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Conversation Dominators. (When “Step Up, Step Back” doesn’t cut it)


By Maggie Chumbley

This post originally appeared on maggiechumbley.com on October 14, 2020. We are reposting it with the Maggie Chumbley’s permission.

Hands down, the top two questions I get from clients are, “How do we foster more engagement in our meetings and trainings?” and “How do we handle it when people dominate the conversation?”

While these questions point to issues that are related, let’s look at the challenge of people who dominate in meetings. The remedy to dominators will also help with engagement.

Usually people ask, “How do you make them stop?”. Or, “How can I artfully interrupt?”

I like to reframe this to, “Why is this occurring?”

I have some ideas.

People dominate the conversation for a number of reasons – perhaps they are enthusiastic and excited about the topic. Maybe they believe that by speaking up, they are doing their work more effectively or visibly. They may have a stake in directing the conversation, or they may feel insecure about how prepared, knowledgeable, or talented they are in a certain area and are compensating. They think they are justified in speaking a disproportionate amount, or they just don’t realize they are doing it.

Frustrated clients also say, “But we have the agreement of ‘Step Up, Step Back’, and this is still happening!”.

Often the people dominating are leveraging (consciously or unconsciously) their power and privilege. Maybe it is somebody with positional authority (power) who is used to everybody else hushing when they speak. Maybe it is somebody who has an impeccable command of the English language, and feels the need to reframe and say things “just right” (privilege).

So, what? Well, if you are striving in your organization to practice inclusion, equity, and truly including all voices (I applaud you) in navigating challenges, then this is more than annoying. It is a really big deal. And despite what is written on the wall as your company values and agreements, one of the sneakiest places these dynamics show up, are in meetings. Especially ones without structure.

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If you are noticing that you have made explicit agreements to make space for others, and yet it’s not happening, I’d encourage you not to just double down on asking people to be MORE consistently self- aware, because they aren’t. They won’t, and not in any quick or lasting way. Maybe they are dominating because of the reasons I mentioned earlier, and because of their unconscious behaviors, biases, and privilege. “Step Up, Step Back” isn’t something they can do well. (Let me be clear. I am NOT saying: don’t speak truth to power, or don’t call people out on their privilege, or just do nothing and let these behaviors persist which can range from annoying to truly damaging and toxic). I’ve just seen so many groups say “Step Up, Step Back”, and then proceed as if they are all on the same page of what that actually means to each person.

Step Up, Step Back is complex! Skillful conversational turn taking relies so much on TRUST and a sense of belonging in a group. So, it can be a conundrum. Yes, I’ve seen really healthy teams do this beautifully. And, it is common problem.

My solution? DESIGN YOUR WAY OUT.

Tighten up sloppy meeting design. At minimum state the purpose of the meeting and the goals. Then, look for where in your meeting there is unstructured open discussion. This is where dominators pounce.

As humans, we default to presentation and open discussion as our two methods of doing what we do in meetings. In presentation, one voice has the floor. In open discussion, too often the person with power, privilege, a quick wit, or an open mouth can leverage too much time.

Design your way out of this.

Simple Structures to use often: (with zoom breakout rooms)

  • 1-2-4-All, – Everybody participates. Ideas are protected and sorted. Plus there’s a timer!
  • Impromptu Networking – A classic! Everybody participates. And I love a time limit.

Or, these online maneuvers that require no talking, and yet have 100% participation (see how these help with the engagement challenge?)

  • Lighting Round questions in chat. – affectionately called the “Mad Tea Party” – All voices. Super efficient.
  • Interactive platforms like shared google documents, mentimeter, or even the typed chat, we shift the ways in which we solicit and share contributions.

Other Tricks:

  • Give a “preparation pause” (ie. silent thinking time) before sharing occurs
  • Anonymous contributions invite those who are hesitant to share sensitive information AND temper those who are speaking simply to be recognized for speaking.

Longer term solutions:

Once you have a few more perspectives in your meetings and no longer feel as though you are controlling against the loudest voices, you might turn your attention to some features of your organization that support healthy teams. This article in the New York Times Magazine really is insightful. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.

You don’t have to totally overhaul your meetings (unless you do). Just a few tiny shifts and asking, “How is participation distributed” can make a world of difference. The dominators will likely feel better too and chill out.

 

Maggie Chumbley specializes in group facilitation and instructional design. She does consulting on leadership development, strategy, training, meeting design and facilitation in the business, government, non-profit and education sectors. Join her for her free Friday Coffee series: www.leadgroupsbetter.com.

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