The Talkers and the Listeners

A similar version of this article appeared in Communities magazine #111, Summer 2001, available from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org.

by Tree Bressen

Whether you’ve been in community for a day or a decade, you’ve probably noticed that when it comes to meetings, some people talk more and some people talk less. In my work as a consensus teacher, one of the most common questions people ask me is how to get the discussion to balance out. The following are some ideas you can try out as a facilitator or a participant in an open discussion, along with some formats to try as alternatives.

First of all, while the people who talk a lot are often seen as the problem, their energy and desire to be involved can also be seen as very positive. So you may want to emphasize soliciting increased involvement from the quieter people over making big efforts to squelch the contributions of those who are more easily vocal. As the quieter people speak up, the noisier ones will naturally take up less space.

In my experience, most interruptions happen because someone is enthusiastically bubbling over, not because they actually intend to keep a less assertive person from speaking. If you observe that happening, gently but firmly saying something like, “Hey, I want to hear what you have to say, but I also want to hear Susan out first,” is usually enough to get their attention and preserve space for the quieter person to finish.

Many facilitators, when faced with a bunch of hands in the air from people wanting to speak, will consciously call on the people who haven’t been heard from yet. Some facilitators make this explicit by getting advance agreement from the group on a ground rule that no one can speak twice on a subject until everyone who wants to has spoken once. Or as an item starts to draw toward a close, you can ask, “Would anyone who has not yet spoken like to say anything?” Or sometimes simply calling for a moment of silence can open up space for new voices to emerge.

Specifically calling on quieter members is also an option, however it is one that should be carried out with care. Not everyone is ready to be put on the spot in public. On the other hand, when we talked recently in my co-op household about the awkwardness arising with two people who often choose to be silent in meetings, it turned out they’d rather have the rest of the group come out and ask them directly for their input, instead of looking at them and wishing they would speak! Since people are different, it’s best if you can talk it over with the particular people involved to see what would work best for them. Some people genuinely are content to speak less, but you’ll never know that for sure unless you have a conversation about it.

For some folks, what will be most accessible is offering input in a form different from standard rational analysis. They may need to write on a flip chart or draw pictures, or get a sense of safe space in which to share from the heart. By welcoming input in as many diverse forms as possible, you open yourself up to the most group wisdom.

Even doing your best to encourage quieter people to speak up, there will be times when a more “dominant” person goes on and on, and using your best judgment you will see a need to intervene. Because it feels impolite to interrupt someone else, less experienced facilitators are often reluctant to step in, but step in you must if you are to serve the group fully. Find a method that works for you: wait until the person takes a breath, then insert a short question or a summing up or simply “Thank you.” If you are uncomfortable even thinking about doing this, try practicing with a friend ahead of time.

ALTERNATE FORMATS

If you’ve tried a bunch of these suggestions and you’re still not satisfied, or you just want a change of pace, consider using a different format than the “open discussion” that most groups default to.

A full “go-round” allows each person to take a turn going around a circle. (If time is limited, you can divide it up evenly and have a timekeeper offer a signal when the end of someone’s portion is approaching.)

The Green Party has sometimes required consecutive speakers of alternate genders. The same approach can be used to ensure airtime for those who are traditionally less empowered in other ways, such as alternating between ethnicities or ages or people with more vs. less seniority in your group.

Use of a talking object is especially popular in groups who operate without facilitators, from the traditions of First Nations peoples. A stone or other item is placed in the center of the circle, and whoever wishes to speak picks it up and holds it; no one else may speak until the stone has been transferred. A variation on this is to allow open discussion to proceed as usual, while making a talking object available for anyone to grab who is having trouble getting a word in edgewise. When that talking object is picked up, whoever is holding it automatically has the floor as soon as the current speaker is finished.

In general, but especially when using a talking object, consider having a norm of furnishing a “frame of silence” around each speaker. This Quaker tradition allows the words of one speaker to sink in before the next person begins, thus encouraging more reflection and integration.

FEEDBACK

If you need it, there are very direct forms of feedback available to encourage people to only use their fair share of airtime. Give everyone seven beans at the start of the meeting, and require the deposit of one bean every time someone speaks; when you’ve run out of beans, you’ve run out of speaking turns for that meeting. Spin a web by throwing a ball of yarn to each speaker in order, unraveling the yarn as you go, so that a visual diagram of who speaks how much is created. Ask one observer to sit on the side tallying up how many times each person speaks; at the start of the next meeting, post the chart off to the side, written large enough for everyone to see. While doing any of these at every meeting would probably feel too artificial, they can be useful devices to shift the energy, and for occasional interventions and reminders.

Keep in mind that probably everyone at the meetings has good intentions of everyone participating, it’s just that they get forgetful or intimidated in the moment, or want to participate in different ways. If you need to, search out people at either end of the noisy/quiet spectrum for a good one-on-one talk. Many folks will be less scared in private than they would be in front of the group, and therefore less defensive. Work on really understanding where the other person is coming from, and search out how you can be their ally.