how do I interrupt a senior colleague’s monologue during my meeting?

A reader writes:

I would love some feedback/advice for how to deal with a particularly annoying colleague in a different department. We work with this department to handle legal stuff for our group, so we have to liaise with him occasionally (and for important things).

However, he is a terrible communicator. Every time we meet (which we do monthly), he will go on long, irrelevant tangents that honestly are the same or similar ones each time. We usually have a lot to cover in these meetings, and I *hate* wasting time when things need to get done.

At our most recent meeting, he had rescheduled a number of times and then last minute decided to call in rather than show up in person (so I was already annoyed). Again, after being asked direct, straightforward questions, he started going on and on (and on) about something that wasn’t relevant. In the middle of his monologue, I interrupted him and said, “Thank you, but I’d like to keep this moving, we have a lot to cover.”

We moved on, but we could tell he was frustrated, and my two colleagues in the room told me afterwards that as I’m learning to be in a new leadership role, something like this is better to be avoided. He is senior to me and his role is really important, and I definitely don’t want to be rude. But I also don’t want to continue sitting in countless meetings where things don’t get done because this person can’t do his job effectively.

Help! Scripts, ways to keep my mouth shut, or any other strategies to mitigate these kinds of things would be *super* useful. I love being in my new leadership role, and want to continue growing, and I know these kinds of interactions will inevitably continue coming up.

The fact that he’s senior to you is really relevant. If he weren’t, you’d have a lot more leeway to just lay down the law — your meeting, your decision about how to spend time in it. If he were a peer or junior to you, you could be very direct — just as you attempted.

Frankly, in many situations and with reasonable people, the way you did it would’ve been fine with someone senior to you too. And I’m not sure how much weight to put on your colleagues’ feedback about this — some people are excessively deferential when it’s unneeded, in ways that hold them back professionally. That could be the case with those coworkers— or they could be absolutely right, especially if your manner revealed your impatience or frustration.

In any case, when you’re dealing with someone senior to you, the safest way to discourage long monologues in a meeting you’re running is to try to head it off before it even starts. At the start of the meeting, say something like, “We have limited time today and a lot to cover so I’m going to try to get us through our agenda pretty quickly.” You can even add, “Because we have so much to cover, I might jump in and redirect us if I’m getting worried about time — apologies in advance if so.”

You can also explicitly lay out how much time is available for each topic. For example: “We need to cover X, Y, and Z today, so I’m planning on 15 minutes for each of those. If it starts looking like we’re going to go over for any of them, I might jump in and move us along so that we get through all of it today.”

For some people, that will be the signal they need to rein themselves in. For others, it won’t be — but you’ll at least have given them context so that if you do need to jump in, they know what’s going on.

If your guy does start monologuing after that, then you do The Very Polite Redirect. For example: “Bob, can I jump in here? I know you know a lot about this, which is great, and what will be the most helpful for me to hear from you is ___. Can I ask you to speak to that while we’ve got you here?” (In particular, “while we’ve got you here” can be very helpful — it both flatters the person by referencing the value they’re providing and reinforces that time is limited. “I really want to take advantage of your knowledge on ___” works similarly.)

If you need to cut him off but it’s not to get him to speak about something else, then try this: “I’m sorry to jump in while you’re still talking. What you’re saying is really interesting but I wonder if we can come back to it at the end of the meeting if we have time, since we have so much we need to make sure we tackle today.”

And in response to his habit of responding to straightforward questions with long, irrelevant tangents, sometimes you can head those off up-front too. When you ask the initial question, try being more explicit about what you’re looking for — for example, “I know you know a ton of the background on X, but for right now what what I’m hoping to find out from you is Y.” Or, “I know this is complicated enough that we could spend the whole meeting on it, but really briefly before we move on to talking about Z, can you give me a quick update on Y?”

Now, all that said … if he’s frustrated right now and he’s someone you need to keep happy, I might hold off on these strategies for a while, or at least not implement all of them. Sometimes “listen to a 15-minute answer from Bob that could have been five minutes because he’s sensitive and we need his good will” is just part of the job, and you plan accordingly. (And while that’s annoying, it can be less frustrating if you plan on it going in.)

{ 139 comments… read them below }

  1. MusicWithRocksIn*

    I think with this situation the best strategy going forward would be to ask him the most tight, specific questions you can manage, but to lay off re-directing him once he’s already speaking for awhile. A kind of “So Bob, once the new lama-shaving protocol is initiated what steps should we take when we have a rush order for red lama products – I’m particularly looking for specific instructions for the packing department?”

    1. The answer is (probably) 42*

      I love your username :D

      Also, building on this- there’s a strategy that’s commonly used with toddlers but I’ve found it useful with work ramblers too. Can you frame your questions as multiple choice rather than open ended? This obviously depends on the nature of the questions that you have to ask, but if can save a lot of time. For example, rather than “which part of the teapot are we going to be designing this quarter?” ask “are we going to focus on designing handles or spouts this quarter?”

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        Ngl, this approach works really well with me when I get caught in decision overload.

        1. The answer is (probably) 42*

          Oh I absolutely use this on myself too! The secret is, the toddler was within us all along.

      2. LadyGrey*

        I LOVE this approach and have found it highly effective when dealing with conversation hijackers and toddlers of all ages. We call it “red shirt blue shirt.” Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt to the playground today? I don’t care which, and either way you’re wearing a shirt, so…

        And yeah, it works on me too, when I just Cannot with decisions anymore.

    2. Artemesia*

      Maybe touch base with him ahead of time. Let him know the meeting is jam packed and you are anxious to get his input on questions 1 2 and 3 and are worried about running out of time, so wanted to give him a heads up on needed information.

      1. Zephy*

        Oooh, that sounds like inviting him to monologue at you, personally, in advance of the meeting. I don’t have good enough control of my face to do something like that, unless it was a phone call! You’d probably glean the information you needed from that, though, if you had the time to sit through every errant thought that crawled through his head for half an hour.

  2. Robert in SF*

    One technique I have had some success with is to interrupt/chime in with either a side point or agreement, go on for a few seconds, then stop yourself and say, “I’m sorry, I am running on and we need to finish the agenda topics. Let’s circle back to this [tangent] at the end, once we have addressed all the specifics this meeting is about.”

