I’m a big proponent of having church be a space where we talk together about God, rather than a space where people come to listen to one “expert” talk about God. And when you’re cultivating that space, whether it’s during a Sunday gathering, as it is in my church, or whether it’s during a Bible study or small group in a more traditional church setting, the primary frustration with discussion is that, invariably, someone’s going to try to dominate the conversation. What do you do when that happens? Here are 10 tips I hope will help:
1. Set the tone. First, let’s talk about your role. If you’re the person who is given the responsibility of moderating the conversation, it’s your responsibility to manage the flow of voices. Someone has to be in charge of moderating, or what you will have is chaos, not conversation. Conversation and discussion are environments to be cultivated, and facilitators are responsible for that first and foremost. (Everyone else is responsible for that, too, but you have to set the tone.) As the moderator/facilitator, you are already going to be speaking more than most others. Be sure not to overstep your bounds, and leave plenty of room for others to contribute.
2. Discourage a back-and-forth exchange. To foster a steady flow of many voices, discourage a back and forth exchange between two people. Note: this also includes YOU as the moderator! As a general rule, two back-and-forth exchanges are plenty. If they’re particularly long, that might even be too much. After that, be sure to open it up to others and ask the two back-and-forth conversationalists to cede the floor.
3. Know when to cut off someone’s comment. Sometimes people go off on tangents. Sometimes they go on too long. As moderator, it’s your job to help keep the conversation moving forward. Sometimes this means you’re just going to have to cut someone off. I’ll talk about how in the next point, but first I’ll talk about when. There is no hard and fast rule of when this should be, but you will probably know when people start to get antsy. Attune yourself to the listening in the room, and when you get a sense that people are starting to disconnect or wander, it’s time. The ideal window, actually, is before people begin to wander off. After a while, you’ll start to get the feeling of when that is. The most important thing? Don’t wait for a pause to give you a window. Otherwise you may be waiting forever, and by that point, it will likely have gone on too long.
4. Know how to cut off someone’s comment. Sometimes you’re going to have to cut into someone’s comment, so turn that into a positive and pivot to another question or idea. Try to find a point of connection with what the person is saying and use it as a way to generate conversation in a more positive direction. You don’t need to be rude (set the tone, remember) but you do need to be firm and decisive. You can say something like, “I like what you said there, and it makes me wonder X. What does everyone think about that?” (This is a good thing to do even when someone’s not going on too long!) If you have a person who tends to do this every discussion, pivot early. Find the first possible point of connection and run with it. And, obviously, don’t let the next response come from the dominant person!
5. Don’t feed the negative comments. This one may be the most tricky. As a pastor, it’s your job not only to hear what people are saying but to listen. And sometimes, what people need to say is negative. You don’t want to be calloused and shut that down entirely, because your overarching goal is for the conversation to be generative and healing. But you also can’t let a negative comment derail the discussion into something that won’t be generative or healing. If it’s a personal issue, make sure the person knows you recognize their need to talk about it, and ask if the two of you can talk about it another time. That will be better for both of you, because you’ll be able to be more present to their concerns specifically, and they will get your full attention. If it’s an issue like a difference of opinion or theology, you have a few options. Jump in, or let the conversation flow on if someone else jumps in. If that doesn’t happen, move the comment in a positive direction by finding another connecting point and pivoting. You could also opt to refer back to the primary question or topic at hand as a sort of restart button, or ask another question entirely of the group to get discussion going in a different direction. Whatever you do, don’t let the negative comment become the central discussion. If someone tries to respond to the negative comment, hit restart or ask another question. Make it clear that we’re moving on.
6. Respect the introverts. At my church, we have people with strong opinions and extroverted personalities. But we also have really thoughtful introverts who need more time to think and process before they jump in. Create an environment that is respectful of introverts. Talk often about the need for everyone to make space for people who need more time to comment, or won’t readily jump in to comment without a lengthy pause first. By doing so, you’ll slowly create an ethic of discussion that discourages dominating a conversation.
7. Be cool with silence. In the same way, learn to get comfortable with silence. There are going to be lulls in conversation. If we learn to be cool with silence, we discourage that reflexive need for the most vocal people to fill it. Remind people at the start of the conversation that you expect there to be moments of silence. This also has the potential to raise the quality of comments, because nobody is reflexively babbling to make noise. Silence is hard, and it’s not cultivated much in our culture. Be patient with this one, but keep at it. (Maybe try to find other times in worship to practice silence, too.)
8. Discourage the soapbox. Sometimes the problem is that a person tends to bring up the same topic over and over from week to week (in other words, this person dominates by having an agenda). If that’s the case, you’ll need to confront the person and say s/he needs to put the topic on probation. If the issue is worth discussing, take the agenda off-line and discuss it in length elsewhere. But be sure to tell them for the next X amount of conversations they can’t bring it up. Tell them if they do, you are going to ignore it. And then do exactly that. Discussions are not opportunities for people to harp on their pet issues week after week.
9. Call the person out. Sometimes, no amount of pivoting, re-directing or deflecting negative comments will fix the problem. At that point, it’s time to call in the big guns and confront the person directly. If you have a good relationship with this person, you may be able to say it in the middle of the discussion. “Hey X, I think you’ve said enough tonight. Let’s let someone else have some air time.” The benefit of this tactic, in addition to it being immediate, is that you’re modeling a group response to a dominant voice that everyone will see.
10. Confront the person in private. If calling the person out wouldn’t go over well (and for many people it wouldn’t), or if you’ve done that a few times already, find a separate time to talk with them. That may be after the discussion, but it may be a better idea to wait until the next day. Give the person a call, or, if it’s really needed, ask to meet them in person. Reiterate your appreciation for their voice, but point out that when they dominate the discussion, what they are doing in effect is silencing the voices of those around them. That’s not good Christian hospitality! Remind them that since we value making space for everyone to be heard, it’s important for all of us to stand down sometimes. It’s likely you will need to be specific about what this looks like. Ask the person to stay silent for the next meeting (or two, or three). Ask them to use that time to practice active listening. Another way to handle this is to tell the person they have an allotted amount of responses per discussion. If you have to, give them actual physical cards. (I have done this, no lie.) Say, “You have these two comment tickets. Once you use them, your turn is up.” If you’ve already talked with someone and it hasn’t worked, I highly suggest the cards. If this doesn’t work, then it’s time to tell the person that if they cannot be respectful participants of the conversation, they cannot be participants at all. I’ve never had to go that far.
I generally believe people want to be positive contributors, especially if you’ve cultivated a space of respect and kindness. It’s not always easy to manage conversations and to temper loud or frequent voices, but the more you create boundaries of respectful exchange, the more the environment itself will do the work for you. In the vast majority of cases, calling people to their better selves will work. If it doesn’t, remember that conversation is about the community, not the individual. It’s a discussion, not a pastoral one on one. So don’t be shy about being a firm moderator. No good discussion happens without it!
I hope this helps! If you have other ideas on how to deal with dominant voices in discussion, share them with us in the comments! All of us are smarter than one of us!