dominance in meetings: margins, myths, and small group magic

Recently I facilitated part of the second day of a 2 day gathering. I arrived on the night of the first day in time to catch the end of the day’s meeting. Energy was flagging a little and that meant that some of the dominant dynamics of the group were asserting themselves – a handful of voices leading the conversation.

I think we managed to open up those dynamics a little more the next day. It wasn’t perfect – people can’t change the habits of a lifetime overnight, but at least some were trying to do so.

It had helped that on the night I arrived a few folk went out for a drink. At one point a quieter member of the group shared that they had loads of ideas but struggled to get them heard, having had a speech impediment in their younger days that left them wary of speaking  in front of groups.

Hearing this had a profound effect – it instantly shattered the myth that some dominant people choose to believe. You know the one – quieter people could chip in freely if they wanted, so if they don’t they’re obviously fine with the way things are working. Or they don’t have any new ideas to add, but if they did the space is so open and equitable that there would be no obstacles to them sharing them. The strategy is simple:

  • Externalise all responsibility for any group dynamics issues and make it the responsibility of each person present to speak up
  • Work on the premise that because you can hold your own everyone else should be able to
  • Trade on an assumption that the space is safe because you’ve said it is, perhaps because you set some groundrules that included a few fine words on listening, only hearing one voice at a time and so on
  • Justify the imbalance by telling yourself the quality of your contribution is high

I’m in no way saying that these are conscious strategies but they are effectively what’s happening (and I speak as someone who would have to confess to assuming each and every one of them at times).

Here we had someone saying gently but articulately that there were obstacles, and it wasn’t as easy as the more fluent speakers chose to believe.

As I said, the second day wasn’t perfect – there were times in the day when louder voices tried to finish the sentences of the quieter voices and had to be gently nudged into silence, but it felt better than most meetings I’ve been at of late. I know that some louder voices consciously made a real effort to be quieter and in the main succeeded. And their quietening down helped to open space for others as well as highlight the dominance of those who weren’t quite so disciplined. I felt the tension that this caused. But, with support, the group showed it could clearly tackle the issue of dominance if it chose to do so.

Oh, and for those who refuse to believe that small group work allows quieter people to contribute more equally. Well let’s just say that, yet again, I saw it happen – people whose tendency in the full group was to be hesitant, even passive (for whatever reason) come alive and take an active and full role in small group conversation.