    Maybe it can work occasionally, using it with other techniques to reign in the tangents.

  3. On a pale mouse*

    Is he a lawyer? Lawyers are trained to consider all the angles, all the ways things can go wrong, and so forth. And not telling your client all those things can feel like you’re not fully advising them. I can’t tell if this kind of thing is what’s going on, but if it is, maybe say something like, ‘I appreciate that there are a lot of nuances here, but bottom line, what’s your best advice?’ Or ask for the options and his assessment of the risks for each, something like that? On the other hand, if you’re asking what to put on the Llama Grooming Consent Form and he’s telling you about that time he went to Peru and groomed a llama… then he’s just one of those people and I got nothing.

    1. Hills to Die On*

      Ugh I worked with Bob and he was a blathering idiot and not a lawyer considering all sides and not bribing relevant info to the table.

      I can tell you what doesn’t work – scheduling meetings to go longer because he will suck up all of that time too. For every hour-long meeting, I could count on 15 minutes of relevant content from him. And yes, he got mad when we interrupted him.

      I never really dealt with it, let him be a time suck, and I was so happy to get away from him.

    2. AKchic*

      Every blatherer I’ve had is decidedly *not* a lawyer. But they all have been the same gender.

      Sometimes, you really do have to say “okay, thank you for the input” once you get the actual meat of the answer and shut down the rambling hard.

      1. Free Meercats*

        Obviously, you never met Bev, my former lab manager. There wasn’t a topic she couldn’t turn into a 20 minute treatise on something only tangentially unrelated.

        1. AnonAnon*

          This is what I was going to say….scientists. They are smart but won’t let something rest! :)

      2. Sue*

        Lawyers are taught to be persuasive. Sometimes that is done as tight, concise argument. Sometimes it is browbeating a point to oblivion.

      3. Mel_05*

        I’ve known men and women who couldn’t be shut up. It’s a personality thing, not a gender thing.

      1. On a pale mouse*

        It doesn’t always take though. I wasn’t suggesting it’s something inherent to law or any profession; I think it’s more of a personality trait. What I was describing is how this trait comes out if the person who has it is a lawyer (and hasn’t had it trained out of them).

    3. Delta Delta*

      We lawyer folk are trained specifically to say what we need to say and be done. I refer to it as the portapotty method of communication: get in, do what you’ve got to do, and get the heck out of there.

  4. Jennifer*

    I’m hoping the meeting will be remote this month. If it is, you can zone out while he’s talking. Read, work on something else, prepare what you’re going to say later in the meeting, etc. If he’s senior to you and it’s important that he be kept happy, there’s not much else you can do.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Zoning out doesn’t solve the underlying problem though. They have a specific amount of time to cover a specific list of topics and he’s clearly wasting everyone’s time by rambling. Alison’s suggestions are best. Zoning out helps no one, especially if you’re leading the meeting and have things to get done.

      1. Workerbee*

        I get what you’re saying. If OP is the leader of the meeting, then that comes with the understanding that there will leading, not just allowing—which is a learned skill.

        And sometimes, it still doesn’t work because the culture fosters it.

        There are those people who will just keep behaving as if their time and words are more important than anyone else’s. In meetings where I’m not the leader and/or have no standing to redirect, I do zone out and do other things. I have a lot to do and listening to a half hour irrelevant preamble followed by an influx of derailing Ideas! followed by total lack of adherence to meeting end times…well, that’s such a waste of time to me.

        I have a few blowhards on my team. One is my boss. Jumping in to redirect politely — think, “That’s an excellent point, and a perfect segue to the next topic!” type of tone — has resulted in the blowhard dragging us back so he/she can continue their monologue.

        (I don’t get how these people are okay with constantly derailing and running over time, with a result of being late for and running over time for the next meeting, with another result of no time to get actual work done, but they don’t seem to care, so I’m probably just a bad fit for the culture.)

  5. Mel_05*

    I have nothing to ad except, good luck! I hope you’re able to get good results with these!

  6. Count Boochie Flagrante*

    It sounds like — although the letter isn’t really explicit about this — you’re new to being in leadership, or at least leadership in this particular context. That, combined with his seniority, tilts me toward encouraging you to listen to the advice you’ve been given and hold back on trying to redirect him. Once you’ve established yourself a little more, you’ll have both a better sense of the lay of the land (ie how much of a risk you’re taking in doing this) and some more political capital shored up to let you take more charge of the pace of the meeting.

    In general, this feels like one of those things where you’re dealing with someone inherently unreasonable — of course a reasonable person would be willing to be nudged that the meeting needs to keep moving, but then, a reasonable person probably wouldn’t be repeatedly derailing meetings to deliver a personal soliloquy, either. The question “how do I handle this unreasonable person in a reasonable and effective way” is always inherently tricky, because the effectiveness and reasonability of your response will tend to move inversely to each other.

    1. Myrin*

      The letter actually does explicitly mention OP’s newness, but I think something is missing in that sentence or it got messed up for some other reason: “my two colleagues in the room told me afterwards that while I’m as I’m learning to be in a new leadership role” – I guess it meant “while I’m right about the issue” or similar?

      1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

        Yeah, the missing word was why I said I didn’t feel it was explicit — as it could have been that OP was new to leadership only in this specific context, not in general, or new to the specific role but not to leadership itself.

    2. valentine*

      Once you’ve established yourself a little more
      I got the sense the advisors just let him eat the floor, or they could help rein him in.

      I wonder if it would help to finish his tangent for him or to say, “Let’s hold that for the end.”

    3. RecoveringSWO*

      I agree. On the bright side, it’ll be less painful for everyone to sit through his monologues now since you’re working remotely.

  7. Spinning wheel does NOT have to go round*

    I don’t know OP’s gender, but if OP is a woman or non-binary, it can be much more difficult to redirect this kind of personality without putting his back up. I work with a bunch of men like this (and while not ALL men do it at my org, it is only men who do, and they are of all ages), and even our more self-aware male colleagues don’t have much luck getting them on-task.

