Side conversations ruin meetings by destroying focus and fragmenting participation.
Approach 1: Ask for cooperation
Start by asking everyone to cooperate. Look at the middle of the group (instead of at
the talker) and say:
"Excuse me (pause to gain everyone's attention). I know all of your ideas are
important. So, please let's have one speaker at a time."
"Excuse me. I'm having difficulty hearing what [contributing participant] is saying."
"There seems to be a great deal of interest for this issue. Could we have just one
speaker at a time?"
These statements diplomatically acknowledge that a side conversation is occurring
without naming the participants or putting them on the spot. Hostile statements,
such as: "Hey you! Stop that!" will create hard feelings that undermine your
effectiveness as a leader.
Approach 2: Change the process
If side conversations continue, change the rules to make cooperation more
convenient. For example, you could use a speaking prop.
A speaking prop is an object that entitles the holder to speak. When the person
finishes speaking, the prop is passed on to the next person who wants to speak.
Possible props include a gavel, paper cup, or toy. If you are working on a
controversial issue, select a soft object, such as a teddy bear or foam ball. It reduces
stress and potential injury (if thrown).
Introduce the new process by saying:
"We seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for this issue. So, let's decide that only the
person holding the gavel (cup, teddy bear, foam ball) may speak. Is that okay?"
Notice this statement begins with a complimentary acknowledgment of the situation
(multiple conversations) followed by a suggestion and ends with a request for
Use these techniques to regain control of your meeting.
This is the second of a seven part article on Managing Monsters in Meetings.
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IAF Certified Professional Facilitator and author Steve Kaye works with leaders who
want to hold effective meeting. His innovative workshops have informed and
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