How to handle Discussion Dominators

part of the Facilitate Better "How To" series

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds.

When facilitating exceptionally verbal participants in a meeting or workshop, you may find yourself thinking, “Will. You. Please. Shut. Up?”

No?  Just me?

Actually I rarely think that. I am instead thinking about the value of the content being shared in relation to the overall conversation, looking to how others in the group are reacting to these individuals, and considering why a select few individuals are so verbal.

Silencing a participant in front of others is fraught with pitfalls. No doubt this is why dealing with discussion dominators is one of the top issues I’m asked about in my facilitation workshops.

This post focuses on dominance in terms of volume of participation. It is important to note though that even an occasional participant comment can be done in a style or tone that is perceived as dominating or aggressive, one that silences others. That’s a subject for another time.

While I have yet to invent a mute button that facilitators can use on participants, here are four practical tips for facilitating more equitable engagement:

1. Shift your focus.

Instead of silencing or reducing the verbal participation from some, focus on increasing the verbal participation from others.  Here are several possible invitations to participants.  Notice how they move from broad to more narrow.

“I’d love to hear from people who have yet to comment.”

“I’d love to hear from some folks at the back three tables.”

“I’d love to hear from people on the customer service team.”

“I’d love to hear from Karin, Antoine, Manny, or Susanna.”

“I’d love to hear from everyone on this, so we’ll do a quick go around.  Feel free to pass or simply ditto/echo a previous comment if you have nothing to add.”

If gathered in person, physically moving a bit closer to those invited often generates more responses as they feel more accountable to answer. Just be careful to not shine too bright a spotlight on people so that it becomes awkward.

2. Shift the participation format.

Extroverts tend to think out loud more, so open discussion privileges that style of contribution. Shifting to a hybrid format that first favors introversion may draw out contributions from those who currently participate silently.

Do a Think-Pair-Share

Have everyone write down a response to a question. Invite people to form pairs (or triads or quartets) and discuss their responses. Have people repeat with new partners as desired. End with open facilitated discussion.

Do a Gallery Wall (space permitting)

Have everyone write down a response to a question on an index card and post it in a designated area.  Invite people to silently read everyone’s responses. Reconvene participants for a facilitated large group discussion.

Do a Read-Pass-Reflect

This is the nonverbal equivalent of a verbal go around or gavel pass. Have everyone write down a response to a question on an index card. Gather all the cards, shuffle, and redistribute. Have people silently read their new card, pass it to another person, and read the card passed to them. Repeat as many rounds as desired. Invite people to reflect on the different perspectives they read. Close with facilitated open discussion.

3. Shift your perceptions.

We shouldn’t assume that a few people speaking more than others is automatically a bad thing, but instead should explore possible meanings of the behavior. Drawing on the differences between observations and inferences (more on these in a future post) helps us do so.

Observation (objective):

Carl, Tim, and Heather are verbally participating more than others.

Inference (subjective):

Carl, Tim, and Heather are dominating the group and keeping others from speaking.

What are possible alternative inferences about why these three are disproportionately speaking in the group?

  • They are trusted colleagues and/or subject matter experts and others value listening to their insights.

  • They have more experience with the question or issue being discussed and can contribute more quickly.

  • They care more deeply about the question or issue.

  • Others did not prepare as much in advance as these three did.

  • Others have contrary opinions, but don’t feel the needed psychological safety to offer them in the group.

  • They have primary responsibility for the issue under discussion.

Broadening possible inferences for any behavior observed increases the breadth of facilitation responses you might consider.

4. Pause the heavy participators.

As noted earlier, this choice can be a bit dicey, but it can work well if done in a supportive rather than punitive manner:

“I see hands up from Carl, Tim, and Heather.  You know what? They’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in the discussion so far, so I’d like them to mute themselves for a moment while we hear from some of the rest of you.”

You might then turn to one of the previously mentioned invitational phrases to draw out specific participants. Notice the intentional, but subtle difference between “I’m going to mute them for a moment” and “I’d like them to mute themselves for a moment.” The former is a directive; the latter is an invitation, one I find is generally accepted.

Bottom line?

When you find yourself struggling with how to respond to a participant or group dynamic, try on any of these shifts to expand the responses you consider. And for Discussion Dominators, instead of silencing individuals, reframe the situation and first focus on creating more equitable and varied participation.

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