    We’ve tried redirecting (both men and women), sending out timed agendas ahead of time, as hard copies at the start of the meeting, scheduling shorter meetings, but none of it has been successful. The worst part is, even when you indulge in their monologues/therapy sessions, it’s like they forget everything they’ve said the next time you meet with them, so it’s just non-stop spinning of wheels.

    It’s to the point that despite this being a stable, well-paid job with good work-life balance, I’m going to jump ship as soon as I can because it’s almost impossible to get any kind of collaborative project done and is completely demoralizing. I am eager to hear what solutions others may have.

    1. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      I have dealt with this my whole career, and the only thing I can say is that it gets a little better as you age and have more experience and authority—twice as much as what you should need to have, but still. eventually I was able to be choosier about where I worked and found a company with a less old boys club culture. But the struggle was real, especially when I was in my 20s and 30s.

    2. Elemeno P.*

      It’s really difficult, yeah. I’ve had moderate success with being very forceful during meetings about staying on the agenda (which gave me the reputation of being a huge B for some people), but even then there are always the people who just like to hear themselves talk and anything different is an affront.

  8. Abogado Avocado*

    Allison, I like your scripts, but would make one edit: Don’t tell the guy his comments are interesting. Tell him, “I know your time is very valuable, so please address ___.” What’s he going to say to that, “No, my time is not valuable”? He’s not. Whereas, if you tell him his comments are interesting and he knows a lot, etc., you are unintentionally reinforcing his tendency to bloviate (because, hey, you said he was interesting and knows a lot).

    1. mf*

      Yes, this is an excellent strategy. I used to work as an EA and I found that for people in senior positions, they LOVE it when you demonstrate that your conscious of their time.

    2. tamarack and fireweed*

      I too like Allison’s approach as well as this addition.

      This is a problem I have regularly as well: Keeping more senior people on track during a meeting. Two things are your friends: agendas, and a believable pose of thoughtful attention to what he has to say. If he wants deference, give him deference in words. Start the meeting out with “I thought so much about the input Bob gave us on issue X last time. this issue is similar, so I’ll be really interested in Bob’s take”. Then when you get to the agenda point, narrow it down “I think at this stage, we need Bob’s experience to sort out [specific point that you need]. This is our second agenda point, and we have two more, so let’s say we allocate the next 10 min to advancing on this, and then move on to [other agenda point]”.

      In German, you have the idiom that amounts to the idea of smearing honey around someone’s mouth – rhetorical honey is cheap! Between the alternatives a) Bob understands you’re not interested in his peregrinations, is resentful and fights to get his speaking time in and b) Bob wrongly thinks you consider him the bee’s knees, because you’re handing him the limelight, but has adopted the habit of waiting for the moment and letting you run the agenda, you definitely want b).

      (Now the problem I have, with senior scientists, is that I set out the agenda points 1., 2. and 3., and add that we also will need to think about 4, but it has time until the next meeting, and they will jump around wildly, discuss 1. then 4, then something unrelated, then 3, and I have to scramble to get 2 onto their radar…)

      1. Thankful for AAM*

        Rhetorical honey does not seem cheap to me! All this working around delicate personalities is just exhausting!

    3. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      I agree and also worried that “interesting” could seem inauthentic if OP appears impatient or annoyed by the interruption

    4. Avasarala*

      Eh, if this is someone whose goodwill you need, and they are a bloviator, I don’t think complimenting them like that will reinforce the tendency–it’s there regardless. And it’s a cheap way to buy someone’s goodwill as you cut them off.

    5. Mel_05*

      If you make it about his time he’ll just say, “Oh I don’t mind” or “I’ve got time for this.”

  9. Third or Nothing!*

    OK is anyone else imagining Syndrome from The Incredibles as the monologuer? That’s immediately where my mind went (mainly due to the word “monologue” to be honest). Wonder if it would actually be helpful to imagine him as such in the OP’s mind – it could cut down on the internal annoyance level at least.

    1. AKchic*

      Except that the pontificator doesn’t recognize that they are monologuing. They feel they are “educating” or “enlightening” or even “informing” the rest of the people by “sharing their wisdom and experience”. Especially if there is an age factor here. For those where it’s just experience differences and not an age factor, it’s not so much a learned scholar teaching fresh students, but a “sharing experiences with the collective” kind of thing.

      I have one guy who, whenever he starts in on a story, will say “stop me if you’ve heard this one before”, but as soon as you tell him you’ve heard it (at least a dozen times already) he says “oh, well it’s good practice for me to retell it” and continues on. He doesn’t actually care that he’s telling you the same story over again, he just wants to talk and he likes telling that particular story.

      1. Third or Nothing!*

        Syndrome doesn’t either! At least at first. He’s *waxing poetic* on the nature of humanity or whatever. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that one…”monologue” just triggered an association and made me smile and I thought OP would enjoy the imagery too.

        Also that one dude is a jerk. If he sees his reflection, will he fall in love and waste away?

        1. AKchic*

          He’s old, lonely and doesn’t perform regularly anymore. We have had many discussions and warnings about monopolizing people / time when he is performing, or in rehearsals and he has admitted that he is using the “little old man” image to his advantage, so those of us in charge don’t let him get away with it.

  10. Mary*

    When I was very junior, I had to minute a very long, frustrating academic committee where people would go off on monologues and and even arguments with no relevance to the topics we needed to cover. During a particular annoying argument (two people were arguing, but both so focused on getting their own point across and not listening to each other, and neither had noticed that they were *actually agreeing with each other*) I interrupted terribly politely and said, “I’m so sorry, do you need me to minute this?” Everyone jumped awake and the chair realised he was supposed to be in charge and stopped the argument, noted two actions for the minutes and we moved on. It was glorious.

    It doesn’t sound like it’s clear whether you’re chairing the meeting, so would it be useful to formalise that a little? And possibly to have someone minuting who can nudge you back to relevant discussions and actions in a terribly polite and subservient way?

    1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      Ha, well done. “Do I need to minute this” is an incredibly good way to ask if this bullsh*t is actually relevant to anyone.

    2. AKchic*

      As someone who used to take minutes in meetings that had three separate pontificators in the same meetings – this brings me great joy.

