Last week we explored the difference between shyness and introversion as well as the difference between talkativeness and extroversion. But even though “introverted” doesn’t mean shy, shyness or reticence can still impede the quality and quantity of communication. The most reticent members of a group might have some of the best ideas, but the group can’t benefit from those ideas if they don’t hear them.

Likewise, even though “extroverted” doesn’t necessarily mean talkative or outgoing, those who dominate a conversation or meeting, using up more than their fair share of airtime or further inhibiting the shy or reticent, can also create problems.

So how do we deal with the extremely reticent and extremely talkative? Interestingly, the same type of intervention can help with both extremes.

Calling on a shy person by name can make him feel put on the spot, embarrassed, and even more reluctant to open up. Facilitators’ Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al suggests that, instead, the leader address an encouraging comment to the group as a whole, something like, “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet,” or “How about somebody we haven’t heard from in a while?”

Such an intervention encourages the reticent to speak without embarrassing them. It provides the pause they need to speak up if they aren’t comfortable interrupting or shouting over others. At the same time, such an intervention encourages the talkative to be quiet while minimizing the risk of offending them.

Some people rarely speak because they think more reflectively or methodically and need time to gather their thoughts. The “Let’s hear from someone else” intervention helps with this issue as well.  A good facilitator knows that she should tolerate a silent pause of 10 to 15 seconds for this purpose.

However, a 10 or 15 second pause seems like forever to the quick thinkers in the group. They may even feel sorry for the leader or facilitator who has asked a question and is not getting a response. So they rush in to fill what feels to them like an awkward silence. A statement like “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken” lets the quick thinker know that the leader is okay with the silence. It gives him permission to sit back and let others carry the conversation.

If the leader notices that there is a quick thinker or talker in the group who still tends to break in after a call for comments from those who have not spoken, she can introduce the intervention more overtly, “Let’s be silent for a minute while those who haven’t spoken gather their thoughts.” And if the go-getter still tries to break in, she can simply raise her hand, palm out, about chest level

There are, of course, other reasons why an individual sometimes seems to dominate a discussion. He hammers away at the same point and finds many points to hammer at. He might be thinking out loud or he might keep repeating himself because, when others disagree, he feels they didn’t understand his point, so he tries to explain it again.

When this happens, the instinctive response is to try to squelch the person who is dominating the conversation, or even take him aside during a break and ask him to give others a chance to participate. But if he feels unheard, rebuffed or reprimanded (made wrong) he may become resentful, and therefore less useful to the group, even if he does quiet down.

A better approach is for the leader to briefly paraphrase the point the talkative speaker has made. For example, “So you’re saying that, if we buy the more expensive printer, we’ll make up the cost difference and then some by paying less for supplies, right?” When he hears his point correctly paraphrased, he knows he was understood, which lessens the temptation to re-explain that point.

In my experience, paraphrasing actually saves time overall, while also maintaining the goodwill and enthusiasm of all group members. Once I was scheduled to give a training program for a working group in a large corporation. The person who hired me warned me about one particular group member whom he described as “domineering and hard to deal with.”

I was prepared for a tough time, but in actuality, I found that, when I paraphrased the woman in question, her face would brighten as she said, “Right!” Then she would settle down and listen. I suspect that she had gained such a reputation for dominating a discussion that her colleagues had become used to squelching her before she could make a point even once. Her feeling that she was not heard or understood by her colleagues was probably accurate.

After the class, the person who hired me complimented me on the way I had handled that woman. But in fact, the paraphrasing I did was easy—much easier and more efficient than if I had tried to pull the reins in on the talkative member.

Even if a group doesn’t have a leader or facilitator, or the leader or facilitator doesn’t use these skills, in all but the most formal of meetings, any group member can say, “What do some of the people who haven’t spoken think about this?” Any group member can paraphrase the points of someone who is endlessly repeating the same argument.

I hope some of you will try these practices in your next meeting, or even in family discussions. Let me know how they work out.

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