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Community meetings: how to handle tricky situations (12 Nov 17)

The loudmouth problem: how to stop dominant people ruining your efforts

Frankly, community meetings are not that easy to run - and there are several reasons why.

You as the facilitator have to steer and manage the discussion so you get everybody’s views on the topics you need to cover.

You must make sure that everybody can say what they think - and contribute as much as they can - but in a group environment.

Yet paradoxically the real test of how well you do is whether people feel free to discuss their views amongst themselves, as if you were not in control. That way you get a group dynamic going, which encourages further discussion.

So a successful session is one where people don't feel they are being "managed" so as to give their views - that they feel comfortable and able to express themselves.

Achieving this can be even more difficult when something unexpected happens.

You will have to intervene to deal with what has happened. But how you intervene will influence how much the group is disrupted.

And the better you cope with the unexpected the less the disruption.

That's why we are producing a special series of hints and tips on how to deal with difficult and unexpected situations in groups.

There can be a fine line between someone being knowledgeable and confident - and someone taking over the discussion. So you need first to be sure if there really is a problem.

You need to understand and accept that there will always be natural differences between how group members participate. Some people will simply contribute more, and some will speak for longer than others.

Also, if someone is participating more than others do not confuse the quality of their contribution with the quantity of their contribution. The key point is whether or not other respondents are able to speak when they want to - this is what you have to facilitate.

If a person seems to be “dominating” try and understand why. This could help you deal with the situation.

Some points to think about are:

If you feel someone is dominating and it is causing a problem for you or the group, you really must act. You have to resolve the problem early on, otherwise the dynamics of the group will be upset and you may learn nothing of value from the discussion.

Other people won’t be able to contribute and the group will get angry with you if they feel that you are letting the person dominate the discussion.

But whatever you do, don’t go in too hard too soon as this can ruin the group dynamic.

Watch out for people who might become “dominant” when they arrive. You can often sense likely candidates when people first enter a room.They are the chatty ones, the ones who make a joke with you as they come in.

Bear in mind though, that that’s just the way some people are and it need not become a problem if you can handle the dynamics of the group effectively.

Be aware that YOU could be the source of the problem (especially if you find that your groups always seem too dominant.)

Sometimes, when wracked with nerves at the beginning of a discussion, you might find it tempting to talk with someone (maybe the only one in the group) who seems happy to chat to you! It’s an easy option and you could quite happily chat away to one or two people for the duration of the group - but that’s not what you are there for.

Once a pattern of conversation is established it is very difficult to get back onto track. If you find yourself having a one to one, don’t let it go on too long.

However even the best facilitators sometimes come across someone who simply will not shut up. Once you have established that it really is a problem for the group (not just you) you have to deal with the problem directly.

You could try to address them by their name. Say “That’s really very interesting George, let’s hear what other people have to say.” Try this once or twice.

Body language can help.

If they continue, try turning your shoulders slightly away from them so you are not directly facing them. Or try crossing your leg away from them. Mismatch your body posture with theirs (if their legs are crossed, uncross yours; if they are sitting forward, lean back)

Take away eye contact. Even if they are speaking, look away and look around at the other participants, silently inviting them to join in.

Encourage the rest of the group to help you. What do other people think of this?” Let’s hear some other points of view…”

As a last resort, try putting your hand up with your palm towards them (a bit like a police man controlling traffic!) so that you obscure their view of yourself. Say something like, “Thank you for that but now we really do need to hear from other people”

However irritated you feel, you always risk upsetting the delicate balance of the group if you are downright rude. Try to politely acknowledge their contribution and if necessary ask them to back down.

Why not pass these tips onto a colleague by using the forward to a friend facility?

If this topic interests you why not run our course, How to manage tricky community meetings - big or small in house? Email me at rod@rodlaird.co.uk or phone 01494 772 458



Comment by Alison Trafford Housing Trust — 07 Aug 09 at 10:38:22

I have not faciltated a focus group for quite a while, but one memorable one I held had a blind person and his partner who was also visually impaired.
He would not shut up and dominated the group but body language and eye contact obviously would not work. Despite several attempts at thanking him and asking other people to contribute he just kept butting in. Another member of the group told him to shut up eventually, but even that didnt work!

Has anyone else had this experience, how did they cope with it?


Comment by Kate Bolton at Home — 21 Aug 09 at 14:26:58

I work with customer volunteers and I sometimes find that the relationship with volunteers is difficult as they are giving up their time for free so when problems occur it is hard to point it out as you don't want to offend anyone. We have recently had some problems with personality clashes with some of our volunteers which can sometimes cause problems at events.

All our customer volunteers sign an agreement when they join which has a code of conduct which has proved useful if problems persist as you can remind them of their agreement or make general comments around the code of conduct (and have it printed out on tables) when discussions get heated and this gentle reminder often works. A colleague has recently had to deal with an argument between two volunteers and she handled it well by speaking to both parties individually to get each side of the story and agreed a set of actions to get things back on track. The customers commented on how well she dealt with it as she was prompt and gave them the space to air their views.

I will be trying the “That’s really very interesting George, let’s hear what other people have to say.” approach at my next event and will see how this goes!


Comment by Jennifer Argyll and Bute Council — 02 Sep 09 at 16:00:11

I was running a number of sessions on a topic recently and had the luxury of knowing my particpants, so the first thing I did was ensure that there was a balance of personalities in each group to allow free discussion. I also ensured that dominant people were not in the first couple of sessions, by which time we had some themes and could move the discussion on using comments from previous sessions, addressing these to other members of the group eg 'That's interesting, George; a previous group commented "xxxxx", what has been your experience of that Tom" etc.


Comment by Glen Tower Hamlets Partnership — 26 Jan 10 at 15:50:45

I also use their name quite a lot, as often this helps them feel valued and therefore validated.

Also, make sure that their point is noted on flipchart paper (if possible) and displayed so that they can see it. Remind them that their comment has been recorded and that you would like to hear what others in the group have to say.

Why not join the discussion!

Or even better still offer your own advice and tell us about things that others can learn from.

We moderate comments lightly so bear with us and we'll get your thoughts listed as soon as we can.

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