    3. Starbuck*

      Love that tactic – I’ve had similar success reigning in a tangent by asking something like ‘just so I’m clear, what are the action items we’re suggesting here?’ and then it turned out, oops, there actually were none and we could move on.

  11. juliebulie*

    I work with a guy like this. Fortunately, our managers are used to his behavior and feel free to cut him off when he goes off on a long (and oft-told) tale about one of the four topics that really interests him.

    When these managers aren’t around, I try to phrase my question as “Yes or no – extended spouts on the new teapots?” Sometimes explicitly requesting “yes or no” elicits a brief answer. Other times, it elicits a long story about one of his favorite topics. In that case, I reply, “So, yes?” and if he doesn’t protest, I’m done. (He will protest if I guess wrong, fortunately.)

    This might not work for OP, but if it’s any consolation, just know that you are not alone.

    1. Lorax*

      I dealt with this exact same situation. My boss at the time was incredibly long-winded, prone to irrelevant side stories, and repeated himself constantly. And at the end, nothing of what he said over the course of these 15- to 30-minute long tangents answered the main question! At all! He was continually given explicit feedback from his bosses to be more concise in all his communications, and would be frequently cut-off by our board members citing his need to be more direct in answering questions, but *nothing* changed how he communicated. In the end, my solution was very similar: Ask questions in a Yes-or-No format whenever possible… and when that gets ignored, jump in with a summary of what you think he’s saying.

      For example:

      Me: “Did you need me to write up an executive summary of our mutant lama hybridization project for that new grant application?”
      Him: “You know, I was thinking about this, and since the world really needs mutant lamas right now, and since this project has been a high priority for such a long time — you know our founder first talked about mutant lamas back in 1965 … [insert ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE PROJECT over our organization’s 60-year history, which I already know back-to-front]… I think we need to do more to communicate the importance of what we’re doing and how this will change the world forever by…”
      Me, cutting in: “I totally agree, and it sounds like yes, you do need the executive summary, correct?”
      Him: “Yes, please write that up, because you know that if we delay on identifying sufficient mutant sub-populations, we’ll lose… etc…. etc…”
      At which point I could jump in to excuse myself to go start working on the thing he needed: “Yes, that’s so true, and I’ll include that in my summary, which I need to get started on if I’m going to get it for you by the end of the day. I’ll be at my desk if you think of anything else to add. Thanks!”

      In a meeting context this might look like:

      Me: “Do we need more data on mutant lamas?”
      Him: “I think mutant lamas will save the world, like that one time while I was hiking with our founder in Peru…”
      Me: “It sounds like you’re pointing out that we have a lot of good anecdotal evidence already. I think we can definitely fit that in with our preexisting quantitative data, but do we need to do more research?”

      The upside is that I became a much more conscientious and concise communicator myself. PSA: If asked a Yes-or-No question, respond with the words “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” before adding additional relevant information!

      Ugh, I’m exhausted just thinking about those times. Godspeed, letter writer!

  12. Anon for this*

    Ugh, this reminds me of how things fell apart at one of my previous workplaces. We formed an equity committee because our less societally privileged employees were frightened (and sometimes being mistreated) after the 2016 election. A senior staff member no one had seen before (an elderly white guy) showed up, ate up 40 of our 55 minutes talking about hypothetical minutiae of federal law, and stopped only when he noticed one of the other employees on my level (a woman of color from abroad) in the corner trying not to cry. He scoffed, raised his voice out of incredulity, and said, “why are you so AFRAID?!”. I jumped in and explained it the way I would to an eleven year old. The committee never met again, and my international colleague (who is wonderful) and I both left to get jobs abroad. The problem wasn’t going to go away. We had some people in power who should not have been.

    1. anon for this*

      This reminds me of the various middle-class, male, white, cis, straight coworkers and acquaintances who were incredibly patronizing to me for being visibly disturbed at that time. Yeah, I’m sure things will be fine for you, Trent McWhitebread. Thanks for the stunning lack of empathy.

    1. Venus*

      This is my strategy! It can be difficult when they should clearly be part of an earlier topic, but if you can manage the meeting so that he’s last then at least you don’t have to worry about him taking up so much time that other topics can’t be addressed. I don’t care if people take up more time, except I am really irritated when it forces time away from others, so having them go last resolves this.

      I used to attend a meeting where someone was known for talking at length about a specific topic, and in the end we scheduled them last and those who weren’t interested in the topic would quietly leave.

      I have also attended meetings where participants were asked to provide a summary ahead of time by email, and then people could ask questions during the meeting if needed.

    2. pally*

      And try to include a hard end time on the agenda.

      The professional organization I belong to meets for leadership meetings at the local library. We rent a room. They are very keen to kick us out at the end of our rented time. That helps end the endless talk.

    3. MM*

      This might work really well because you’re being mindful of their time – let’s say it’s a one-hour meeting, you’ll add them to the meeting, but tell them they’re last on the agenda so “feel free to show up just for the last half-hour” or the last fifteen minutes. That way they can get actual work done in that first half-hour before they show up!

    4. TardyTardis*

      I did that once with an 80 year old woman who could talk for 45 minutes about missions in a hour meeting (church stuff). I put her on last so she had ten minutes and we could all smell lunch coming from the nearby kitchen.

  13. Chocolate Teapot*

    If you really can’t step in and cut him off, you might consider arranging the agenda so that his items (or the items that tend to lead to the huge asides) are at the end? You’ve then got a fairly useful ‘out’ by running out of time and needing to wrap the meeting up.
    Otherwise you may want to keep an eye out for other meetings with him and see if anyone else has a better technique to keep them on track.

    1. Amy Sly*

      Another option is what I used when leading an adult Sunday School class. All of these people were three to four times older than me (and most had retired from extremely senior positions in the church organization, so obviously pulling rank wasn’t really an option. We had one lady who’d show up about every three weeks and halfway through the discussion would share a completely irrelevant scriptural quote that would kill the conversation and create awkward silence. Other teachers had tried asking her to respond to the actual conversation instead of derailing it for her own purposes to no luck. My solution was to have her offer an opening prayer — it gave her the three minutes in the center of attention to say her piece, and then having done that, she’d ignore everything else that happened and sometimes actually sneak out the back of the room.

