By Elizabeth Bernstein
Sept. 10, 2020
I volunteer for a local neighborhood association and we've had a lot of Zoom meetings since the pandemic started. Increasingly, there are a few people, both men and women, who do most of the talking—bantering among themselves, cracking inside jokes, and endlessly giving their opinions. One guy, in particular, seems to hijack every meeting. He brags, interrupts people, casually dismisses others' ideas, and gets angry when someone disagrees with him. This group's work is important to me. But often it is difficult to break into the discussion and I find myself sitting there fuming in silence. What should I do?
—Stewing in N.J.
You need to speak up! By remaining silent, you're ceding the floor. This doesn't benefit you. And it doesn't benefit the group.
There have always been people who love to hear themselves talk and who dominate meetings. But online gatherings seem to have empowered these blowhards and made them harder to tolerate. These days, they're projecting right into our living rooms. Their faces seem so much closer and ballooned. There's no box of doughnuts to sweeten the experience.
Research shows that certain people take up more airtime in meetings. These include extroverts (surprise!), people who are higher-powered and people who belong to the majority of whoever is in the meeting. Not only are they more likely to talk and to interrupt others, they're more likely to receive credit for their ideas and to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Yes, it's super annoying. And your instinct to check out when you feel outtalked, outbragged and outmaneuvered is understandable. It's exhausting to try to carve out space for yourself while also anticipating and managing someone else's reactions. But you need to stop stewing.
You can start by giving the big talkers the benefit of the doubt. There's a good chance they don't realize how much they're talking. Maybe they're just enjoying themselves. Many people are feeling more isolated and lonelier these days—this meeting may be their big social event of the week. And because online meetings make it harder to read people's nonverbal cues, they might mistake other people's silence for captivation.
Dolly Chugh, a social psychologist and management professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, says that this lack of verbal cues makes it essential for online meetings to have a strong facilitator. If your group doesn't, consider volunteering for the position. If it does have one but the person doesn't seem fully in control, ask to privately brainstorm ideas to make the meeting more inclusive. Dr. Chugh, who studies organizational behavior and is the author of "The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias," suggests asking the facilitator to call on people directly after introducing an idea, instead of opening the floor.
Next, court allies in the group. Are others silent too? Reach out and ask why. Chances are, they feel the same as you do. But don't get caught up complaining. Your goal is to find a solution and to support each other. You can do this by telling your new ally: "I have an idea I'd like to propose at the next meeting but I'm worried I'll get interrupted. Will you please back me up?"
Finally, Dr. Chugh suggests you call the person who talks a lot. Tell him, or her, that you value their dedication and ideas. (It always helps to start off with something nice.) Then explain that you have some of your own but are struggling to make your way into the conversation. Ask if they would help by inviting you to speak.
Now enough of your silence. Go forth and conquer Zoom.
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