Out of Control Meetings: 5 Facilitation Techniques to Balance the Discussion

Sometimes I hear a song from the past … American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Senses Working Overtime (XTC), Circle Game (Joni Mitchell) and think, “Wow. That song really stands the test of time. X number of years later it still sounds great.”

That’s kind of how I feel about a workshop I taught back in my Arthur Andersen/Accenture days. The beloved Spirit of Facilitation, aka How to Run a Meeting. Over 15 years later I still use the same template to plan my agendas – whether I’m leading a 30 minute conference call with one person, or a 2 day leadership session with 20 people.

I also find myself referring back to the workshop’s practical techniques around keeping a discussion focused and managing difficult participants with tact. Who hasn’t sat through or led a meeting with Doris the Dominator or Wayne the Withdrawer?

Here are my favorite techniques for managing a discussion when some people do all the talking, and others don’t utter a peep.

Tried-and-True Meeting Facilitation Techniques that Balance Participation

  •  Silent Idea Generation and Round Robin. First give people a minute to independently write down their ideas or comments. Many people, especially those with introverted preferences appreciate some time to organize their thoughts. Go around the table (or to participants on a conference call) and ask each person to say one (just one, not ALL) of her/his ideas, suggestions or comments. This ensures one or two people don’t dominate the discussion. I’ve found two or three cycles does the trick and once people start “passing”, then you can have participants call out ideas in any order.
  • The Speaking Prop. Take an object like a gavel or koosh ball and use it to signal who can speak. When the person holding the prop is finished, hand the prop to the next person who has a comment.
  • The Stopping Prop. This is the opposite of the speaking prop – it discourages a participant from talking. First the group agrees to a ground rule: Don’t keep talking about something once you have made your point. Then select an item to represent the rule – it can be any object in the room. Whenever someone dominates the conversation, a group member gently slides the object towards the talkative person. (This technique works best with groups that know each other.)
  • One Point At A Time. Sometimes dominant participants will control a discussion by listing many points at once – every challenge, condition, issue, recommendation, etc. Other members may want to bring up the same point but the idea has already been mentioned. A simple request from the facilitator such as, “Excuse me Doris. It’s easier to focus on one idea at a time. Can you hold your other comments?” often does the trick.
  • Speaking Time Limits. If you are facilitating a meeting where all participants need to report or present, give each person an equal, measured time to speak. You can even use a timer or stopwatch to control the length. 

Unlike Owner of a Broken Heart (Yes) and Electric Avenue (Eddie Grant), conducting great meetings will never go out of style.

Marta Steele is a Partner at PeopleResults. Catch her on Twitter @MartaSteele.