April 8th, 2019
You’re a new manager, and one of the things you need to get good at is running meetings. Love them or hate them, it’s big part of the job, and nothing is worse than a poorly run gathering. One of the things I hear often from the new managers I work with is that they have trouble keeping larger meetings on track when a certain someone starts off on a tangent. It seems like almost every team has someone like this and if you’re nodding your head, I feel you. It’s tough to effectively refocus someone whose totally off in left field. Especially without acting like a jerk. But it can be done, and you, as the manager, need to do it.
So, the Well-Intentioned Rambler. This person is lovely in so many ways. They’re highly invested in their work, eager to propel the team forward, and interested in the most minute detail of any idea or plan put before them.
And they care. Gosh, do they ever care.
However, alongside those endearing traits that make them a pleasure to work with, the Well-Intentioned Rambler gets off track. Like, lost-in-the-woods-several-miles-from-civilization kind of off track. And then they keep going. Their talkative tendencies can completely derail an otherwise efficient meeting and dash any hopes you had of getting through your agenda. It’s a tough situation, because again, they really do care, but are truly impacting your ability to get shit done.
Back when I was in graduate school, one of the student-employees who worked for the production company I co-founded was the embodiment of the Well-Intentioned Rambler. We’d have monthly all-hands style meetings, and, without fail, he’d start up and we’d all sigh a sad sigh because any forward momentum had up and gone. He went off on tangents, asked questions that he then answered, and generally, well, rambled. I tried a few things, but had little luck getting us refocused. Those meetings were a disaster.
Since then, though, I’ve dealt with this type more than I care to think about and have learned how to manage them in order to get a meeting back on-topic. Here are some tactics I find work well.
Interrupt and remind. Most of us, especially women, are taught all our lives not to interrupt. It’s rude. Not nice. But I say let’s move on; there are absolutely times when it’s not just okay to interrupt, but necessary. As a manager, it’s your job to keep meetings running well and not waste anyone’s time, so interrupt you must.
When your Rambler gets going, try breaking in gently, then reminding them of the topic at hand. Try, “-Hey J, let me stop you for a second. We’re discussing Topic X and need to stay on track. Do you have any thoughts on that before we move on?”
Acknowledge and redirect. If the Well-Intentioned Rambler in your particular case wouldn’t respond well to the very direct approach above, try this one: “Hey J. I really appreciate your input on this, but I’m not totally sure I understand the connection to Topic X. We only have another minute before we need to hear from someone else, so can you quickly explain how what you’re talking about impacts Topic X?” In this one, you’re allowing them the floor, but pointing them in a more productive direction.
Validate and table. “Hey J, I understand you feel strongly about this. I hear you and I really want to give this the time it deserves. Right now, though, we have to stay focused on Topic X, so I’d like to table this for now and come back to it next week / in our 1:1 so we can really dig in. Is that alright?” You’re making it understood that you hear them and appreciate what they’re sharing, but now’s not the time.
The key with all of these is to balance empathy with directness. Be kind and acknowledge what they’re saying, but be firm about staying on topic. Following those guidelines, you’re more likely to get your meeting back on track. Here are some other tips to consider:
Set ground rules up front. For open discussions of a proposed new process, for example, explain that everyone gets up to 2 minutes to speak their piece and should focus on impact on the teams’ work. You’re time boxing as well as establishing a productive focus to the conversation. If your Well-Intentioned Rambler still gets off on a tangent, reel them back in with a reminder of the rules.
Encourage others to speak. Sometimes, a talkative person will talk simply to fill space. Try reaching out to less-eager-to-share team members ahead of time: “Hey A, tomorrow we’re going to talk about Topic X and I know you have some very valuable insight there. Is it alright if I ask you to share your thoughts during the meeting?” This way, they’re prepared, the team hears ideas from a broader range of people, and your Well-Intentioned Rambler won’t feel the need to fill any empty space.
If it continues to be an issue, talk to them one-on-one. Explain to your Well-Intentioned Rambler that you value their input and want to continue to benefit from their insights, but that during meetings, they tend to get off topic. Use specific examples, and go on to explain the impact of that behavior: important topics don’t get covered, other people are less likely to speak up, and you fail to make necessary progress. See my article on giving constructive feedback for other tips on structuring that conversation.
I hope these tips help you keep your meetings on track while respecting the input from all your team members, even the chatty ones. Redirecting effectively isn’t easy (or much fun), but, like so many other management-related skills, it can be learned with practice. Send me a message and let me know what you think once you get a chance to use these tactics, and I’d love to hear what other ones you use.
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