People Who Talk Too Much in Meetings – Respectfully Dealing with Dominance
When I looked up the phrase “dominant behavior” on the internet, I found a lot of articles on dominance in animals – the alpha male phenomenon etc. In fact, one definition of dominant behaviour said it was “initially established by fighting, threatening displays or interchanges. AND, once established, usually maintained by competitive behaviours…” I realized quickly I needed to change my search phrase to “dominant behaviours in meetings”. This definition and a few articles I read (but did not agree with) all gave me something to think about.
I believe that in most work place meetings, people rarely use dominant behaviour intentionally. Here are a few ways to stop it that are both respectful of the person exhibiting the dominance and the group being dominated. And, I am also going to tell you why I disagree with many of the tips typically offered to stop this behaviour.
First, what exactly do we, as meeting participants and leaders, mean by dominant behavior? And second, how do we deal with it in a way that treats the behavior AND, does not categorize the person as “bad” or shame them in any way?
What we mean:
We mean having people who are unconsciously talking much more than others in the meeting. They are, as one participant said, “overly vocal”. Or, they are the ones that have something to say for every question asked. They are sometimes thought of as “quicker thinkers” who respond before others do. The others may prefer to not think out loud. Dominant meeting behavior could also look and sound like they are excited about their ideas and want everyone to approve of them. It could mean they talk at higher volume than most others in the group. They might interrupt others frequently. Or, they verbally dismiss others’ ideas – e.g., “no, we tried that. It doesn’t work.” The person might be using the group to get things ‘off their chest’. i.e., they sense the group can help them process internal negative feelings. They talk about hard stuff in the hope they can be relieved of a heavy feeling inside them. See our earlier blog on an example of this particular challenging participant behaviour in our resource section below.
What happens when this becomes a common place phenomenon at your meetings?
When we let one or two people rule over a meeting consistently, others go silent, become submissive or stop trying. When this happens over and over again, the whole workplace becomes dysfunctional. The person who is doing this behavior without being aware of it, thinks/assumes people do not want to contribute. Their thoughts might go like, “why do I have to do all the thinking?” or, “why do I get no input on this decision?” Or, “are people just here for their salary and they do not really care?” The people who are exposed to this behavior start labelling them as the person who dominates. They are complaining inside their head or to others: “We cannot say anything. These meetings are a waste of time. I am sick of hearing this person talk. I have stopped listening to them.”
This sometimes make the dominant behavior person talk more because they are desperately trying to get heard. Thus the following has arisen: one or a few people may do all or most of the talking; everyone else has stop paying attention and stopped thinking about the topic. There is NOTHING productive going on. Rather, there is something demoralizing going on. NOT GOOD! It looks like this graphic below.
Ten things – what to do about it:
I read the tips below on the internet about how to deal with it. I won’t tell you where because I disagree with a lot of it. I’ll say why and what I’d do differently in each case. I also point you to a few more blogs on our site which will provide you other juicy thoughts on other types of challenging behaviours. The tips I disagree with are in italics below:
Many of the same techniques you use to deal with shy people can be used in reverse with someone who has little time for the ideas of others.
First of all, it is an assumption that this person “has little time for the ideas of others”. This person may be very keen to show that they have thought of some good ideas and in that enthusiasm, forgets that others equally have good ideas. In this case, I might say: “Wow – you’ve really thought about this a lot. (Give them credit for doing their prep for the meeting). It will be great to hear from everyone about their ideas and then we can merge common themes. Who else has an idea on how to solve this?” Keep asking for ideas from others. If no one responds, ask them to pair up, share ideas for 3 minutes, and have each pair write one thing down to submit to the whole group.
- Sit next to the (dominating) person and keep eye contact to a minimum.
NO! Actually this person is likely craving good eye contact. They are human. Treat them like a fine human being. Simply make eye contact, give them a friendly smile and interrupt if they have been talking for more than a minute with – “Sorry to interrupt you. Can I get someone to sum up your idea so you know it is being received as you intend it?” Or, you could ask them to sum it up in less than 20 seconds. Sometimes it is helpful to point out that your role as the facilitator is to ensure all voices are heard.
- Look at everyone but the dominator when posing questions to the group.
Same point as above. This seems just “mean”. This person needs a sense of being as welcome as anyone else in the meeting. A simple, “I am hoping to hear from people who have not spoken yet. Could you hold that thought or write it down on this post-it note? Thank you.”
- Interject when the person stops to catch a breath. You can say, “Thank you; what other opinions are there?”
This is Ok. I’d add to it by even saying it is ok to interrupt this person before they catch a breath, with a polite “May I interrupt you? We have only five minutes for this and it would be helpful if you sum up your idea quickly”. See also point 1.
- Outside of the meeting, point out the problem while expressing your appreciation for the input. Ask for help in keeping everyone involved.
Actually I do agree with this. Here is how it might sound: “I noticed not lot of people were participating in the meeting today. What did you notice? How is it for you to be one of the few people offering ideas? How could we get others to participate? I wonder if you might not offer ideas until a few others have spoken. That might help those who like to process internally think of ideas. That would help you know if others are thinking the same way as you or not.” (i.e., if they have the same idea, you do not need to say it except to say “I agree.”)
- Indicate your desire to get a variety of opinions before you ask a question. Get opinions in sequence (round-robin), reaching the dominant person last.
I agree with most of this but I would not have the dominant behaviour person go last. This gives them the ‘last word’. I might deliberately start the go around (round robin) at the mid-point from this person so their input is about the middle.
Here are four others things that are helpful:
- Choose and post predominantly at least one of the following ground rules: share the time; We will all hear and be heard; speak wisely and sparingly. It may also help to talk with the group about what each ground rule means.
- Do a lot of small group work making sure those who typically over participate are in different small groups each time.
- Have everyone write down their thoughts before they speak.
- Use the Constructivist Listening technique before large group sharing to help people be deeply heard and test their ideas out first on someone else. This will help them be more succinct in the large group sharing. See resources section for a video on this.
Potentially other helpful blogs:
Challenging Participant Behaviors – An 8 Step Survivor’s Guide
Neutralize Whining and Complaining Behaviors in Groups!
How Facilitators Stop Power Imbalance, Dominance and Oppression
Are Learning Styles Really Going Out of Style?
It totally depends on the purpose of the meeting.
if it’s a team meeting, amongst equals, I agree with much of the above.
If it’s a meeting between two groups, from different organisations, hammering out a deal, or discussing contracts, that’s different.
I was hosting such a meeting two days ago. I closed down discussion, ‘brutally’ according to my fellow director. We were outnumbered, I took control of the meeting & drove our position through, keeping my foot on the gas, metaphorically. We got what we wanted.
Did the other side have a problem? I don’t think so, I think they appreciated the clarity & direction. Everybody knew precisely where they stood at the end of the meeting. It took less than 20 minutes.
Hi Jim, I appreciate that there are definitely circumstances where a more “take charge” mode is warranted. Good for you in noticing the differences. Basically what you were doing was negotiating a WIN for your team and trying to get the best deal for your team. In my mind, facilitation is not the process to be used when you are negotiating a deal for your own team.
This is a really helpful article and I wish I had these tips long ago! I would add that after dominant people share their thoughts, then ask to hear from others who have not shared yet. It’s nice to engage quieter people to get their input and be inclusive.
Thank you, Nancy for commenting – and adding that additional tip!