How to stop the same people from doing all the talking and other strategies to keep your meetings on track

Apr 2, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here. 

When you think about your past work week and all the meetings you had, what was the thing that you found most frustrating?

As a meetings trainer and coach, clients call me because they want to get engagement and focus in their meetings. “It’s always the same people who do all the talking,” they explain, “and they take us off track and make us run over time.” And, they add, “it’s always the same people who stay quiet and we’re worried we’re not getting the engagement we need from them for really good team commitments.”

So, what can you do to solve these problems?

I’d like to share a coping strategy — but like all coping strategies, it won’t remove the problem completely.

Meetings are a fact of life, and with every meeting, I like to say you actually have two meetings: You’ve got the meeting that you’re in and you’ve also got the second meeting that’s going on inside your head. That second meeting is quite often the reason we sometimes don’t step in and save our meetings when they’re going off track.

The meeting inside your head will go something like this: “I wish she’d stop talking and let others get a word in … Perhaps I should do something. But what can I do?… I can’t interrupt — that would be rude!”

First of all, what are the coping strategies you can use? The ones I like to use are contained in the acronym COPE.

The C stands for Captain. Every ship needs a captain to get it safely to its destination on time and the same is true for meetings. Meeting science tells us the meeting leader makes or breaks the meeting. The wonderful thing is that meeting skills are something you can learn — you’ll get better and better at them every time you lead a meeting. There’s no right way to do it, and you can find your own unique leadership style.

O stands for Outcome — if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re likely to get lost at sea so it’s very important to articulate the outcome you want from your meeting. If you’re the meeting organizer, write down the outcome you want in the invitation so your participants can see what to expect and what’s expected of them. They can also make an informed choice as to whether to catch this ship or stay behind and get on with work they think would be more productive.

P stands for Process — like any destination, we need to know how we’re going to get there. That also takes planning. When you’re thinking about your meeting and planning the process, ask yourself some questions.

For example, if the outcome you want is a decision, when you’re planning your process you’ll need to ask yourself questions like “How are we going to reach that decision?”, “Is it going to be a vote?,” “Is it going to be by consensus?”, or “Is it going to be the loudest voice wins?”

It’s extremely important that the captain shares that process at the start of the meeting. Meeting science tells us that when we have a clear outcome and a clear process of how we’re going to get there, our stress levels go down. Then we can release our higher cognitive functions to really collaborate, think creatively and get the best outcomes for our meetings.

E stands for Equity or an equal opportunity to speak. It’s no good having a few people who do all the talking, while everybody else stays silent.

But how do you encourage that in your meetings? There are three steps: Listen, Validate, Redirect.

To use these, imagine you’re in a meeting, everything’s going well and all of a sudden, a couple of colleagues start having a side conversation that dominates the entire discussion. That’s when you can bring in these three steps, and it looks something like this:

First you Listen. Wait for an opening; eventually your colleagues will come up for air, or there will be a natural pause.

That’s when you step in and Validate. To do that, start by asking a question to break the momentum of their conversation. The question can be as simple as “Can I ask you a question?”

This stops them in their tracks, and now you can step in with the Validate piece, by saying something like: “That all sounds really interesting.”

And now you can Redirect by asking “Can you help me understand how what you’re saying relates to the topic we’re on in our agenda right now?” You’re bringing them back to the objective of the meeting without alienating them, and everybody else gives a big sigh of relief because now you’ve saved the meeting.

When I give these tools to people, they feel very comfortable using them with their peers after a little bit of practice.

But what about if the people that are having the side conversation are your superiors? And if you were the boss, how would you feel if your team member actually interrupted you and brought you back on track?

These are the kinds of questions that we ask in the meeting inside our head, that cause all of us to freeze and not do or say anything. I like to use this quote from US football coach Mike Ditka who said, “In life, you get what you tolerate.” I’ve changed that quote to say, “In meetings, we get what we tolerate.”

So why are we tolerating these kinds of meetings?

It’s because of that second meeting — the meeting in our head. We don’t feel we can interrupt our colleagues and especially not our superiors because we’re worried that we might look rude. I think we’re also worried that we might be rejected. As humans, one of our biggest fears in life is to be rejected from our tribe or group and so we’ll do anything we can to stay in people’s good books, even if that means sitting through an endless meeting.

So what can we do? Here, I like to take inspiration from Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. He once wrote an email to his staff showing them how important it is for him to have a great meeting culture in his organizations. He wrote: “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it’s obvious you aren’t adding value. It’s not rude to leave; it’s rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

The reason I like this quote is it recalibrates what we mean by being rude.

How would work be like if it was OK not to accept a meeting invitation that didn’t have a clear objective? Or if it was OK to cancel a scheduled meeting just because there wasn’t any need for it? And as we recalibrate our future and we think about how we want to do our best work together, wouldn’t it be great if we could have these kinds of conversations inside our organizations about how to have better meetings?

So the next time you’re in a meeting, whether you’re the meeting leader or a participant, think about how you can step in to save your meeting with these coping strategies. And maybe you’ll come up with some of your own.

This article was adapted from Madeleine de Hauke‘s TEDxAMS Talk. Watch it here: