• Shane Chenut

‘Why does nobody contribute?’: Diagnosing and curing a serial interrupter

‘I get bored when people prattle on and don’t get on with it’ shared a very frustrated leader. Things were taking too long and this leader was listing all the reasons this was a problem. Here are their top five:

  1. Meetings take too long;

  2. We are all time-poor so it’s important to get to the point — quickly;

  3. People are just re-hashing challenges we have already dealt with;

  4. The point gets lost in too much discussion; and

  5. I get bored, I’m already five steps ahead.

While all of the above were legitimate concerns, the solution the leader chose was to interrupt, usually with: ‘Can we just get to the point?’ The impact of this was that meetings did get shorter — as did participation. The leader now had a new frustration and issue to manage. ‘No-one contributes, what are we paying these high salaries for?’ This leader was a serial interrupter who held the most senior role in the organization. There was no space for others to express an opinion or contribute expertise so they gave up. The result was a loss in:

  • Diversity of thinking;

  • Creativity;

  • Broader perspective;

  • Participation; and

  • Growth.

Regardless of the role we play in a team, when we constantly interrupt others, it’s disruptive behavior. And if you are the leader who holds the senior role it can be destructive, even if you had the best intentions.

If you are a leader who has asked themselves ‘why does nobody contribute?’, it might be time to also assess whether you do the following when listening to others. Do you:

  1. Become impatient waiting for others to get to the point;

  2. Think about what you are going to say next while others are speaking;

  3. Believe you are helping by ‘assisting’ the person to finish their point and hijacking the conversation;

  4. Enthusiastically support the person speaking by summarizing what you think they mean — ‘what Stevie is saying is …’; or

  5. Feel frustrated you end up being the only person speaking and feel everyone else expects you to have the answers?

If you have answered yes to three or more of these questions then it’s possible that the problem is one you are responsible for. If so, the problem can be reversed by disrupting the habit of interrupting, a practice we can all benefit from.

Here are some suggestions to help get your meetings back on track.

  1. Begin with understanding yourself. When we observe our own process from a place of curiosity we can begin to objectively identify our triggers, frustrations and reactions. In the case of serial interrupting, being mindful of what drives this can be helpful to reflect on.

  2. Take note. Having a pen and paper handy is helpful to short circuit the interruption, instead of speaking up, simply write down what you want to say.  This provides you with a pause, allowing you to either wait for the appropriate time to add your point, or find it has been covered and is no longer relevant.

  3. Practice identifying what you are listening to. Are you listening to the person speaking or your own inner dialogue?

  4. Be prepared by practicing constructive ways to interrupt, because at times it is necessary.

  5. Arm yourself with a clear agenda, an end time and agreements on behavior that hold for all team meetings.

  6. Utilize open coaching questions, that start with either ’what’, ’when’ or ‘how’. For example: ‘What’s important about this?’  Questions like these help cut to the chase. Another example: ‘When do we need — ?’ Fill in the blank to establish a timeline for the given situation. Another example: ‘How would you summarize this so that someone with no context would understand?’  A question like this will help with clarity.

Ceasing your interrupting habit will help to get the best out of everyone in the room, and improve participation and engagement. Create a new habit that will encourage participation, direct the conversation to a conclusion when required, and create space for others to contribute and lead.