Influencer QA

What To Do When Coworkers Monopolize Your Meetings

Dear David,

I work at a university where there is significant group work in the form of meetings or committees. In some of these meetings, a few people have a significant and vocal opinion about every agenda item. Every single one, every single time. I’ve noticed that these opinionated individuals speak to the point of soap boxing. Those of us who are indifferent or aren’t as vocal have grown tired of waiting our turn and check out of the meeting. It feels rather unproductive and pointless to hold a meeting since these gatherings are no longer about hearing from everyone but about hearing from the vocal minority. In addition, it has become an unsafe environment to voice a dissenting opinion—creating a lot of tension. What suggestions would you have to break up this meeting monopoly?

Sincerely,
Exasperated

Dear Exasperated,

I think we can all relate to your situation: sitting in endless meetings that accomplish little other than destroying participants’ motivation and morale. And certain kinds of environments foster the worst kinds of meetings where people act as if they were at a debating society or a congressional committee meeting. The good news is that fixing meetings is relatively straightforward. I’ll suggest a few actions for getting started.

Take ownership for the meeting.
One thing I’ve noticed about bad meetings is that everyone hates them, but few take responsibility for their failures. Begin by recognizing that your acceptance of bad norms reinforces those very norms. Change this situation by meeting with the meeting leader and suggesting the changes I’m going to recommend—as well as any other changes you believe would help. Don’t blame the leader for the bad meetings. You are all responsible and must all work together to create new norms.

Name the problems and create ground rules.
Create a list of the problem behaviors that derail your current meetings. Be prepared to describe the impacts these behaviors have on decisions, wasted time, and morale. And think about a small number of ground rules that would prevent these problem behaviors. Try to limit the ground rules to five or less.

Schedule a special meeting or agenda item to discuss these problem behaviors and proposed ground rules. Use this meeting to model the ground rules you’d like to see adopted. Your goal is to get buy-in for testing the ground rules. Post a sign that labels the problem behaviors and the ground rules. Be open to changing the ground rules as you see which of them work and which don’t.

Example: “One of our problems is a lack of balance in participation. Some people tend to dominate, while others don’t say anything. As a ground rule, let’s limit comments to two minutes and check in with people who haven’t spoken up.”

Use an agenda with topics and time limits.
Every meeting participant should receive an agenda at least a day in advance. This is especially important when you have introverts and others who prefer to prepare in advance, rather than speak off the cuff. In addition to beginning and ending times, the agenda should have time estimates for each topic. Participants and the meeting leader must then use these time limits to manage time during the meeting.

Example: A meeting participant says, “We only have 10 minutes left on this item. We haven’t heard from Suzy and John. Why don’t we get their perspective and then move on.”

Decide how to decide.
Many of the problems I’ve seen in meetings stem from confusion over what participants are being asked to provide. Often, there is misunderstanding over who owns the decision rights. Are team members being asked for their input, or does the team have the authority to make the decision? If they do own the decision, how do they decide among options?

Make the decision process clear for each topic on the agenda. The main alternatives are:

  • Command: The decision has already been made and the team is being informed about it. Often the decision maker wants the team’s help in implementing the decision.
  • Consult: Team members are being asked for their input. They may help to identify and evaluate options, but they won’t be making the actual decision.
  • Vote: The team is making the decision and is voting to decide among options. Voting favors efficiency over dialogue, so it only works when all team members feel they can support whichever option wins. In my experience, voting is rarely used.
  • Consensus: Talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. Consensus is appropriate only when dealing with a.) High-stakes and complex issues, or b.) Issues where everyone must support the final choice.

Example: The participant who has a particular topic on the agenda says, “This is a consult. I want your input on . . . ”

Hold each other accountable. Don’t rely exclusively on the meeting leader to keep the meeting on track. Participants need to speak up when they see problem behaviors and to remind others of the ground rules.

Example: “John, we’ve heard from you already. Let’s stick to the two-minute rule and see what others might add. If there’s time, we can come back to you.”

Tips on stopping soapboxing.
I’m guilty of this myself. I enjoy thinking on my feet and I talk when I’m thinking through an idea. I don’t mean to dominate. Not really.

Here are some tips to stop people like me from doing all the talking.

  • Take notes on a white board or flip chart. Document the person’s point, and then stop them from repeating him or herself. Paraphrasing can serve this same purpose, but isn’t as effective as writing down what the person has said.
  • Give everyone two-minutes of silence to think about, and write down, their ideas on a topic.
  • Use a two-minute speaking rule to force people to be concise.
  • After the person has spoken, have several others give their input before allowing the first person to speak again.
  • Ask the person to provide further input after the meeting, perhaps in writing.