      Now, that doesn’t work with everyone; sometimes bloviators will expand the blovations to fill all the time they’re allowed. Probably most of them. But some people just want to lay out their marker that they’re contributing, even if they aren’t, and in which case, letting them “contribute” and then ignoring them for the rest of the time can be a way to cope with someone you want to shut up but can’t.

      1. PhyllisB*

        Amy, this reminds me of many years ago I was attending a church service/dinner on the ground with my grandmother.
        When the service was over, the preacher called on a man to say the blessing for the meal. Well, he droned on and on to the point he was blessing the founders of the church and the land the church was built on. He paused to take a breath, and the preacher jumped in with “AMEN!! Thank you, Brother Jones!!” You could feel the relief sweep the room.

        1. PhyllisB*

          Of course, to be fair, this poor man was probably not used to praying in public and just didn’t know how to end, but still….just be thankful your class member knew how to give a quick prayer and shut up!!

          1. Amy Sly*

            Eh, it wasn’t always super quick (and I caught a few folks rolling their eyes at my solution) but it really was a case of only having three options: not let her speak at all, let her go off on tangents, or give her an assignment (opening prayer) that was minimally disruptive.

            It’s a bit like trying to train a bad habit out of a pet: it’s very hard to just make them stop doing something (e.g. jumping up when you come home). It’s much easier to replace the bad habit they’re doing with instilling a new habit you like or at least can tolerate (e.g. train the dog to sit when you open the door — obviously the dog can’t sit and jump at the same time). Likewise, sometimes the best way to get someone to stop doing something you can’t stand is to give them a responsibility that makes doing the obnoxious behavior more difficult.

    2. Heidi*

      Also, if there are items on the agenda that everyone needs to work on vs. items on the agenda that only a subset really needs to work on, maybe put the broader items first and then let the non-essential people leave the meeting. It’s possible that Senior Guy will lose interest in pontificating once the audience winnows down to only a couple of people, but even if doesn’t, it will minimize the number of people who have to sit there listening to him instead of getting on with their work. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just mentally put “indulging Senior Guy as he monologues” as another bullet point in your job description and think of it in the same way you do “ordering printer paper.” Not fun, but it has to be done.

  14. Timekeeper*

    Sounds like you need to create a meeting agenda that you send out ahead of the meeting and show at the start of the meeting. The agenda will list each topic, who’s presenting it, with an allotted time in minutes.

    You should also have a dry erase board or similar that you can write off topic items that come up – the parking lot. Action items can then be assigned from the parking lot once the meeting is over, with the key individuals present to take the assignments.

    Hold tight to the schedule and end the meeting on time.

  15. Retro*

    I have a coworker who can be long winded. What I’ve found to be helpful is to prep him beforehand with a brief phone call or in-person conversation. Usually, he will be long-winded during the phone call but I can be clear on what I need from him when we go to the larger meeting. During the larger meeting, he will have already been talked out from our previous convo and tends to be more concise.

    Another benefit is that you may gradually understand why your senior collegue is long winded and can learn to curtail that in meetings without a pre-convo. Downside is that you’ll have to put in a little bit of work beforehand to ensure your meeting runs more smoothly.

    Overall, I think it’s generally worth it to put in some extra time to understand a colleague’s communication and work style. I’ve worked with a lot of more senior engineers who are AWESOME at their job but come with a few quirks (as do we all but especially with highly talented senior technical people) and learning their style of work and communication has really helped in gaining their trust and support. It’s also been rewarding to bridge communication gaps and advocate for their ideas to be heard and not cast aside because others don’t understand him.

    1. mf*

      I’ve used this approach too. In the larger meeting, I will head off the long-winded coworker by bringing up his points or concerns myself: “Earlier today, Bert and I discussed X and Y. We both agree that Z is the best approach.”

    2. sb51*

      I was going to suggest this — I’ve used it to very good effect in the past.

      Sometimes it even means senior person doesn’t need to show up for the big meeting, you can just say “I already ran this past Bob and he suggested [suggestion that you have already incorporated into your plan]”.

      Or you can get him/her on board as a meeting co-runner/facilitator; I’ve often found that these sorts of ramblers (myself, uh, included) are equally annoyed at *other* people rambling and if you can get them to be the Meeting Police for you, they’ll police themselves, too. Plus if they’re a lot senior, they can bluntly cut off anyone in between you and them in seniority.

  16. OrigCassandra*

    I have no advice, despite having worked with/for several of these blowhards. I’ve never seen anything stop them in a meeting where they’re the senior person present and meeting facilitators do not have real authority to direct the meeting.

    I do have a story, however… there’s a high-up person in my institution (higher ed) who is absolutely That Blowhard. My department has suffered through a couple of potential and actual clenched-teeth “collaborations” with his, so I’ve had much more exposure to him than is good for anyone really.

    He signed up for a lightning talk at a campus symposium not long ago, clearly on the belief that Lightning Talk Rules Did Not Apply To Him because he is That Blowhard. The rules were simple — three minutes and then the person with the timer gives the signal and the audience politely claps you off. (I finished my own lightning talk that day in a swift hundred seconds, because I’m cool like that.)

    That Blowhard bloviated for three minutes. The Signal was given. The audience duly began clapping. That Blowhard paused for a moment, thinking this no more than a tribute to his amazingness, and kept talking. The audience clapped louder. That Blowhard raised his voice. The polite applause became significantly louder and less polite. That Blowhard finally, finally, finally got the point and left the stage.

    I saw him as he left the session. Face like thunder. It was GLORIOUS.

    1. Hills to Die On*

      That does sounds awesome. Did everyone want to start clapping in meetings to shut him up from then on? I bet they did.

    2. Spinning wheel does NOT have to go round*

      I am both so very happy for you and jealous that I have not been able to experience this myself! (also academia)

    3. GeekBoi*

      HAH! my grandfather was a lay preacher, and my grandmother would sit in the front pew during his services. If the sermon went on too long, she would start coughing until he wrapped it up!

  17. Mynona*

    Maybe ask your colleagues how they or others respond when he goes on tangents? It doesn’t sound like this behavior is unique to your meetings with him.

