Are meetings always a waste of time? Of course not. And definitely not if you deal with disruptions and unhelpful behaviour calmly, firmly and constructively early on. In the following I look at five types whose behaviour can prevent a meeting being successful. Then I suggest what you can say to deal with them and bring the meeting back on track – especially (but not only) if you’re chairing the meeting.

The phone addict

Sue has her phone on the table in front of her. Her gaze seems to be magically drawn to it every few seconds. It beeps, she picks it up, grins and taps in a few words. While she has it in her hand, she calls up her weather app, grins again and sends a quick message. Her colleague asks a question, she doesn’t hear it, he repeats it. She smiles apologetically and asks him to explain what he means. He has to go over everything again.

 I’m assuming there are no previously agreed rules on phone use in meetings here. If there are it’s a more serious matter, of course. Often a look is enough to remind the phone addict that her behaviour is unacceptable. If not, you can say:

  • Could you put your smartphone away, please. We need everyone’s attention here.
  • Please turn off your phone until the meeting is over.
  • No checking messages during the meeting please. We’ll be taking a break around 11 o’clock.

The chatterer

Martin’s presenting a breakdown of spending during the last quarter. Not exactly riveting stuff. But Jack and Sarah seem to be having more fun. Their heads are bent towards each other, talking animatedly. The initial whispers are getting louder, there are frequent giggles. Martin looks around the table – has someone got a question or comment to make? Oh it’s Jack and Sarah, they’re not laughing at him, are they? Now he’s lost track of what he wanted to say.

Again if you can make eye contact with one of the chatterers and give them a meaningful look, you may not need to say anything. But if you can’t, or if they persist, keep your voice light and non-judgemental and say a combination of the following.

  • Have you got a comment to make? [I’d only use this if I genuinely thought they could be talking about the meeting topic.]
  • Could you save your conversation for after the meeting please.
  • I’m finding it difficult to concentrate because of the background noise.

The non-stop talker

The chair asks for suggestions on how to cut costs. Steve starts talking … and he doesn’t stop. He goes on and on. Giving reason after reason, example after example to underline his point. The chair notices other people switching off. At the beginning, she had the impression that several colleagues had ideas to contribute. Now everyone is looking down at the table, reading through their notes or staring out of the window – Sue’s eyes are straying back to her phone.

You don’t want to offend the non-stop talker, of course, but if you are chairing the meeting you need to make sure everyone is heard. So how do you get a word in to stop him? Try raising your hand in a stop gesture. In most cases he’ll pause, giving you a chance to say:  

  • Thanks Steve. Can I stop you there? We’re running out of time and I’d like to hear a few other opinions.
  • Thank you, Steve. Given what you’ve said, what do you suggest we do? Just one sentence please.*
  • Thanks for your input, Steve. In one sentence, what do you recommend?*

[* You need to be consistent here and stop him after one sentence, otherwise there was no point interrupting him.]

The easily side-tracked

After Steve has made his point, the chair asks the rest of the group for their suggestions. The discussion starts off well, with some good ideas. But then Mike goes off at a tangent, talking about an aspect which is only vaguely related. Carol joins in with an interesting point – but it’s far too much detail for this stage. The objective was just to collect general ideas. The group is getting further and further away from the actual topic.

However interesting some of these points may be, if you are the chair your job is to concentrate on achieving the overall aim of the meeting. You need to bring the meeting back on track and move it forward. These phrases can help to do just that:

  • I think we’re getting side-tracked here. Let’s focus on …
  • Let’s not go into the details now. We need to concentrate on the big picture first. So back to the original question … [repeat question].
  • It’s an interesting discussion, but we need to be careful not to get off the point. Shall we include this topic on the agenda for the next meeting?

The interrupter

Laura plays a very active role throughout the meeting. She gives the topics on the agenda her full attention and has lots to contribute – but no patience. When she has a point to make, she makes it immediately – interrupting whoever is speaking. She agrees with Mike, cuts him off mid sentence to add a point backing up his opinion and takes over. She thinks Carol has got it wrong and butts in to say so.

 Either the person who was cut off or the chair of the meeting should prevent the interruption, before anyone becomes really annoyed by the interrupter’s behaviour. For example, if you are interrupted try saying:

  • If I could just finish what I was saying.
  • I’d just like to finish this point.
  • Let me finish please.

 And if you are the chair you can say:

  • Just a minute, Laura. Could you let Carol finish speaking.
  • One moment, Laura. I’d like to hear Steve out.

[As always, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Practise saying these phrases naturally and, above all, in a non-judgemental, friendly way – especially if you’re singling out just one person. You need to ensure that nobody loses face.
And say something before you get angry.]

Those are the five types that I think are most often responsible for derailing meetings. Do you know others? If so, I’d be really interested in hearing about them.


Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more