This is a topic that is familiar to many readers. Can everyone pitch in to help by sharing your best tips for keeping meetings effective, efficient, and on track? To share your best meeting tips, comment below.

Best of luck in getting your meetings back on track.

Sincerely,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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24 thoughts on “What To Do When Coworkers Monopolize Your Meetings”

  1. Simply putting a digital clock on the table where everyone can see it transformed a monthly executive staff meeting that I was responsible for managing. Most times, I used my iPhone with a clock app with large numbers. We went from straying off point and agenda topics bleeding into one another to a very efficient yet effective discussion. There were plenty of others behaviors to correct for (not all of them successfully) but the clock had the most visible and lasting impact.

  2. always have an agency in advance – I use the acronym PAL for Purpose, Agenda, Length. Be specific about what the actions/discussion points are and the expected outcomes/decisions. That helps people come to meetings prepared to discuss.

    stating the desired outcome and the process to get there can help with drifting, and they may buy into the process a little easier. Ground rules are essential.

    I have also been in a work group that used handheld signs with words like “too deep” or “parking lot” of “off topic” to help keep discussion on track while also “voicing” their opinion without verbal interruption and talking over each other. Also brought a lighter, almost humorous feel to the meeting.

  3. Where I see teams go off track at the very beginning stems from three major causes:
    1. They don’t know who decides. Similar to what David has written, we are either being informed of a past decision, are providing input into someone else’s future decision, or we are the deciders. When we are the deciders, we need to be careful of the pros and cons of each type: Voting can lead to lobbying, taking sides, vote trading, winners and losers. Consensus is best the goals are clear and everyone agrees; otherwise it can lead to compromise, negotiations and substandard outcomes.
    2. They don’t decide what success looks like – before they discuss the topic. I recommend that you decide on what a good decision looks like – decision-making criteria – BEFORE beginning brainstorming. Set the actual limits on the table – it can’t cost more that $X, it must be done by Y Date, it must meet this quality/production goal, etc.
    Examine them closely to make sure you don’t have artificial limits in place. Once you have those real limits in place, then you have a box to brainstorm inside of.
    This prevents us from spending time and energy on solutions we can’t implement. It also gives you touchstones when someone insists on a solution that doesn’t match your decision-making criteria – either they have a unspoken criteria, or we missed something in setting up the criteria and need to revisit it. This allows you to ask someone to articulate their objection in an objective, goal-focused way, and stay out of personal motives.
    3. They have lost sight of what stage of the decision process they are in. If I still think we are brainstorming, and you think we are creating process based on a finalized decision, we are never going to agree.
    The group needs to remember what kinds of behaviors they want at different stages of the process, and agree to skip backwards and forwards if they either missed something, or have better agreement than they thought. This allows the brainstormers to have their time in the sun, and the process thinkers to shine when we are in that stage.

  4. The biggest and most productive meetings I have run where for a huge project with tight timelines and intensive Upper and Upper Upper Level Management scrutiny. My co-coordinator and I started each day’s meeting a (business appropriate) joke. 🙂

    Our very extended Team became a family and cranked out amazing amounts of excellent work. We were all comfortable with each other and even though the pressure was extreme and the hours often long, tempers did not flare and Teamwork was always the order of the day.

    I know it was more than just the joke telling, and that opening with a joke is not appropriate for all meetings, but it really made a difference for us. We had people volunteer jokes and share jokes that their young children had brought home from school. It was super fun and kept things in a positive and lighter hearted mood than other similar meetings I have attended.

  5. If you are the leader of the group meeting it is vital that you are prepared for the meeting. I have been guilty of being lazy as the leader. I have an agenda but no purpose for the meeting. This usually happen in a non-work meeting. A work meeting usually has a purpose and a goal. It is the fraternal or social club setting that sometimes the goal is missing.

    Don’t fall into that trap of “is there any old business?”. As the leader be strong enough to state there is no old business and try to move on. Allow the group a chance to comment but don’t make it open ended as if you have to have some old business to discuss.

    The time limit is a great idea and I will try to incorporate that item into my next meeting.

    CES

  6. We sometimes use a light-hearted method to stop a soap boxer in meetings. We have a small stuffed horse on the table. If someone goes on too long about a topic, anyone can toss the horse in front of that person as a signal to “stop beating a dead horse.” Everyone laughs, and the meeting moves on.

