helpful to at least provide some context.
- During the event: Pat, I need to jump in for just a second. I appreciate that you want to give us the full picture, but given our time constraints, can you give us the headline/topline first? We can always dig in from there if it helps us get to [event outcome].
- One-on-one follow up: Pat, I always appreciate your contributions, but if you could keep my feedback about starting with the headline/topline in mind for future meetings, that would be really helpful. There’s just not always time to get into the weeds on any given topic right from the start. If you lead off with the most important idea, it will help the group quickly understand and prioritize the topic.
Interrupting isn’t easy. But in a business climate of short meetings and even shorter attention spans, strategic interruption is a leadership skill that can mean the difference between meeting fatigue and mission accomplished.
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