“I’m trying to chair efficient meetings, but I have someone on my team who always needs to talk it out before coming to a decision. How can I reduce the amount of time he takes up in our meetings?” This was a great question I was asked after delivering a speech about how to add more value at work. I thought it might be something lots of people are struggling with, so I’m answering it here on the blog.
First, it’s important to remember that people have very different thought processes and we arrive at our opinions, perspectives, and decisions in our own ways. At one end of the spectrum are the people think things through independently and wait to arrive at a position they are fully confident in before sharing it out loud. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who share their unfiltered thoughts as they emerge and use those around them as sounding boards to help formulate their ideas into a position. Each of these approaches has costs and benefits to a team.
Remember what’s good about the talker
The audience member who raised the question about the “talker” was justifiably concerned about the undue amount of meeting time being consumed by her team member’s musings. Before talking about the downside of having an excessive talker, let’s take a moment to talk about the benefits.
- You get to ride along on their intellectual journey. This gives you a sense of what they’re paying attention to and what issues factored in to their position
- Talkers tend to be less wedded to any given perspective and you have the opportunity to interject while their ideas are still malleable
- Talkers can encourage discussion and draw out others who might not have felt at liberty to share an opinion. Your talker is often the first one in the pool.
Why you should worry
There are legitimate reasons to manage the talker on your team if her participation is impacting the team in one or more of the following ways:
- Talking it out is taking too long and detracting from the time required for other agenda items
- Excessive participation by the talker is crowding out quieter members of the team
- The person is opening up too many tangents and taking the conversation off target
How to Manage the Talker
First, remember that the talker likely doesn’t realize that she is being disruptive. To her, talking demonstrates that she is engaged and contributing rather than overbearing and intentionally squandering team time.
As you broach the subject, start with helping the person become more self-aware. “I want to talk with you about your participation in meetings. I’m concerned that the contributions to our team discussions are getting inefficient. I’m glad that you’re engaged in the conversation and at the same time, worried that the conversations are going on too long and we’re not able to get through our agenda. How might you help move through the discussions more quickly?”
Where possible, give very concrete examples of what you’re referring to. For example, if you scheduled 30 minutes to talk about a project and the conversation went on for an hour, of which your talker had the floor for 30 minutes, you can convey those details.
Depending on the response you get, you can continue to gain insight with a variety of questions:
- How do you prepare for these meetings? What might you do before the meeting to collect your thoughts?
- How might you talk through some of your ideas in advance of the session so you are further along in your thinking when we get to the meeting?
- What could you do to monitor your contributions and balance them with the rest of the team?
Tips to Try
Ideally, greater self-awareness and a modicum of self-control will get things back on track. As the team leader or chair of a meeting, it’s your responsibility to the other participants to make sure they do, so don’t be shy about managing your talker’s participation actively if you’re not seeing enough improvement. Try these tips:
- Before your next meeting, ensure pre-reads or other preparations are sent out well ahead. Ask the talker if he has any questions in advance of the meeting and suggest one or two conversations he could have before the meeting to get clarity.
- On the way into the meeting, take 15 seconds to refresh the message, “Remember to balance your participation and leave more room for others today.”
- Before you start an agenda item, remind everyone how much time you’ve committed. Be clear about how much room there is for discussion and when you’ll cut off the discussion to move to a decision. “We have 30 minutes, I’m going to cut off the discussion after 20 so we can around the table and hear people’s verdict.”
- If the talker starts to take up too much of the conversation, calmly ask him to pause for a moment while you get some other input. “Thanks Steve, I’m going to stop you there and ask for others to jump in.”
- Stop the talker mid-monologue and ask him to either pose a question to the team or to sum up his thought in a tweet (I use this technique all the time with people who speak at length. When given only a sentence to get their point across, they pause, think, and usually give you something punchy and valuable)
- On the way out of the meeting, share feedback on how he did. Make a specific request about how he might continue to improve in the next meeting.
I would much rather have someone who engages too actively in a discussion than one who sits back and spectates. That said, when you’re trying to use meeting time efficiently, a talker can really slow you down. Give the person the feedback they need to adjust their behavior and support them with some assertive facilitation and you’ll get the best of your talker without them hijacking your whole discussion.