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How to handle the "know-it-alls"
Even if they really do know a lot, too much participation from a limited number of people often is not a healthy meeting or workshop dynamic
Approximate reading time: 4-5 minutes; 776 words.
“We’re lucky to have so many knowledgeable people like you in the session today. I hope others also will freely contribute what they know so we can all learn as much as possible.”
This was my initial response to a recent workshop participant who seemed keen to demonstrate just how smart he was, repeatedly chiming in after others spoke.
Ironically, one of the case studies small groups would discuss during the session was “How do you handle a know-it-all?”
Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: know-it-alls act as if they know everything or a lot on a subject and often are quite eager to verbally share what they know.
But do you need to do anything about this as a facilitator? Remember the intervention framework suggested by Roger Schwarz in his book The Skilled Facilitator asks us to determine if what is happening is a problem.
Having knowledgeable people in a workshop or meeting in and of itself is not a problem. Having those same people regularly contribute their knowledge also in and of itself is not a problem.
Yep. Now It’s a Problem
So when might this become problematic in a meeting or workshop and require action from the facilitator? A few possibilities are when these people:
resist anyone else’s knowledge or ideas
interject their thinking so often that they impede others from doing so
assert their opinions as factual statements that should not be questioned
repeatedly trump or correct what other people have said
seem to speak just to show how smart they are, not to contribute to others’ learning or the quality of the conversation
constantly draw attention to themselves in the large group or in small group discussions
Are you experiencing a little déjà vu? Yes, managing know-it-alls often is quite similar to managing any discussion dominators. Effective facilitation focuses on ways to broaden the participation to more people and perspectives.
But one critical exception exists: when the know-it-alls actually are less knowledgeable than they think and regularly make inaccurate statements. The issue now is more than someone potentially speaking too much. Ensuring accurate information is present in the conversation becomes key.
What Are Your Options?
Let’s make sure we have the most complete picture. Who else has information to contribute on this topic?
Jarrod has stated X (instead of paraphrasing, restate exactly the suspect assertion). Is that what others understand to be true?
Before we enter into discussion of any individual points, I wonder if we might want everyone to share the relevant facts they can contribute on this topic/question.
·Carrie said “Everyone knows that …” Does everyone know that?
People seem to have different understandings or recollections of the circumstances being discussed. How might we get clarity around the relevant facts?
What objective sources or data can we turn to for the facts about this issue?
These statements usually surface the responses that allow discussions to move on in a more productive manner. I don’t see the facilitator’s role as singling out know-it-alls or correcting them. Instead we should help groups ensure that (1) accurate information receives the most attention and (2) participation is diverse and inclusive.
In a few cases, I’ve had to “mediate” discussions around what sources and facts are credible and relevant to a conversation. I’ve heard from some clients and colleagues that this is a growing concern for them as they see some hints of our political tribalism creeping into board and committee discussions. Your mileage may vary.
One Truly Awkward Situation
A few times in my career a workshop participant has wanted to make clear that they know as much as—if not more than—me on the topic. My response is to always give them that win so that we can move on with the session.
“Wow. I’m really glad you’re here. You are so smart on this topic I bet you could lead the workshop today. But I’m the lucky guy who gets to do so and I’d like us to next turn our attention to …”
True confession: often what’s going through my mind as I say that is not nearly as polite.
Effective facilitation makes it easier for groups to address accurate information in their discussions and decisions. Providing leadership with restraint means that we avoid becoming the sole arbiter of what information should or should not be considered.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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