  18. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    I have worked with many many many of these people. The people in my field are not known for social skills or communication skills, and with seniority comes the confidence (not in a good way) and the urge to talk at people for as long as they will let you. The colleagues sound a bit off the mark to me. Learning to be in a new leadership role sounds to me like all the more reason to work on finding a way to keep Bob under a time limit. Nobody got to succeed in a leadership role by letting meeting attendees talk over them forever in their own meetings. “Can we take this offline?”, combined with a clear agenda that Bob is aware of, has usually worked with the Bobs in my work life.

  19. Quickbeam*

    I have a colleague who is a “One time? At Band Camp?” Sort of derailer of meetings. The rest of us take turns on cutting her off before we waste a day. That way she can get mad at one person at a time. I am senior to her and she is not old, before age raises its head.

  20. YoungTen*

    Is there any chance of emailing some of those questions to him? I knew someone like him and the longwinded way of talking stopped when he had to write. Most people understand that wordiness in writing is a no, no.

    1. Starbuck*

      Yes this was my first thought to, try and get as many of your questions answered in writing via email as possible – much easier to skim over a rant in text even if he still can’t be concise in the medium! I imagine it would make the rambling more bearable if there were fewer questions to get through in the phone/in person meetings.

  21. jamjari*

    I’d also suggest that the OP take a step back and make sure it’s not just a difference of communication styles or approaches to problem solving. I had a colleague once (a peer) who I felt went off on irrelevant tangents. I’d get frustrated and start to tune him out. Then I had training that made me realize he was just approaching things in a way that was foreign to my own style. He actually had very valuable input…once I stayed engaged long enough to hear it.
    Probably not the case here, but it’s always worthwhile checking our assessment of the situation.

  22. AnotherAlison*

    Ugh. No advice, just a sympathizer. My project has a weekly call with 20+ people from 5 companies involved. There are 2 or 3 topics that we derail on each week and 3-4 people spend 30 minutes of an hour call diving into specifics about XXXX that most other people don’t really need to know about. My boss, who is part of the project steering committee, suggested a separate call with just those people and someone else said they wanted to keep it as-is and it was good for “everyone” to hear. That’s the nice part about remote work, I suppose. We can do other stuff now when things don’t pertain to us.

  23. Batgirl*

    If the monologues really always “are the same”, then I would use the predictability to plan. So either:
    1) Play boring old git bingo. Mentally, (unless you can write in shorthand or in code) and award yourself a treat point every time he hits a top ten.
    2) Cut him off certain topics at the pass: “Now obviously this is a (relevant) issue and not an (irrelevant) issue. Monologue Marvin, you have expertise in (relevant) that’s helpful here. Can you explain how (relevant successful incident) was achieved?
    Another thing you can do is phrase it “I think this is a (relevant) issue and not an (irrelevant) issue. Monologue Marvin, do you agree?” and let him rip. If he’s important, however wrong, there’s value in learning how he thinks.
    3) Give him a focal point to prevent the meanderings. Either a slide up on screen or hand him something to comment on. You might need to sacrifice to the time gods if it doesn’t work initially and say “Oh yes, but the slide?” until he is trained to respond to the focal point.

  24. Free Meercats*

    Whatever you do, don’t do what I did at a national conference while on a time limited panel. The Bloviator was talking and talking, mostly on topic, but she wasn’t alone on the panel and was ignoring attempted interruptions. Then she said the fateful words, “To make a long story short…” Forgetting I had a live mike in front of me, I muttered, “Too late.”

    While it got a great laugh from the crowd and shut her up, it was – less than diplomatic.

      1. stemmy* If I was at that conference, you would have been my favorite person.

        Now I’m going to have daydreams (or nightmares…) that I’m going to do the same thing. It’s something I would totally be guilty of doing, too.

  25. Aquawoman*

    I work with a guy who does this (also a lawyer, as am I) and I have come to the conclusion that he’s thinking through the answer out loud. He’s one of those people who needs to go through the whole context (I am very much the opposite; fast forward to the answer!) But if that is the case, one thing that might (maybe, might) help is to let him know what you need to know in advance and maybe some of that thinking out loud will be thinking inside his own head in advance.

  26. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    Another script I like (especially for conference calls) is “You know that is an interesting point, but we have so much to get through. Let’s take this offline and get back to XYZ on the agenda…” The leadership at our company use it really effectively to make sure we don’t get too derailed. It might work slightly less well when delivered to someone senior to you, but it’s polite and gets things back on topic.

  27. Leela*

    I feel your pain, OP! The last two weeks we had daily higher-up and admin meetings trying to figure out how to keep the business going with the lockdown, and every meeting would get derailed for an hour for someone (I hate to admit that it is ALWAYS the seniors on staff) going on a long tangent about nothing when we had extremely important, time-dependent work to get done.

    And any attempts to cut them off did indeed lead to severe frustration on their end as they seemed to think they were getting cut off in the middle of their point but unfortunately they really weren’t making any point, just talking to hear themselves talk while the rest of us waited to get back to work.

    Our leading manager didn’t reign anyone in at all so the rest of us wound up having to do it, and the result is that we just have no meetings now, when we really do need them. It is not an ideal solution and I’m very frustrating at the meeting leaders to have chosen to go this way.

    I think that what you should do here depends so much on your workplace (how much influence does this person have over what projects come your way? Are they more likely to be confused but would really care if they knew that everyone was upset with them derailing meetings, or are they likely to not care because anyone junior to them should just have to listen and they know what they’re doing? etc) that without more context I’m not sure someone could tell you exactly what to do here, but as someone who’s lost a lot of respect for her leadership because they let people blather on on the rest of our clocks, please continue redirecting and reigning them in if at all possible! You’ll wind up very undermined with your staff if you don’t.

  28. RUKiddingMe*

    No advice OP but definite solidarity. The “Bobs” of the world sick. They think they ate just sooo interesting. They aren’t.

  29. JSPA*

    Consider asking to meet with him, solo, on the tangential issue.

    Why? Different reasons.

    One: the topic could actually be relevant and important, but he’s so bad at communicating that he’s never successfully connected the dots. So nobody is listening.

