by Steve Adubato, PhD

Linda Mercurio is a lawyer who has had extensive experience teaching many subjects including business. While Linda is an accomplished communicator, she is facing a tricky issue that raises this question;

“There are always people in meetings, conferences and public forums who don't seem to mind impromptu speaking at all, and yet oftentimes they are sadly ineffective. They ramble, monopolize the floor, and seem motivated solely by hearing their own voice. As a facilitator/moderator how does one politely yet firmly deal with such people and at the same time encourage those who might be more hesitant (but may add more value) to speak?” 

You aren’t alone, Linda. This is a situation many of us face. It is a delicate balance. The answer to the question involves more craft and art than any scientific or proven formula for success. Yet, the following tips will increase the odds that you can deal effectively with the meeting “monopolizer” and still draw out others who have something valuable to say.

Regardless of the venue, establish the goal right up front. Be clear on exactly what you are trying to accomplish and what is out of bounds. Use specific examples to encourage the comments that are relevant and discourage those that are not; “We need to talk about issues A and B. We don’t need to waste time on D and E.” This is no guarantee that items D and E won’t be brought up, but you’ve communicated to everyone that they are off limits and set the tone for discussion.

  • Establish the communication ground rules. Make it clear that you are seeking active participation from EVERYONE. You seek inclusion as well as diversity of opinion. By saying this, you are subtly communicating to the monopolizer that his or her voice isn’t the only one. If he or she ignores your direction and attempts to dominate, simply say; “Mike, as always your comments are helpful, but I want to make sure that others have the opportunity to share their perspective. Jane, how would you address issue A and B?”
  • But what if “Mike the monopolizer” persists and consistently interrupts Jane? Move to plan B. Physically get up, walk closer to Mike (gently touch him on the shoulder if you feel brave) and say, “Mike, we appreciate your input, but as I said, it is important we hear from your colleagues so I’m going to ask you to let Mary to finish her point.” Your objective is to make it clear to Mike that you are in control. Further, you use your body language as well as your firm and direct communication to confront Mike. This sends the message to everyone that your rhetoric about inclusion and participation is backed up by your actions.
  • Acknowledge and praise Mike for his initial intentions. Often, that’s what the monopolizer needs to hear before he quiets down. But make sure you acknowledge and recognize others for their contributions. If Mary is hesitant to speak up in public, once she does, make sure you let her know how valuable her contribution is; “Mary, your ideas on how to address A and B are excellent. That’s the kind of input we need.” Then turn to another hesitant communicator in the group; “Bob, you’ve heard how Mary sees A and B. How do you see it?”

The key is to be proactive. Create an environment that is safe and supportive, yet make it clear that you have set the ground rules and goals and it is your job to stay on top of it.

Finally, dealing with monopolizers and shy communicators doesn’t get fixed over night. It may take several sessions to establish a healthier communication culture.