NVCN Guest Columnist
Talkers, non-talkers, and disrupters: How to effectively engage your group
By Andy Robinson
If you’ve ever chaired a meeting, taught a class, organized people to accomplish a specific task, or facilitated anything, you’ve undoubtedly encountered these challenges.
- People who talk too much
- People who are uncomfortable talking in groups or simply choose not to speak
- People who disrupt the process and require a lot of attention
As facilitator, it’s your job to create a safe, egalitarian space where everyone feels empowered to participate. With a hearty “thank you” to our colleagues at The Blue Door Group – I’ve borrowed several suggestions from their facilitation training, and added a few of my own – here’s a mini-tool box to help you better manage your group.
Creating space for everyone to talk
- Ask for ground rules at the beginning of the session; feel free to suggest a few. One of my favorites is “step up, step back.” Which means: If you’re inclined to be quiet, please speak up. If you’re inclined to talk, make an effort to listen first.
- Break into small groups. Many people who are uncomfortable talking within the larger group will happily participate in pairs or small groups of five or fewer people.
- Use go-arounds. “As we discuss this topic, let’s go around the circle and everyone can speak in turn. If you have nothing to say at this point, it’s OK to pass.” Some facilitators ask people to pass an object, such as a “talking stick,” with the instruction that you must hold the object in order to speak. This emphasizes the need to wait one’s turn and to listen carefully.
- Actively create space for the non-talkers. Say to the group, “For the next few minutes, let’s all listen to the people who haven’t spoken yet.”
- Depending on the topic, it might help to hand out paper, give people time to organize their ideas and write them down before encouraging everyone to speak.
- If appropriate, add a listening exercise to your agenda. Here’s a sample from our book, Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money.
Dealing with disruption
If you work with groups, eventually you’ll meet the disrupter – the person who:
- Doesn’t respect your role as trainer or facilitator
- Needs a lot of attention
- Might have a different agenda or different goals for the gathering
Disruption can be helpful. It’s a strategy for naming topics that perhapsshould be on the agenda, or addressing power imbalances present in the room.
Sadly, it’s also a strategy used by bullies to intimidate others.
When faced with unproductive disruption, try some combination of these techniques.
- As described in the first item above, set ground rules or guidelines at the start of the session.
- Be empathetic. Sometimes people just want to be heard and respected, and that solves the problem.
- Invite the disrupter to speak privately with you or your co-facilitator, if you have one. If you’re working alone, give the group a task and pull that person aside for a chat.
- Name what’s happening: “Joe, it feels to me like your goals for this event don’t really match the agenda. What do you need? How can we meet your needs and still honor the agenda?”
- Ask the group for help in addressing the problem. This might be an opportunity for a go-around, as described earlier.
- If all else fails, reduce your attention. Look away. Focus your body language on the group, rather than the disrupter. Let everyone know, through your eyes, body, and voice, that you are present to serve the entire group.
You’re in charge – use your power
In your role as facilitator, trainer, or meeting chair, you carry authority just by the nature of your job. Participants expect you to lead by managing time effectively, honoring the intention of the gathering, and being responsive to the needs of the group – including those who don’t demand a lot of attention.
In other words, you have power. As you work to empower the group, don’t disempower yourself. Use your power to create a respectful process and a productive outcome.
Reprinted with permission from Andy Robinson.