An assistant quietly walks over to his boss whispering a message in her ear. The leader abruptly gets up and leaves the room in the middle of a crucial discussion.

A cell phone rings. For whatever reason, it needs to be answered while an employee is courageously bringing up issues vital to the team’s success.

Those and other unfortunate interruptions may seem urgent on the surface, but their effects ripple through a room.

  • “She doesn’t really want to hear what we have to say!”
  • “Do they even care?”
  • “I guess I don’t matter”
  • “They are just going through the motion of consulting us”

Quiet interruptions are not so quiet after all

These so called ‘quiet’ interruptions are unfortunately, visible for all to witness.

Participants now perceive that another matter takes precedence over what is at hand now, in turn eroding trust in the process, and possibly trust in the leadership, the project, or the team.

So let me ask you a quick question: On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 meaning ‘Not at All’ and 10 meaning ‘Absolutely’, how willing are you to leave your competing requests at the door to be in a meeting room at full attention?

Paying attention creates safety

Inspired from a question I received following on my blog on Creating A Safe Space , this month’s Q & A post addresses a key point in creating a trusting and open environment for genuine group discussions: Safety lies in the depth of focus each person demonstrates while in a meeting they agreed to attend.

Without that demonstration, a discussion is bound to be superficial, revolving around processes and to do lists, rather than what really impacts on a team’s success.

3 tactics you can use to neutralize meeting interruptions

As facilitator, how do you manage these not so subtle interruptions?

In some settings, the expectations for minimizing (or even eliminating) interruptions can be made clear ahead of time. That way everyone knows what to expect and make arrangements accordingly.

In spaces where this may not be realistic, you now have a golden opportunity for discussing the issue of interruptions with all participants.

  1. Ask participants to propose ways for minimizing interruptions. For example, a subordinate not in the meeting can take messages for them. Are there other ways people are willing to explore and implement?
  2. At one point during the meeting, encourage officials and leadership to place themselves in participants’ shoes: ‘If you were an observer at this meeting, how would would you respond to the interruptions? What would you like to see happen?
  3. Facilitate a brief discussion and ask participants how they want the meeting to run in order to achieve stated goals.

In my experience, groups come up with some pretty creative ideas.

I look forward to reading your comments on how you deal with meeting interruptions as a leader or as a facilitator.

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