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Stop Talking Over Each Other in Virtual Meetings

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As every organization returns to the office at different times, we will have both virtual and hybrid meetings for the foreseeable future. The author offers three tips to speaking up in a virtual meeting, and three warnings for when to hold back. One piece of advice: If you must interrupt, compliment the person speaking (“Thanks for that great point, Jeff, I’d like to build on that”) and then take the point in whichever direction you’d like. It maintains the current speaker’s credibility while giving you the space to jump in. If you think you might be interrupting someone but want to speak up anyway, own it: “I’m going to take the risk of interrupting Jeff here but I want to build on his point by saying…” This is particularly effective for hybrid meetings when you’re virtual and you can’t read others’ body language.

As companies of all sizes grapple with how and when to return to a physical office, it’s clear that virtual meetings are here to stay, with all the challenges and pet peeves that come with them. As more people return to in-person encounters, the hybrid meeting will follow suit.

Now that we’ve (for the most part) solved the technical challenges of finding the “mute” button and learning how to share our slides (but not our desktops), we are confronted with the more adaptive challenge of leading an effective and efficient virtual meeting. In the results of our recent benchmarking survey, we found that people are giving fewer presentations due to the pandemic, but they are speaking more than ever in virtual meetings. And they are getting frustrated. In our virtual leadership communication workshops, we are hearing the same questions from clients, regardless of whether they work at small nonprofits or global Fortune 50 companies:

“How do I speak up in a virtual meeting? How do my team and I keep from talking over each other?

And it could be costing your company revenue, as this anecdote from one of our clients shows: 

“My team and I are constantly interrupting each other, and it’s embarrassing when we do it in front of our clients.”

As I wrote in an earlier HBR article, our leadership readiness is measured in part by our willingness to speak up in meetings. In the absence of in-person opportunities, how we engage with others in a virtual environment is the primary driver of our relationships, professional or otherwise. With that in mind, here are three tips to speaking up in a virtual meeting, and three warnings for when to hold back. 

How to Speak Up

1. Prepare for it in advance. If you know you’d like to say a few words at an upcoming meeting, let the facilitator know in advance. That way, they can easily acknowledge you so that you don’t have to interrupt someone while speaking. 

Side note: I strongly recommend using a facilitator or leader for any meeting of five or more people. This person will keep you focused and on time. With clients, it ensures a united, professional front that upholds your brand. 

2. Use a filler word as a strategic wedge to jump into the conversation. In a 2019 HBR article, I discussed when filler words like “um” and “ah” can actually be useful. Using a strategic filler like “actually” or “so” in a virtual meeting lets others know you’d like to speak. Use it when you sense someone has finished a thought, so the platform activates your video and gives people advanced notice that you are going to contribute. 

Side note: If someone tries that when you’re the speaker and you’re not done speaking, you can confidently say, “Hold that thought. I’ll turn it over to you in a minute.”

3. Compliment and build: My favorite technique for in-person meetings still applies here. If you must interrupt, compliment the person speaking (“Thanks for that great point, Jeff, I’d like to build on that”) and then take the point in whichever direction you’d like. It maintains the current speaker’s credibility while giving you the space to jump in. If you think you might be interrupting someone but want to speak up anyway, own it: “I’m going to take the risk of interrupting Jeff here but I want to build on his point by saying…” This is particularly effective for hybrid meetings when you’re virtual and you can’t read others’ body language.

Side note: What happens when two people speak up at the same time, and there is no facilitator? Instead of doing the “Sorry…you go first” dance for 30 seconds, try this (while keeping local cultures and organizational politics in mind):

  • If you have already spoken up in this meeting, concede to the other person by saying, “Please, you go first” and let the other person speak.
  • If you have not yet spoken up in this meeting, say “Thank you, I’ll be brief” and then continue.

Conversely, some of our greatest frustrations center on those who spend too much time speaking in the meeting. If you feel like you might be that person, when should you hold back?

When to Hold Back 

When the meeting was supposed to end five minutes ago. These days, our clients are lamenting about back-to-back virtual meetings without even a minute to breathe in between. If you know the meeting is going over its allotted time and what you have to say is not critical, hold back.

When what you have to say doesn’t require a decision from the people on the call. If your contribution can be emailed to the attendees as an FYI, consider that method instead of speaking up and using precious meeting time.

If you’ve spoken for most of the meeting. Some people spend more time than others formulating their thoughts. If you like to jump in and speak immediately, you might be taking the opportunity away from a colleague who has something equally valuable to say.

As every organization returns to the office at different times, we will have both virtual and hybrid meetings for the foreseeable future. The versatile communicator will need to seamlessly navigate this reality at a moment’s notice. Use these tips to be prepared and effective regardless of whether you are in-person or virtual. You will save time, reduce frustration, and create a more productive work environment.

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