Have you ever been holding your breath waiting not-so-patiently to get a word in edgewise while one participant dominated the discussion? You see one stakeholder after another begin to check out while “that” person drones on and on about their favorite feature or pet peeve that has absolutely nothing to do with your meeting agenda.
You need to get control of the discussion. You need to be assertive and interrupt them. But how do you do this in a polite and dignified way?
In what follows I’ll suggest a few ways you can go about interrupting someone without being rude or damaging the stakeholder relationship.
In many cases, especially with new stakeholders, I do feel that waiting for a lull, no matter how brief, is appropriate. And in that lull, you can ask a question to redirect the conversation.
One of my favorites is
“I think I’m missing something here, can you explain how this relates back to [insert problem to be solved.]”
You have to say this with 100% sincerity. (It helps if you sincerely believe you might be missing something, even if you your prior experience would indicate they are probably heading off track.)
Another statement I use for interruption is
“I can see that’s important, but if we talk about that now I won’t have XYZ ready [reference a deadline or deliverable in such a way that it adds value to the stakeholder]. Do you mind if we stay focused on [the topic at hand] for this discussion?”
A third technique I use is to actively acknowledge what I’ve heard. Sometimes the person who is continuing on just doesn’t realize that they are being heard and understood. By summarizing what you hear in total, focusing on a piece of the conversation that is relevant to the agenda, and perhaps asking a follow-up question, often you can get the meeting back on track without it feeling like an interruption at all.
Sometimes, almost unconsciously, I interrupt with my body language. I might put my hand out indicating it’s time to pass the conversation on. I am a feverish writer during meetings, so if I haven’t written anything down in a few minutes, make direct eye contact, and nod, it sends a signal that I’d like to say something.
If I can get the lull, then I jump in to redirect the conversation to the topic at hand.