  7. The leader of one of my weekly meetings finishes every meeting by going around the table, asking each person, by name, if they have anything else. This is particularly effective for two reasons:

    1) It gives an opportunity to bring up important items that didn’t really fit in with the flow of the meeting as a whole. I’ve often found that I’ll have one or two things that need to be brought to the group’s attention, but can’t find a place during the rest of the meeting where it seems relevant or important enough to interrupt or derail the larger discussion.

    2) Because I know this opportunity will be available at the end, I can pay better attention to the rest of the meeting rather than being distracted by looking for the right time to interject my one comment.

  8. David – I’m saving your list on proper meeting conduct and etiquette – eloquently clear and actionable. Love the decision process: command, consult, vote, consensus. THANK YOU!

  9. Great topic. So many of our leaders are overloaded as it is, so I suggest they use meeting management as a development tool for their team or others who might be in attendance. Using the Toastmaster’s model, one person is assigned as timekeeper, another to take notes, another to introduce or summarize the points. It is hard to manage and lead at the same time so breaking it up shares the load.

  10. I chair a board where there are a mixture of vocal/nonvocal types. Many of the nonvocal people sit and listen without speaking unless I call on them. The talkers become very impatient when I try to coax discussion from the silent ones. In their opinion, the direction we should go is quite clear and we are talking about options way too long. As chair, I’m trying to coax the silent ones to speak up and encourage the talkers to be patient while I’m getting others’ opinions. There are occasional temper flares by those impatient with the process. On the side, quieter people approach me and say they appreciate what I’m trying to do. Any suggestions as to how to create a more functional and participatory team?

    1. I suggest that you suggest these ground rules:
      Our company values will be followed at all times during the meeting.
      Active participation by all is needed, encouraged and supported by the group.
      Respect for others’ ideas and opinions, and civil discourse is a continuous expectation.
      All ideas within the scope of the discussion are welcome.

  11. Have you considered a “standing meeting” approach where individuals are literally standing? This can be used for no more than 20 minute meetings and usually more along the lines of 10. I have used these for team updates/huddles; each individual “gets” about one minute to update the group on any cross-over projects. The leader must hold other accountable to the timeline or can appoint a rotating “clock master.”

  12. I would address the concern:
    “it has become an unsafe environment to voice a dissenting opinion—creating a lot of tension.”

    These methods are good, but the stated unsafe environment must effectively be addressed with the meeting leadership or these methods will be squashed right from the get go. I’ve seen too many people firmly invested in using these types of meetings as their personal platform in a captured audience. Many will not let go of this power willingly.

    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Usually those kinds of folks don’t want to let go of their soapbox without a fight. In that case, especially if you’re talking about colleagues, you have to have a 1-on-1 crucial conversation and ask them “what do you really want out of these meetings?” If it’s to get work done, let them know they are standing in their own way and that of the group. If they truly just want a soapbox and they freely admit that, let them know that’s not why everyone else is showing up and suggest a different venue that would be more conducive to that need (workshops, roundtables, online forum, email list, etc.).

  13. Two common mistakes I have noticed are 1) Conjecture and 2) Meeting Research. Two often people express opinions that are based on assumptions of what might happen or what someone is likely to say. Or they presume to know facts when in actuality, they don’t. Debates about opinions can last forever because they aren’t grounded in empirical truth. The other extreme is digging for the data during the meeting. This is inefficient because there is generally only one person doing the digging while everyone else watches. And even if everyone were to participate, it is likely that they would be more efficient at their own desk with their own computer with time to fact check before advancing information that is incomplete, misleading, or outright wrong.

    A solution is to suggest (or require) that data be gathered before continuing the discussion at another time. Rules and edicts are efficient but harsh. A softer approach would be to volunteer to gather data and report at the next meeting or suggest that another team member more suited to the task do it.

  14. On the decision process: there is a 5th alternative, Consent: None of the team members has a serious, motivated objection to the proposal. This way any objection is studied and leads to a change in the proposal, until every team member can live with the proposal – then it is decided. It is not necessary that all are in favour as many may not be affected by the proposal.

  15. I see two VERY different problems in your description of what goes on during your meetings…the first being the “soapboxing” issue and the second being the “unsafe to express dissenting opinions” issue, which does not necessarily have to be related to the “soapboxing” one. I’ve been in meetings in which it felt unsafe to express dissenting opinions but no “soapboxing” was taking place and plenty of “soapboxing” meetings in which dissenting opinions were totally welcome as part of the lively discussion/debate.

    The “unsafe to express dissenting opinions” issue is, to my mind, the FAR more serious issue. Why do people feel that way? What do people feel the consequences would be? Is it really “unsafe” or is it just that others are more comfortable debating ideas than some others are? Are people being attacked personally or just their ideas? In my experience, “safety” is mostly set from the top down…if the boss and/or other “higher-level” people in the room set the tone that dissenting opinions are welcome, then that’s most of the battle won right there.

