Re: “Too many in-ter-rup-tions!” Jan Fowler, June 28.

I accepted an executive position in Northern California county where I continued a tradition of weekly management staff meetings.  By the second meeting I wondered how they accomplished anything and how they ever moved through an agenda.  The meetings were replete with interruptions, changing the subject, arguing, attacking, judging, belittling and misunderstanding.  No one would allow the other to finish. Meetings always exceeded the allotted time and fizzled in anger and frustration.  

A week later, we began reconditioning the culture. Meetings started and ended on time. No one sauntered in late. Within four months we changed the culture. Meetings became productive. They stuck to the topic. Participants actively listened. They asked questions for clarification and understanding. They did not judge or degrade ideas. They left appreciating one another and developed a respect for diverse perspectives.

What changed? It was the Indian talking stick. In my reading, I came across an article about how American Indians conducted their meetings. They used a stick, called a “talking stick.” The rules were simple. Whoever held the talking stick “had the floor.” Interrupting was not permitted. Nor was judging. When the stick-holder finished, others could only ask questions for understanding and clarification. Only when the speaker passed the stick could anyone introduce a new topic.

I showed up in a chaotic meeting with my version of the talking stick. I held it up and said, “Do you know what this is? This is a talking stick. Here’s how we will use it. Here’s how we will conduct meetings henceforth.” They laughed until I interrupted the meeting when a manager, presenting a plan, was interrupted and criticized by another attendee for having such stupid ideas.  “Excuse me, do you have the talking stick? No? Then you must abide.” When they realized I was serious, they began respecting the new approach and by the fourth month we had the results.

Many said the “talking stick” was a corny idea, yet it became tool that launched an urgently needed change in culture. Interruption is an infectious rudeness that brings on bad behavior and erodes relationships. In that organization, the first step in the culture change was interrupting interruption.

Jeff Denning, Redlands