    Two: The topic is truly not directly relevant, even after digging, but it’s important in the abstract. He wants to know that the people in control are always taking it seriously and keeping it in mind. You have given him the courtesy of taking it seriously, and you can reassure him that you will make it YOUR job to raise this with your team, so he doesn’t have to. If you wish, you can reconfirm by incorporating a one line summary (that’s clearer than his 15 minutes) in your intro or pre-meeting notes as something “we always keep in the backs of our mind even when, as today, it’s not on the agenda.” It may be, not shorthand, but longhand for a basic concept like, “it’s risky to jump the gun” or “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” or “there’s no such thing as a truly unbreakable limit on liability.”

    Three: You may find that he uses this as a stalling mechanism when he’s not ready to talk about the issue / when he needs time to think about the issues raised. Asking him to sit in on the meeting, and firing off a specific question by email or chat, for him to answer later that afternoon may fit his style better.

    Four: similar solution to #3, but it’s because he’s got a bee in his bonnet or a tic that’s not something that can be “handled.” Not at your pay grade and status, nor at anyone else’s.

    Five: it’s the continuation of a private argument or a pointed, essentially private dressing down of some other person who happens to also be included in the meeting, or something he always had to fight about with whoever held your position before you. Meeting one-on-one allows you to suss out that context, which helps you to redirect productively.

  30. stemmy*

    Hi! OP here. Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments (and I sympathize with all of you in similar situations!).

    He isn’t a lawyer, but works in tech transfer, so liaises with us and the lawyers we have on contract. I work in STEM, and am a woman, so am (sadly) used to being interrupted/looked over during conversations and meetings. This makes me a bit more sensitive now when it does happen, especially when it’s a pattern. He does it to everyone, however, and because he does it all the time, and we expect it, we have set a very specific agenda for these meetings, with time limits for each topic, which he never adheres to. He is also terrible (read: doesn’t do it at all) at responding to email or working with our collab platforms, so in-person meetings are the only way we can actually get an answer to questions we have. I co-lead the meeting, so do have a say in what we cover, but I am officially the most junior person in the group and don’t have a lot of official standing.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Ooh, you don’t have a lot of standing? You might be stuck for it. How’s your co-lead on this? Is your boss someone you can look to for guidance?

    2. Nesprin*

      Oof. Also female, also in STEM. Its not being “sensitive” when you’ve experienced a pattern of very quiet discrimination from a person and thus prepare yourself for interactions with that person differently. Additionally, you’re responsible for the work without being senior/in charge- this sucks and is hard.

      Having been in that situation before, do you actually need his input at group meetings or could you have a 1:1 with him to directly answer just the questions you need his input on and to better control the conversation? I find that bloviators are often most easily redirected when they’re not trying to grandstand in front of the group.

      Can you ask your seniors to help with the redirection? as in ask the most senior person in your group to play timekeeper?

      Alternatively, can you route around him? does he have useful grad students?

      1. stemmy*

        Hi, and thank you! I love my field but it’s *hard* sometimes to have an official seat at the table, so to speak. He doesn’t have grad students, but he does have an associate that is much more effective and a great communicator; we have started looping her in to the meetings and although she doesn’t interrupt or offer input during the monologuing, she does a lot of the work in the background. (and wow I’m suddenly aware of how not-great that dynamic is….). Will have more convo’s with my direct manager about how to approach these meetings in the future, and I think lots of the suggestions above will be helpful as well.

    3. Anonymouse*

      Talk to the lawyers.

      Then bring a tape recorder to the meeting and turn it on.

      Explain because of the delicate nature of tech transfer (intellectual property, trade secrets, foreign governments on a watch list) that everything has to be tracked.

      Alternately, interrupt him and remind him has has said that before. Ask if anyone at the table has anything new to add.

  31. Anonymous for This*

    One thing I used to do was interrupt to say something like “Thank you for that information, but I think I didn’t ask my question correctly, what I meant to ask was….” Then I repeat the exact same question. I would get a direct answer, and we would move on.

    1. willow for now*

      Haha, the old “what I wanted to find out, by asking how many of the llamas have been shorn, was … how many of the llamas have been shorn.”

    2. Employee of the Bearimy*

      Something similar I’ve used is, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I just want to make sure I’m not missing any action items. Are you saying we need to do A, then B, then C?” That usually gets something reasonable and to the point as a response.

  32. New Jack Karyn*

    Is there someone you can ask about strategies to use with him? Your own boss, or someone who’s worked with him a while?

  33. Mannheim Steamroller*

    My approach would be to ask a simple question, let him wind on and on, and then ask the same question again. Keep asking the same question over and over until he actually answers it. Yes, this would prolong that one meeting, but it would also shorten future meetings by calling out his non-answers.

    1. Llama Face!*

      Oh wow. (And yeah I’m saying Wow! in an Alison sense).
      This just made my evening. Thank you!

  34. Purple Jello*

    If Bob is repeating the same message at each meeting, he must not feel that it’s getting through. Is it something you or the other people in the meeting should be doing? He’s in the legal department? He may feel that this is the only time he can get the message out to your attendees. So it may be tangent to your meeting topic, but critical to the business. Maybe he’s looking for agreement and never getting it from you.

    I understand keeping meetings going forward, in fact have worked hard to do so, but think about whether his messages are getting validated, maybe in your meeting follow up notes. (Bob reminded us that the llama feed must be vegan, with no transfers, etc.)

    Good luck. (PS, I’ve worked in legal, and frequently felt like no one listened to us until there was a problem. Then it was all “But no one TOLD us that blah blah blah…)

  35. THN*

    What if OP scheduled the meeting at 1:30 – but told The Talker to join at a later time. She could mask it as wanting to make sure he doesn’t have to sit through a lot of things that are irrelevant to him.

    1. JediSquirrel*

      I like this approach, but The Talker will probably think “oh, no, everybody can benefit from all of my wisdom”. Because he’s that guy.

  36. LGC*


    So, first of all, LW, I dislike this guy. He sounds like a bloviating gasbag, and I feel like people are making excuses for him to mansplain at length. I would be extremely tempted to duct tape his mouth shut, forcibly mute him on Zoom (forever), or basically do anything to keep him from further “bestowing” his “wisdom” upon the kingdom.