    In contrast, “soapboxing” is not necessarily related to/set by status…it has more to do with different people’s thinking and communication styles and how engaged people are in the discussion in the first place. While it’s obviously not good for someone to monopolize the conversation, especially at the expense of letting others get a word in edge-wise, there should be room for different styles, and it’s the facilitator’s job to make space in the conversation for those who are naturally more reticent to contribute.

    But, in reading your original post, I was particularly struck by the phrase “Those of us who are indifferent…” Personally, I find “indifference” in a work discussion to be a bigger “crime” than “soapboxing” (unless the issue is truly trivial) — I’d rather have people in my meeting who are engaged and “over-contribute” than people who just don’t care (and then complain that those who do care want to actually take up time to talk about the thing(s) they care about).

    However, when the issue IS truly trivial, you could have a little catch phrase that flags those discussions in which the length is disproportionate to the importance — my team used to use the term “whiteboarding,” which stemmed from a meeting in which we spent a ridiculous amount of time discussing where we should hang the new whiteboard we had just gotten. So, when someone thought we were heading down that path, they’d just call out “Whiteboarding!,” we’d all laugh, and then we’d quickly decide who was going to make the decision, or just put it to a quick vote, and end that discussion as part of the meeting.

    As a bit of a “soapboxer” myself (can’t you tell? lol!), I like some of the suggestions that David already posted and, if the “soapboxing” is truly extreme, that person’s manager should be working with the “soapboxer” to become more aware of his/her behavior and help him/her to modify it. (Also, as I mentioned earlier, it’s the meeting facilitator’s job to ask the “over-sharers” to take a pause and to check to see whether others have anything to contribute.)

    But, I also think that it’s not always JUST the more vocal person’s job to shut up…sometimes it’s the less vocal person’s job to push themselves to make more of an effort to get out of their comfort zone and contribute. This is an important skill, especially for folks who are interested in earning promotions to more senior leadership positions — in my experience, you don’t see a lot of the *really* quiet folks making it into the top positions, unless they’re in certain very specialized positions.

    1. Good points Laura! The two issues here are structural (ie how to structure the meeting to enable relatively equal input) and cultural (ie do we have a culture that is safe, respectful and inquisitive).

      The wonderful insights in the article mostly address the structural matters.

      There’s a whole other set of issues to be addressed to get the culture right. The that’s the topic for a much bigger article!!!

  16. I like the idea of first taking a short pause at each major topic before sharing and keeping notes on a whiteboard or flipchart. This could be expanded so that each person makes a comment on a sticky-note, which then are collected on the board up front for all to view. This gets all opinions out in the open before the discussion begins.
    Again, clarify the purpose of each agenda point – is this just FYI, or a place to share input, or an actual group decision?

  17. In our office, we have someone very similar to the soapboxers Exasperated talks about. He would dominate meeting with his rants, often making meeting hours longer than needed. No amount of interruption, even by the meeting leader would get him to stop. It took me a while to see that his opinions, not matter the topic, had a very similar theme. So, I talked to him privately about how long the meetings were and how I felt like I was checking out during the meetings (even when I was the meeting lead) and why were we having so many meetings anyway on a project when the meeting never seem to help us move forward? By making it safe, he opened up that his rants were BECAUSE he hated meetings and wanted to exhibit such bad behavior that no one would ask him to be on a team requiring meetings. So maybe that’s a question to pose to the soapboxers, in the appropriate safe space, why do they feel the need share so much on each topic.

    After my ranter opened up, I made a point in the first couple of meetings where I was the lead to provide an agenda ahead of time. Interestingly, that made his rants circle back to all the agenda topics in turn. So I have learned, that once he has voiced his opinion on, say agenda item 1, I listen for a deep breath from him, the start of a second set of opinions on agenda topic 2, and jump in with something along the lines of “hey you are seeing ahead, lets make sure person x weighs in and then we’ll start that topic”. And I do follow through and ask him directly if he has any further thoughts before we move on. After I did that a couple of times, it was like he relaxed and realized I do value his input. Now I rarely hear rants from him when I am the lead, and when I do, they are at the beginning of the meeting, and all I have to do is wait for that deep breath and jump in once. After that, it is like he remembers he will get a chance to voice his opinion, if any, on all the agenda topics when I am the lead and so talks only briefly and to the point.

    A combination of making sure the soapboxer feels safe, you feeling safe and structure that keeping interrupting a long-winded person to move a meeting on totally non-personal – like sticking to the agenda should help.

