Few barriers can subvert the depth and transforming power of a small group discussion faster than one or more group members who dominate the conversation. Such members can monopolize entire gatherings with their problems and perspectives and can hinder the participation of everyone else in the group. Here are some practical tips for handling small group members who talk too much.
The best way to handle a dominant personality is assertiveness on the part of the group leader and/or facilitator.
- Be assertive before the discussion. Prior to a discussion or prior to asking a question, tell the group that you are looking for brief answers and thoughts. You may even consider setting a cap on the amount of time people are allowed to speak on each question—no more than one minute, for example. Also, make it known that you want to hear from as many people as possible on each subject.
- Be assertive during the discussion. If a group member ignores your request for brevity and begins to monopolize the conversation, the best thing to do is nip it in the bud—even if that means interrupting. Thank the person for his or her contribution, and then move the discussion in another direction by calling on another member or by asking a new question.
- Be assertive after the discussion. If a person continually monopolizes the group’s time, you may need to talk with that person about it in private. State that you appreciate his or her willingness to contribute to the group’s discussions and recognize the depth of his or her answers and opinions. But also be honest in sharing that the frequency and thoroughness of the person’s responses can make it difficult for other group members to participate. During these conversations, it’s possible to ask the dominant person for help in encouraging the rest of the group to talk, thus turning a difficult person into an ally.
Manage Eye Contact
Dominant personalities often associate eye contact from the discussion leader as a green light to talk. They may even interpret it as a request from you to share what’s on their minds. Therefore, minimizing eye contact is an effective method for handling group members who talk too much.
To accomplish this without offending the person, invite him or her to sit next to you before the discussion begins. This will decrease the number of times you make direct eye contact with the person, which should also decrease his or her need to talk.
Manage the Group’s Silence
Many people are uncomfortable with silence, and members who seem to jump in and answer every question may be doing so in an attempt to break the silence and end their discomfort. Therefore, by helping them get used to silence as a normal part of group life, you may decrease their need to talk over time.
One way to accomplish this is to ask group members to wait a specific amount of time before responding to a question. Say something like, “People need different amounts of time to process a discussion question and organize their thoughts for a response. To make sure that everyone gets a chance to fully engage with our discussion, I’d like everyone to wait 10 seconds after I ask a question before jumping in.”
Of course, it’s still possible that dominant group members will be the first people to speak once the time period has expired. If that’s the case, talk with them privately using the steps outlined above, and ask them to wait 15 or 20 seconds before speaking in order to make room for others to enter the conversation.