Dealing with Meeting Dominators

Most groups have one or two people who tend to dominate the conversation. One of the best ways to prevent domination is to structure the meeting discussions. If you have free-for-all open discussions that are wide-ranging and rambling, you are inviting domination by highly verbal individuals. One of the best ways to structure the discussion is to pose thought-provoking questions. The power of the discussion is in the questions. As an example, often I’ll work with groups who have created a strategic plan. When they come back two weeks later to look it over and refine it, I would never throw the plan on the table and say, “Well, what do you think?” This simply invites the highly verbal people to fire up to talk. A better alternative is to say, “Here is the plan we’ve come up with, what do you think are the strengths of it that you would not want to lose, what causes you concern, and finally, did we miss anything?” By structuring conversation, it makes it much more difficult for the high verbal people to take the conversation in a different direction. So, asking good questions is a way to prevent domination.

A second way is to have some small group work so that the high verbal individuals are in a smaller group and people who may be quiet, are much more likely to speak up and participate in the smaller group. And these small group activities do not have to take a long time. You don’t have to leave the room. As an example, a group that is working on redesigning the graduate program might break up in pairs, or groups of three to decide what are some characteristics that we would like to see in a new graduate program when we are all done – maybe take 10 minutes and then come back and share the work of the small group with the group as a whole. The point is that small group work does not have to take a long time.

Other tools in this module can be useful to you as well. There is a criteria matrix to help make decisions. There is multi-voting. But the main point is that the more you can help other people to participate, the less opportunity the proverbial meeting dominators have to try to take over the meeting. So, getting participation of all is a key to preventing domination.

Even your best attempts to provide a good structure for discussion might not discourage a meeting dominator. So what do you say, as a meeting leader to someone who is consciously or unconsciously dominating your meeting? I like to think that many people who dominate really need a certain amount of attention. So as soon as I recognize what is happening, if one person is really dominating, I will recap in a few words what that person has just said and then very consciously and obviously invite alternative views. Here’s what I might say to Sarah who has a very definite opinion of what should be done and really is not letting other people speak out. I would say, “Sarah, you’re saying you think the required courses should not be developed until the cluster-hire faculty is on board, is that right? Does anyone have an alternative view?” Or I might say, “What other alternatives are there to waiting until the cluster-hire faculty member is here”? Or, I might look at another faculty member and day, “Norman, you have not said anything yet, what do you think is the best alternative?” Another thing you can say, as a meeting chair if one person is really dominating the conversation, is something like an open invitation. “I would appreciate hearing another point of view because this is going to be a very bid decision for our department. Another thing you can say if the dominating person is not getting the point is, “You have made your point, and you have made it very well, but I think we need to move on.” That obviously has a little more edge on it than some of the other suggestions, but it might be important to do that in order for the group to finish its work.

In some cases, I’ve actually taken a person aside at the break and said, “You are very involved and knowledgeable about this topic, but it is important that other people also feel free to make their contributions and if you are providing all of the information, other people are going to have a hard time participating. So, if you could keep that in mind for the second half of the meeting.” Those are some things you might say. But, in general, the best approach is to make sure other people have a lot of opportunities to participate and this will naturally make it more difficult for the dominator to take over your meeting.