Within any group, whether a non-profit board, a management group in a business or a government task force, there are a range of personalities and communication styles. If a group of people meeting to make a decision or discuss a problem are left to their own devices, a few of the strongest personalities will dominate the conversation and roll over most of the others en route to a decision. With only a small minority of the voices heard (and often the same old ideas and ways of thinking), bad decisions or decisions lacking in innovation can be made. Even with a Group Facilitator present, these same folks will try to run the show. However, there are techniques I have learned doing Group Facilitation for more than 25 years to let the strong personalities still have their say, while making sure that everyone else can participate, too.
As the neutral in charge of the group process, it is important not to directly shut down the dominant personalities. This typically results in a direct confrontation between those people and the Group Facilitator (something to be studiously avoided). I always acknowledge them and their ideas, but make sure, from the beginning, that they know that others will also speak. At the first group meeting, the group approves ground rules that mention equal air time for all, respect for others and avoiding interruptions. The ground rules are then posted so that I can later remind the group of them when they are later ignored (and they always will be). I always use a flip chart to publically record everyone’s contributions/ideas/issues. Then, when a dominant personality tries to repeat the idea at the expense of others or tries to simply say it in another way, I can point to the flip chart and say: “I’ve got that, and we need to move on to someone else.”
In anticipation of the determination of dominant personalities, I tell the group at the very beginning that I will be doing my best to draw everyone out, even giving examples of what I will do. Then, during later meetings I do things like the following:
- Tell someone who tries to hog the limelight that I appreciate his/her desire to contribute, but that we also need to hear from someone else.
- Continually scan the room, looking for someone who looks anxious to speak. If I see that person, I will look directly at him/her and say:”Bob, you look like you are waiting to give us a contribution” and show him I am ready to record it. (Even if Bob shows no signs of being ready to say something, I will often do this anyway, just to get him involved.)
- Do a brainstorming exercise in which I start at one side of the room (I like to use an open “U” arrangement of chairs and tables with the Group Facilitator at the open end) and ask each person in succession to give the group one idea, issue, solution, question, concern or whatever the discussion involves that day. Each of their contributions is recorded on the flip chart, usually without a name associated with it, making sure that all ideas are seen as equally being generated by the group. In this exercise, group members do not criticize each other’s inputs. Not only is that typically reserved for a later time, but allowing such criticism usually results in the stronger personalities once again trying to dominate the less forceful members of the group (especially if the two parties disagree).
- Making sure that everyone knows that it is his/her choice to contribute or not – it is not my choice or the choice of the dominant personalities on the group. I am not in charge of the outcome, but the group must look to me for the process.
These are just a few ideas of how for use Group Facilitation to help each person not only feel involved in the discussion, but be involved in it. I know that many of you out there have more such tried and true techniques. These usually work well for me. However, we should always remember that individuals and groups are unpredictable, and something that works once may not work the next time. That is part of the fun of this Group Facilitation business and one of the reasons it has stayed new and exciting for me over all these years.