In 6th grade, our teacher, Sr. Janet, would try to stop side conversations and regain control of the classroom with her classic order, “Cut the talk.”
Looking back, I can see what an unruly bunch we were. Not only didn’t the side conversations stop, we learned to amuse ourselves by mimicking the way she’d yell, “Cut the talk.”
Now we’re all grown up and don’t need a teacher chiding us for side conversations. And yet, I’ve been in plenty of meetings where the need to cut the talk is in plain view.
Side conversations during meetings is both distracting and disrespectful. When it happens, don’t mess around.
It’s your meeting, and you have tools at your disposal. Use one of the following techniques to bring the side conversations to a close.
Stand by the people engaged in the conversation
If there is a horseshoe-shaped table arrangement, and you have been moving around, you simply need to gradually move yourself near the problem.
The chatterers will notice your presence and get the hint, or they will notice that everyone is looking at you, which also means they are looking at them.
The beauty of this approach is you don’t need to slow things down by interrupting.
Stop and ask for people’s attention
If someone has the floor and others are chatting, I might say to the person with the floor, “Excuse me, Maggie. It’s important we all give Maggie our attention, so we don’t miss what she has to say. Thanks. Continue, Maggie.”
The people doing the talking are now on your radar. They know it. Everyone knows it.
Call on one of the offenders
This might be viewed as passive-aggressive, but I’ve successfully used it.
If there’s a lively exchange of ideas, and a few people are engaged in a side conversation; invite one to participate with a simple, “Shane, what do you think about these ideas?”
Unfortunately, for Shane, he may not know what the ideas were, because he wasn’t listening. He’ll get the point.
Caution, Shane may also get a little irked, especially if he feels singled out. If you use it, be ready for some repercussions either in the meeting or at a later date.
Call out the behavior
This is direct and to the point. “Hey, you two, we need you here with us.” Keep the tone friendly and light, and this should solve the problem.
Have and invoke a ground rule
By having a standing rule that discourages side conversations, you can ask people to stop theirs by simply saying something like, “Just want to remind you of ground rule 2 which you all agreed to follow.”
If the problem continues, you may need a more focused conversation to reaffirm people’s understanding of and agreement with ground rule 2. This conversation might flow into a discussion on the question, “What should we do about people not following it?”
Create a compelling focus
When the main discussion or activity is compelling, participants can’t help but to stay tuned in. Of all the strategies this one is the most effective, albeit the most difficult to consistently apply.
If you wouldn’t have continued reading this article to this point, whose fault is it, yours or mine? As a writer who wants you keep reading, the problem belongs to me.
Rate the effectiveness of your meetings
Side conversations aren’t the only problem you might have. This meeting assessment will help you determine the effectiveness of meetings you attend.
You can use it to think about a single meeting, a repeating meeting, or even all the meetings you have attended in the recent past.
Keep them on track
If side conversations have become the norm, and they have been tolerated for a while, know that you’ll have to work hard to break what’s become a habit. You may need to use a variety of techniques and apply them multiple times.
Be creative. Be persistent. Just don’t look over the top of your reading glasses and screech, “Cut the talk.”