    A final thought…watch out for jokes and any sort of gossip about the soapboxer. Different guy than above, very long-winded, very sweet guy with a long institutional memory. A joke was made about him, and several other staff, at a party. He heard about it and kept repeating the catchphrase of the joke at the start of every conversation. Took me a few times of hearing it and seeing him to realize how much it had upset him. It made him come across in meetings as even more strident and forceful and completely out of control.

  18. Much of this could be avoided by deciding if the meeting is really the best way to solve the problem, get the input, make the decisions, etc.

    Personally, I believe meetings should be the last resort. They take up time (I list the unavoidable time-wasting aspects below). Most meetings are just for show, anyway: After the meeting, Betty and David are going to get together in Betty’s office and make the real decisions.

    I think the more valuable skill is to learn who has what roles in your organization: who makes the decisions, who carries them out, who needs to be informed, who is happy with whatever is decided – so long as a decision is made, who is unhappy with whatever is decided and needs to feel important – to the point where they will derail the process just to assuage their ego unless they are allowed to feel like they’ve had some input, and who doesn’t want to be bothered.

    To be effective in your organization, truly effective, you need to know what everyone DOES. By that I mean, not their job titles or HR job descriptions, but what their words and deeds cause to happen in the company. Collandra may be a Sales Manager, but she may the first one that the President calls to get input about the tone of company.

    It’s important to remember that some people have more influence precisely because they don’t have a particular lofty title. With titles come visibility, and with visibility comes a need to be more conservative in one’s apparent decisions and actions. Someone with a lower title and less “face” to lose can take more radical action, if necessary. I’m not talking about hidden agendas, though they do exist, I’m pointing out that the org chart doesn’t necessarily show how the organization really runs, and the webs of interaction between people cannot really be influenced in a meeting.

    ********

    There is sooo much time taken up by the necessary processes of having a meeting: the physical reality of moving people into a room, getting everyone settled, letting them have their social-primate time, getting their attention, making sure they have all read the agenda, getting their attention again, writing things on the whiteboard, clearing the whiteboard when the next topic comes up, ending the meeting, moving people out of the room, including the laggards who want to discuss some of the topics more among themselves, etc.

  19. It sometimes helps to distinguish “meeting” from “work session”. Meetings are for exchanging information. It might be status information, or communication of decisions that have been made, or describing some future directions. Work sessions are for accomplishing some concrete objective. The objective might be to develop a list of action items for members of the group. It might be to reach a decision while the stakeholders are present. It might be to revise a work product from a prior work session.

    This distinction can also help select who is invited. If it’s a meeting, who has information deliver and who needs to receive the information? If it’s a work session, who needs to contribute to or approve the work product? One source of frustration is to combine meeting-style items and work session-style items in the same agenda. That often leads to invitees who are only needed for some of the agenda items.

  20. To deal with some people talking a lot and others hardly speaking, I like to use rounds. Each person has a chance to speak in turn, and can pass. There is no group dialogue or cross-talk during a round – whoever is facilitating the round may need to remind people of that. Both people who speak easily and people who tend to be quiet in groups usually like the round. I am in the former category; a round ensures that other people have a chance to speak and I get to listen better. Everyone relaxes as they get more experience with rounds and know that they will have a turn and be able to listen, without competing for air time, and more creative ideas come out. It’s possible to use multiple rounds in different parts of a meeting. Even one round can transform a meeting.

    Rather than voting or consensus I prefer consent. This is done in a round, asking the question, “Do you have any paramount objections to this proposal?” An objection is paramount if the proposed policy would keep the person and/or the group from accomplishing their agreed-upon aim(s). (That assumes that the group has an agreed-upon aim(s), so sometimes getting that is the first step.) The facilitator asks anyone who has an objection to state what their objection is. When all the objections have been listed – without discussion at that point – the group then owns all the objections and addresses them to see if they can come up with a proposal with which everyone can live. The group has reached consent when there are no remaining paramount objections. Rather than trying to get agreement, the point is to surface objections to improve the proposal. This ensures that all perspectives are taken into account, since different people may be playing different roles and/or looking at the issue from different perspectives, and no one’s voice can be ignored. (There are other steps before the consent round – to develop the proposal in the first place and to make sure that the meaning is clear to everyone. That would be a longer comment….)

  21. I bring a printed copy of my agenda and take notes directly on it (I’m slow with a keyboard). Afterwards, I use this to create and distribute meeting minutes, including action items, with a statement to the effect of “please let me know if I have mis-spoken or left anything out.” I’m seldom corrected and it gets a sort of forced buy-in from the group.

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