We’ve talked about facilitating with many personality types, but we’ve saved the best for last. Of all the personalities you can work within a facilitation environment, this personality is perhaps the toughest to deal with. That’s because they introduce a dangerous trio of personality traits:
People with strong personalities habitually play devil’s advocate — a habit which, on its own, is actually not bad. In fact, exploring multiple perspectives of an idea or challenge is a critical part of innovation.
The issue arises because the person usually takes a very strong stance on his or her opinion, often refusing to even consider alternative viewpoints. As a result, other attendees either stop listening or become equally opinionated.
People who fit this description are often people in positions of power. C-level executives and other leaders often climb the ranks because they are compelling speakers who excel at selling their perspectives.
Again, the ability to rally a team around a common goal is a great quality in a leader. The problem is that these compelling speakers can still fall victim to selling the wrong idea. Because they are in a position of power, other attendees feel obligated to agree with their assessments and thus risk failing to explore more fruitful options.
These people also tend to dominate the conversation and talk at length. It’s not uncommon for them to interrupt or talk over other speakers.
People who climb the ranks into a leadership position are also often natural leaders. In a meeting setting, taking control of the conversation and agenda are second nature to them. As a result, these leaders will often undermine or challenge your authority as the facilitator. They may encourage others to deviate from the planned meeting agenda. In the worst case scenario, they’ll openly demean your facilitation process.
So what can we do to mitigate the disruptions caused by people with strong personalities?
Make Them Feel Heard
The worst thing you can do when you have a strong personality in the room is ignore him or her. Doing so will only drive them to reiterate their position or even challenge your authority as the facilitator. Instead, find some truth in what he or she is saying, even if you or the team don’t agree with all of it. Be careful though — don’t feign agreement just to get the person to stop talking. You need to actually find some piece of their proposition that you agree with.
Next, steer the conversation towards a compromise. Focus the group on introducing new solutions to resolve the disagreement.
Let’s walk through an example. Marty is the lead designer on a design team. He feels rather passionately that links throughout the system should be underlined. The rest of the team, however, feels that the underlines introduce unnecessary visual clutter.
Marty: “How else will users know the links are clickable? Especially color blind users. They won’t be able to distinguish between a link and regular body copy.”
Facilitator: “You’re right — color blind users will struggle to tell the difference between links and body copy. Perhaps there’s another way to distinguish them without introducing as much visual clutter.”
Call On Other People
People dominate conversations without realizing. These people will continue to talk if a facilitator never steps in and asks other people for their input. So don’t be afraid to steer the conversation to other attendees. Simply say something like:
“Okay, Marty. That was great input. I’m especially glad you mentioned accessibility challenges. Georgia, we haven’t heard from you yet. What are your thoughts?”
Meet With Leadership Beforehand
To prevent leadership from hijacking your meeting, meet with them individually beforehand to discuss and agree on the meeting agenda and any facilitation exercises you want to perform. Doing so will give you a chance to explain the benefits of your process. If leadership has input or disagrees with your approach, you can work with them to find a more suitable approach.
Having a separate meeting for this discussion is key. If you have this discussion in front of other attendees, they will most likely side with their boss and you’ll lose all authority.
Enable Others to Think Independently
Put a persuasive talker and a few silent geniuses in a room, and you have the perfect recipe for group think. The persuasive talker pitches their idea and the rest of the group just nods their head in agreement. We can resolve this issue by giving everyone an opportunity to think independently before they hear ideas from others.
A structured exercise like Note and Vote allows people to brainstorm their ideas silently and independently before their thoughts can be tainted by other ideas. Head over to our post on silent geniuses to learn more about note and vote.
If you feel like running a note and vote feels too much like “design thinking theater,” then you can ask your attendees to complete some brief pre-work before coming to the meeting.
This wraps up our series on facilitating meetings. As always, we welcome any stories or ideas about how you have best managed tough facilitating situations. If you need help with facilitating throughout an important project, reach out to us here at Modus — we’d love to help.
Intro and Part 1: The Silent Genius
Someone who has great ideas or input, but doesn’t speak up.
Part 2: The Swoop-and-Pooper
Someone who isn’t very involved in the project, but then swoops in late in the project lifecycle and gives feedback that sends you back to the drawing board.
Part 3: The Great Debaters
A pack of attendees who relish debate, side conversations, and talking over one another.
Part 4: The Multitasker
An attendee who thinks they can simultaneously check their email, reply to slack messages, juggle oranges, and pay attention to the meeting.
Part 5: The Unclear Communicator
A first cousin to the tangential thinker, the unclear communicator speaks in long, rambling sentences and uses unnecessarily complex terminology.