Welcome back to our series about how to facilitate meetings with people who have challenging personalities. In this part of the series, we’re talking about multitaskers.
Have you ever been talking in a meeting, only to realize that no one is actually listening to what you’re saying? No? I don’t believe you.
In today’s fast moving world of digital transformation, distractions abound. You’re incredibly busy, just like everyone else on your team. As your ever growing to-do list continues to pile up, you reason you have no choice but to multitask during meetings. You check your messages or work on other projects, often at risk of missing a crucial piece of information. Not to mention that, as the workforce grows increasingly remote, multitasking while on a video call is even easier to do without being detected.
When you catch someone losing focus, your first instinct may be to blame him or her for lacking attentiveness or self control. But you have more control over your team’s attention span than you think — after all, your job as a facilitator is to keep people engaged. There are several things we can do to help people stay focused during meetings.
Put Attendees to Work
The best way to keep people engaged is to give them something to do. Structured facilitation activities hone people’s focus on completing one task at a time. Many of them are even game like and arguably fun. For example, rather than having an open conversation, ask attendees to write their ideas down, or draw them, or fill out a template you created before the meeting. When you need them to listen, ask them to write down their questions as they listen or note down feedback on an idea being presented.
Call On Attendees By Name
We want to engage people in the meeting before they have the opportunity to tune out. Before people lose focus, you can make a habit of addressing people by name and soliciting their input.
“Steve, I know you have a lot of experience working with disgruntled customers. What’s your opinion on the most frustrating problems our customers face?”
A word of caution here — this is a way to prevent people from losing focus, but not a good strategy when someone has already lost focus. It can be humiliating for the attendee to be asked a pointed question and then not be able to answer because they weren’t paying attention.
Gently Refocus Attendees
Even if you employ the strategies above, someone will inevitably become distracted. It’s relatively easy to tell when an attendee is distracted. Here are some tell-tale signs:
- They stop making eye contact with people speaking.
- They are fixated on their laptop or phone screen.
- They openly admit to being distracted or ask a colleague to repeat something.
- They show tired or impatient body language, such as fidgeting, yawning, or eye rubbing.
- They absent-mindedly repeat words of affirmation, like “Yep” or “Mhm.”
- They are shooting rubber bands off the tips of their fingers trying to land them in Deanna’s hair without her noticing.
For remote attendees, you can look for slightly different cues:
- They haven’t said anything in awhile.
- They have turned off their video for an extended period of time. By the way, we recommend always turning video on for remote meetings if your bandwidth can handle it.
- They are looking away from the screen or busily typing.
In some cases, your attendees will momentarily lose focus and still be capable of refocusing for a good chunk of time. At other times, they’ll reach a limit where refocusing for longer than a few minutes becomes a chore. As a facilitator, it’s important to recognize the difference.
The first few times an attendee loses focus, you can gently refocus them with a verbal cue.
“Are you following?”
“Are you tracking with me?”
However, if your attendees have reached the limit of their attention span, that’s a different issue. Here are some tips to make sure you don’t exhaust your attendees’ attention.
Strategically Time Your Meetings
The human attention span is not infinite. The temptation to attend to distractions multiplies when meetings last longer than expected. Anecdotally, I’ve found that people can lose focus just 10 to 20 minutes into a meeting. People can refocus on a topic, but at a certain point even refocusing becomes a struggle. When people reach this point, the meeting will really start to suffer.
In such a case, your first idea may be to power through and hammer out the rest of the session. But the best thing to do in such a situation is to give your team a short break — just 10 or 15 minutes to clear their heads or catch up on the messages cluttering their inbox. One small tip: make sure you give participants an exact time to return by.
For longer form meetings, such as all-day discovery sessions, you should build short breaks into the agenda. We also recommend including one longer break, usually during lunchtime. But remember that attention span is different for every person and every team. I have worked with teams that can stay focused for 2 hours, and others that top out at 20 minutes. We recommend scheduling breaks every 45 minutes as a starting point, then adjusting as necessary once you get a better feel for your team’s attention span.
It’s also important to commit to your meeting times. Extending a meeting 5 or 10 minutes is okay, but you shouldn’t ask people to stay for an extra 30 minutes. People will often say they have time to continue, but this is a prime time for other work to compete for their focus. Knowing how long to schedule a meeting is perhaps one of the hardest parts of being a facilitator and will take some significant practice.
Stay Out Of “The Weeds”
Often in meetings people will discuss topics in too much detail — in so much detail that other attendees have trouble keeping up with the discussion. We often refer to this as being “in the weeds.” When this happens, other attendees feel they can’t add much to the conversation and focus on other things. This becomes a bigger problem when the meeting continues and the attendee is still distracted.
When a conversation starts to be in the weeds, suggest that the team take the conversation offline, or, in other words, discuss the issue separately.
Set Ground Rules
If distraction is a chronic problem in your organization, you can consider setting some firm ground rules for everyone to follow during meetings. Here are some of our favorite ground rules:
- Laptops closed during meetings.
- Set Slack and other instant messengers to do not disturb.
- Put phones on silent.
If you’re not already in a facilitator role but would like to institute some of these rules, I recommend working with someone in your organization who has the influence necessary to do so.
It’s also a good practice to work with your team to create this list of rules. This way, your team will feel a sense of ownership over the rules and feel more inclined to respect them. You could even run a note and vote session to brainstorm and prioritize these rules as a group.
Hopefully, this strategy will prevent people from breaking the rules. But there’s always the chance someone does. When someone breaks a rule, it’s usually because they’re unaware the rule exists, or they simply forget. In such cases, simply reminding them of the rule will get your meeting back on track. If someone flat out refuses to follow a rule, you should individually discuss why he or she feels the need to break the rule. This could lead to some enlightening changes or tweaks to the rules.
The Rest of The Series
Intro and Part 1: The Silent Genius
Someone who has great ideas or input, but doesn’t speak up.
Part 2: The Swoop-and-Pooper
Someone who isn’t very involved in the project, but then swoops in late in the project lifecycle and gives feedback that sends you back to the drawing board.
Part 3: The Great Debaters
A pack of attendees who relish debate, side conversations, and talking over one another.
Part 5: The Unclear Communicator
A first cousin to the tangential thinker, the unclear communicator speaks in long, rambling sentences and uses unnecessarily complex terminology.
Looking for more information on how to handle challenging personalities? We have more for you coming soon.