Personal Growth

What to do when loudmouths are ruining your meetings

In the Air Force, anyone who talks too much is labelled as “stuck on transmit.” It’s a joke based on what happens when a pilot clutters up the air traffic control channel because his microphone switch fails in the ‘on’ position. The usual highly efficient—and vital for safety—exchanges are blocked by permanent transmission. 

In air traffic control, there are many fallback procedures to cope with a pilot stuck on transmit, to prevent catastrophe. Sadly, in the real life of organizations, there often aren’t enough safety precautions against executives who can’t stop talking. Indeed the opposite is often the case: we adopt rituals and procedures that encourage people to get stuckj on transmit.

Consider the classic PowerPoint presentation. Or the effect of hierarchies in meetings in which the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) prevails.

These failings are magnified now that so many of our meetings are online where we often lack some of the emotional signalling of attention that we take for granted when we meet in person.

Of course, we can all live with some boredom, but poor conversations have real consequences for our organizations.

What it looks like when we’re stuck on transmit

Research suggests there’s a collective intelligence in groups that is strongly correlated with whether participants are really engaging with each other. It turns out that the smartness of a group has less to do with the individual intelligence of the participants. It’s not about simply adding up the IQ of everyone in the space, but rather, about how socially sensitive the participants are, and whether they’re good at taking turns in conversation. Zoom calls in which one person gets to talk at great length, might in effect make a group more stupid, rather than better informed!

There’s also a vicious circle. A speaker drones on too long, the audience online appears to be listening but is actually bored and checking their emails. The speaker, lacking any of the signals that she is being heard, panics and starts talking even more, causing more boredom in a feedback loop of inattention. 

Related: The Science Of Why We Talk Too Much (And How To Shut Up)

The opposite pattern can also be toxic: when participants sense that the only way into this conversation is to opportunistically interrupt. The interruptions come in many disguises: catching a particular point and disagreeing, or agreeing and then taking over the speech. The interrupting appears to break the monotony but easily creates a climate of fighting for the right to speak, a fight that tends to favor the louder, more extroverted, and alpha personalities. That scenario makes the more reflective types even more likely to shrink back. On the surface, we’re having a lively, sparky exchange of ideas. But we’re often also forcing a diverse group to work, uncomfortably at the tempo of the least patient person in the room.

Another counterproductive response can be to insist on sticking to an agenda. Much of the advice for making your meetings more effective tells us to be clear about the purpose of a meeting and to stop the conversation from wandering off-topic. In my experience, this may sound like an efficient way to run a meeting but is not a particularly human one. Humans are not machines or computers and much of our best thinking is rambling, reflective, and intuitive, even dreamlike. Some of Einstein’s most brilliant work arose from imagining riding on a beam of light, a deliberate form of daydreaming. 

Ways of tuning in to one another during work conversations

Research by Oscar Ybarra and others suggests that small talk can have a significant positive impact; a brief friendly conversation at the start of a meeting allows people to bring more mental resources to the task at hand. If we try to go straight to the purpose of the meeting (which sounds efficient)  without allowing some emotional connection first, we might not be that efficient after all. 

In Talk, The Science of Conversation, Elizabeth Stokoe studies conversations in minute detail, transcribing every pause, grunt, and syllable to reveal a deeper structure. She notes, for example, that when close friends speak to each other by phone they often repeatedly exchange phrases like “Hi, how are you?” and  “I’m fine. Tey say these several times before moving on to a deeper conversation. Something more is happening here than a mere exchange of information, we as humans are feeling our way into contact, tuning into each other before being willing to share more openly.

Where a lot of executives will struggle with these ideas, is where it will help most – which is to temper the ego and realise that being the loudest or most impressive person in the room won’t lead to better results. They need to avoid what I like to call the Sistine Chapel syndrome.

Years ago I went to Rome and, of course, wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. I queued for ages to get a ticket and then went on the tour of the Vatican that leads to Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the chapel. The tour led me and thousands of others through one gallery after another, one corridor before the next, each packed with extraordinary art. It was as if the Pope needed me to fully experience the vast wealth and majesty of the collection. 

The trouble is, by the time I reached the chapel I was exhausted. It was like having to eat 10 gallons of strawberries and cream and then being asked to enjoy a pineapple. I couldn’t take it in. When we overwhelm people with the magnificence of our content, we fundamentally break the human connection we really need if we are going to work well together.

What to do we do when someone gets stuck on transmit?

There’s no single right way, but a lot depends on how much power you have in the meeting. If you are the least important person in the room, you’ll not want to take big risks, but if you’re the most important then you should feel most obliged to act. Here are 5 of my favourite ways to respond:

  • Interrupt and say, “sorry to interrupt but I know we have limited time and I’d like to make sure others also get heard”
  • If you have more power, another of my favourite interruptions is, “There’s time for you to make one final point before we move on.”
  • A weirder option that can work when people ramble because they don’t think anyone is listening – Try fixing them with the most attentive look you can, which may surprise them into pausing.
  • If you don’t feel able to interrupt for whatever reason, I suggest you find a way to completely relax – try regarding the rambler as the performer of theatrical monologue and smile at the energy of their performance as if you paid especially to enjoy it.
  • And maybe most important: separately from the incursion, initiate a discussion about how time is allocated in meetings and explore with your team-mates how they feel about it, and whether you can agree on ways to work more equitably in future.

Johnnie Moore is a creative facilitator, and when he’s not designing meetings that people want to go to, he’s hosting Unhurried Conversations that are free and open to anyone. He takes a fresh approach to personal development with his Jaffa Groups and believes everyone has it in them to grow in new ways.

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