    (Like, I read this, and I started re-enacting the “Flames on the side of my face” scene. I have STRONG FEELINGS, okay?)

    I think that Alison is right – you did the right thing in moderating him, but he kind of ended up being a little embarrassed by the directness. In general – and this is something I slip up with myself sometimes – you want to praise in public and criticize in private. This goes for everyone, but for people higher up on the org chart it can come off as undermining if you criticize them in public. Generally, senior employees should try to take this with some grace (because of the power dynamic), but sometimes they’re not capable of doing so.

    One thing that might – MIGHT – come out of this is that…even if his feelings did get hurt, he might be more aware of his behavior going forward. So it might not have been the most graceful way, but it might still get the job done.

    1. stemmy*

      Yes! I love the Strong Feelings, and I have a lot too. Most of the time, too much. Hello, kindred spirit!

      I don’t love the dude either. He is definitely one to Pontificate to Bestow His (and only his) Wisdom. After I interrupted him, his next question to us was what all of our roles for this particular meetings are; he wanted to find out why I was in the room in the first place. He knows I’m not senior and I got the sense he really didn’t appreciate being called out/redirected. Hopefully you’re right and this made him a bit more aware? Fingers crossed! I really like your take too – praise in public/criticize in private.

      1. LGC*

        It’s one of the most important things I’ve had to learn – especially with my own boss, and with my employees. It’s a general management rule that gets passed around, but obviously it can apply when you’re trying to manage up as you’re doing here.

        For what it’s worth, I’ve learned this the hard way, both by calling out senior coworkers in public (it was kind of awkward for all of us!) and by being called out by employees. (I have tried to be as gracious as possible, although there have been times I’ve had to tell them to check their approach.)

  37. Snuck*

    Another thought… does Bob feel like he’s not getting enough air time to share his knowledge? One meeting a month might not be enough time for him, and while you feel they are tangents, is it possible he feels your project/work etc is not considering important elements?

    Is it possible to schedule a separate meeting with Bob before your monthly one, where you give him a bit of air time (via phone, so you can email quietly in the background) and get his input then, reducing his need to push in meetings. Or if he’s raising random issues you can throw in a “Gosh, this sounds like we need a couple of people to put some time aside to go through this with you, let’s do another time slot for that, and keep this meeting just business for now, and that other group can report back the outcomes” – yes you are ‘wasting’ time on him, but he’s senior, he is frustrated and annoyed (and not feeling heard?) and it could resolve this quickly. If it then shows that there’s nothing there that needs attention you can move forward with a bit more confidence in your projects. Maybe you’ll have a fortnightly check in with him over a coffee (at your desk, on the phone) and the pontificating might stop. As a project manager your job is to manage the various (often big!) personalities as much as the timelines, the deliverables, the budgets. If you get him offside he won’t prioritise you as well as you might need.

    It might be that he’s not a pontificator, but a frustrated senior experienced persons who can see forward issues you aren’t aware of yet?

    1. On a pale mouse*

      Possible for it to be both. E.g., what he wants to get across is”we aren’t giving enough consideration to the waste management issues of having llamas on site for grooming” but he’s telling stories about his brother-in-law’s niece’s college roommate’s dad’s llama farm’s waste management problems, which isn’t all that relevant because you handle the problem completely differently on a large llama farm versus a small llama-grooming business.

      In other words, even if he has a valid point that should be heard, it sounds like he’s doing a poor job of communicating it.

      (If it sounds like I know one of these, yup. He was my boss, and I actually liked him and found most of his stories interesting… but sometimes I needed to stop listening to stories and do the actual work I was being paid to do.)

      1. Snuck*

        Yup. The concerns for me in the original letter are the fact that this guy comes from the legal department, and it is very necessary to get his input.

        If he can’t do it succinctly, set up a time to get it out of him elsewhere where you are only wasting your own time (not a whole room full of people) until you can slowly get him back in line (or if you can’t, at least it’s only your time!).

        I get the impression that the OP is all business, no space for interpersonal stories… and that’s fine in some meetings and for some people. But some people need ot work a different way, with more interpersonal connectedness. If that person is senior, critical to your success, possibly trying to ineffectively share something you need to hear etc, then make the time some other way.

  38. Tina*

    Does he have to be there for the whole meeting? If not, I would love all his topics to the end and only invite him to this part (you are just conscious of his time).
    That will play out especially nice if you don’t want to move your meeting because of him. Just make sure that he can join the last 15-30 min.

  39. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    OP 2, with the spreadsheet, I mean this in the friendliest, most supportive way: “nobody gives a crap about the spreadsheet.”
    I inherited a computer at work and the previous owner, who was now a manager, had left a spreadsheet. It was her entire wedding plan. I know this cuz it was called wedding_plan.xls. I deleted it.
    Everyone looked at the screen shot to determine it was “not my problem” and got on with the day.
    Wait until you send a salty email to the wrong person, THEN you have something to worry about.
    (PS: snap a rubber band against your wrist when you catch yourself thinking about this. You need to stop thinking about it.)

  40. Sharon*

    Can the LW write up an agenda with topics to be discussed and assign times to them? So, for example, meeting starts at 11AM:
    1. Teapot Design (11:00 – 11:15)
    2. Teapot Contingency Plan (11:15 – 11:45)
    3. Teapot Task Assignments / Game Plan (11:45 – 12:00)

  41. Employment Lawyer*

    Honestly, if you have a good relationshp with folks you may just want to be blunt.

    “I was hired for my expertise in this specific subject, and I’m confident in my abilities. However, I’m aware that I am fairly far down the totem pole.

    I sometimes disagree with top management during presentations, but I’m unsure of the company culture and how strongly I should bring this up. Being remote makes it harder to pick up on and I am hesitant to interrupt–but I don’t want to waste people’s time letting them run down the wrong path.

    If you want to leverage my subject knowledge as much as possible, it may make sense to [ask for what you want here, e.g. a checkin, an opprtunity to talk strategy, etc]. Otherwise, can you give me specific guidance about what I’m expected to do?”

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