Leading Discussions: Addressing Time Monopolizers

by SwingDancerMike3 min read21st Jun 201221 comments

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Conversation (topic)Meetups (topic)
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"Having been that monologuist, I fully endorse this article." -David Gerard

This is part of a series on leading discussions, aimed at teachers and event organizers.

Have you ever been in a discussion (in a class or a workshop) when another attendee delivered a monolog? It lasts for several minutes, drains the energy from the group, and gets the whole event off schedule.

As the meetup / workshop / class leader, it's your responsibility to address these time monopolizers and keep everything moving. This article will give you some tips on identifying when you should intervene, and on how to intervene politely.

Identifying Time Monopolizers

If one person is talking for an extended period, they are probably monopolizing the conversation. Here are some specific signs to look out for:

  • The person has covered multiple topics without anyone else speaking. If they are moving from topic to topic without other people chiming in, it's a monolog, not a discussion.
  • You (the leader) feel bored or annoyed. Most of the time, everyone else will feel it 10x as much, because they are already less engaged in the conversation than you are. Tip: Don't wait until you're going to snap. Instead, as soon as you notice yourself getting bored / annoyed, shut the monolog down. (Note: I mean "annoyed they are taking up so much time," not "annoyed they disagree with me.")
  • Other attendees are disengaged. This often manifests in reading handouts or emails, looking out the window or down at their hands, and otherwise not paying attention to the speaker.

If only one of these items is true -- if the person is crossing multiple topics, but you and the class are engaged, for example -- then feel free to let them speak. But if two or more of these items are true, you should probably intervene. (See the next section for how to do that.)

If the event ends and you're not sure if someone was monopolizing the conversation, ask the quiet people how it went, and ask them if anyone in the group slowed the class down or monopolized the conversation. They might be too polite to bring the issue up, but once you ask directly, they'll let you know what's going on. Make sure to thank them for their honesty, and keep their feedback anonymous when you talk to the time monopolizer.

One note: While a monolog that covers multiple topics is usually bad, a discussion where multiple people cover multiple topics is usually good, even if it prevents you (the leader) from hitting all the topics you'd planned for the event. After all, most people show up at events to meet like-minded people and make new friends, not to cover each of the items on the handout.

But, do pay attention to the rest of the attendees: Are they engaged or checked out? