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8 Ways to Stop Interruptions from Derailing Your Next Virtual Meeting

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Virtual meeting etiquette is universal, right? Pretty much everyone knows that it’s rude to interrupt, disrespectful to openly multitask when someone’s speaking, and inconsiderate to allow background noise to disrupt the conversation. Or do they????

In this edition of Communiqué, I explore practical steps that virtual meeting leaders can take to anticipate and effectively handle interruptions and other types of disruptions that may throw virtual meetings off-course.

First, it’s important to recognize that interruptions and disruptions can be intended or unintended. Either kind can jeopardize the success of your virtual meetings.  The person who habitually cuts off others if they disagree is an intended interruption. The person who puts the phone on hold, forcing others to hear background music as they try to speak, is an unintended interruption. Regardless of intentionality, interruptions can be difficult to manage when working virtually. Here are seven tips that can help.

  • Model cultural literacy and sensitivity. People from different national cultures and native languages have different notions as to whether an interruption is helpful or harmful to the conversation. Consider these differences as you plan each meeting. For example, if some people value saving face and instilling harmony, you might try one intervention when the conversation goes off-course, and a very different approach for people who are energized by seemingly chaotic, rapid-fire repartee. When your group represents multiple cultures, as is true for most global teams, think through which approaches might work best, under what circumstances, for most people.
  • Watch your language. Many of us unintentionally use language that’s difficult for others to understand – whether it’s slang, overly complicated words, colorful metaphors, or idiomatic expressions. When non-native English speakers have to stop and try to decipher our words, the conversational flow is interrupted, constraining their ability to interact in a meaningful way. Review your speaking points or questions ahead of time, and enlist a colleague to help you identify phrases that are likely to confuse others. During the meeting, you can also ask a colleague to alert you via IM or text if you have used a phrase that may not translate well, so you can quickly offer a clearer way to say it, without forcing people to admit they did not understand you. (See Improving your Personal Effectiveness with International Audiences white paper for more tips)
  • Establish, restate and enforce meeting norms. Create norms as a group that everyone agrees to abide by for all virtual meetings. This might be done early on as the group forms or over time. (Examples of virtual meeting norms include: Announce if you have to step away for a moment, clear your workspace for this call, keep your phone off mute, etc.) Once established, restate the norms quickly at the start of each call. If several people are new, you may want to show the norms in writing. You might have a different person review the norms at the start of each call, which can help gain more buy-in. Ask for everyone’s help in enforcing the norms, so it doesn’t always fall on the leader’s shoulders.
  • Keep meeting objectives and agenda visible at all times. If the conversation digresses more than a minute or two, direct everyone back to the agenda and meeting objectives. Pause to give people options: “This seems like a really important topic. At the same time, I’m concerned that we’ll run out of time if we keep going. We have some choices.”  Depending on your role, you might suggest one option over another, or you may want to let the group decide how to handle it. When people keep their agenda and goals in their mind’s eye, they’re more likely to all play a role in moving the conversation along.
  • Create time and space for handling questions. Certain cultures (and certain personalities!) have a propensity to interrupt frequently with questions, which can derail an agenda quickly. Let people know up front how and when questions will be handled, and be realistic about how much time will be needed, especially if it’s a complex or contentious topic. (Regardless of when you choose to take questions, it’s always helpful to pause every few minutes to validate understanding and allow for reflection before moving on.) Make it possible for people to pose questions via typing into a shared meeting space. If your meeting space has a “hands-up” capability, people can secure a space in line. When people know how and when they can ask questions, they’re less likely to interrupt unnecessarily along the way.
  • Keep people on the same page. Depending on the density and complexity of content, you might try stopping after each main thought (or slide) for questions. (Example: “Any questions for clarification here before we move on?”) This way, you will minimize the number of times your participants will have to jump back and forth through the slides, which can have a dizzying effect.  Also: Refrain from sending out the exact same slides you’ll be using; otherwise, people may be looking at the slides on their own, jumping ahead to interrupt with questions about content you haven’t covered yet. (You will want to send some content for review in advance, so everyone can prepare for an interactive discussion.) You can always post your complete set of slides or other content after the meeting.
  • Keep a dominant participant in check. In a virtual world, it can be tough to rein in a big talker. If you can’t effectively address this common type of interruption, others may withdraw or shut down, and you may lose respect from those who expect you to maintain a semblance of control. How you choose to intervene will depend on several factors, such as existing level of trust, cultural differences and your credibility with the group. A few tips: When the talker pauses for air, jump in to summarize those “really excellent points,” and then go around the virtual table to hear other ideas. Invite the talker to lead a session on this topic at a future meeting. Redirect everyone to a virtual flipchart and ask them to type in their thoughts. Be diplomatic yet assertive when helping the talker wrap up.

Interruptions during a virtual meeting are inevitable, especially when people are having spirited discussions or heartfelt debates. The key is to anticipate when, where and from whom interruptions are most likely to occur, and to have a plan for addressing them quickly, before they can derail your meeting. Before you try a new tactic, ask a colleague with global savvy whether there’s a potential downside to your planned approach, and tweak accordingly.