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Why do people talk so much during meetings?

From seeking attention and showing off to compulsive rambling, there are many underlying motivations at play inside the office

The compulsive speaker thrives on speaking. He is not really speaking to impress anyone present, but is following his calling in life, which is to speak. (Illustration by Jayachandran )

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So many meetings in our workplaces last for so long because people talk too much. I have a hypothesis that if participants in a discussion listened more, and spoke up only when they had a really important and relevant point to make, most meetings would get compressed into less than one-third the time they currently take. Unfortunately, this is not generally the case because people have so many motivations for speaking at meetings. Unless these underlying urges are suitably addressed, lots of us will continue to speak often and at length. 

I have suffered thousands of such meetings over three decades of my work life, and it is very likely I have made others suffer me as well (note : I do speak a lot). But these sessions have provided me a minor collateral benefit – they have helped me develop a classification of people who speak at meetings. 

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I present these archetypes below in the hope that this understanding may suitably sensitise us and set us on the path towards shorter, crisper discussions.

Attention seeker

Here is the first type, who is seen quite often. A person who speaks primarily to catch the attention of the boss, or of senior people attending the meeting. He believes that the man who gets heard by the top brass gets noticed. So he will pipe up at least once during each meeting, to say something. Content is of secondary importance to him. He may merely repeat a point made earlier by someone else, albeit packaged in a different way to present a veneer of originality. Or he may make a brief point totally unconnected with the subject of discussion, but of general interest, such as an observation on the soaring prices of food.

Compulsive speaker

The compulsive speaker thrives on speaking. He is not really speaking to impress anyone present, but is following his calling in life, which is to speak. He will launch into long commentaries on the subject being discussed, and, if he is the presenter, you can expect impressive monologues accompanying each power point slide. You may occasionally think he has finally finished speaking, but you will soon discover that he has merely taken a pause. The length and dominance of his contribution determines his satisfaction with the meeting.

The witty soul

She looks for every opportunity to exhibit her wit and elevated sense of humour. Wit and humour used in strict moderation are sometimes truly useful to break the monotony of a meeting or break the ice in a tense situation. However, repeated interjections can prove irritating, notwithstanding their humour quotient. But this does not deter the witty soul. She believes that she has an obligation to subject the audience to her intelligent puns and clever acerbic comments, and that they will love her for it.

Know-it-all

Mr. Know-it-all prides himself on his extensive knowledge of all matters under the corporate sun. He speaks primarily to reveal his extensive knowledge to the people gathered around. He often quotes esoteric facts and figures fluently to support his interjections, though there is no certainty that any or all of these are accurate or even directionally correct. He seeks to impress, and you may even hear him mention names of authors, philosophers and their ilk, as sources from where he has drawn his wisdom. His presence in a meeting is almost certain to extend its duration significantly.

The mighty critic

Here is a person who revels in being critical of every idea that gets tabled. She knows how to pick holes in virtually each suggestion, and will speak mostly to tell everyone why something cannot work. It is not that she works overly hard at being critical, it is just that this wonderful human trait occurs naturally to her. When she thinks that she has truly demolished an idea, she is at her happiest. The mighty critic is unlikely to ever offer an original suggestion of her own, perhaps because she has already killed it in her own mind.

Rambler bambler

The rambler bambler talks in a meandering way, trying to explain something that has emerged from the recesses of his mind, but taking a very long time in this effort. His thoughts sometimes flow through dense and even circular paths which come back through the foliage to approximately the same point where he first began. At other times, the ideas he is struggling to express are spoken before they have been fully formed in his mind. This leads to varying degrees of beating around the bush. He is generally well intentioned, but brevity is not his forte.

Quiet contributor

Here is a person who listens carefully and silently for most of the meeting, and then speaks briefly only when she thinks that she has something meaningful to contribute. Sometimes, she verges towards being so quiet that the Chairman of the meeting or others present have to invite her or even urge her to speak. Here is a rare species, and perhaps the sort of person we all love to include in a meeting. The problem is that Mr. Know-it-all or the compulsive speaker often ends up crowding her out.

Silent man

Finally, I have come across people who sit in several meetings, but do not say a word. They are totally silent, and I wonder why they are there. Yet they are being invited to meetings all the time, and they are clearly fine with joining, because I see them there. Often, they keep copious notes too. I am intrigued by these participants. Are they spies? Have they been granted observer status? Have they taken a spiritual oath of silence? I do not know. The only positive point here is that they do not contribute to extending the length of meetings.

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Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He loves narrating stories during meetings, which are sometimes tolerated and at other times ignored by colleagues.

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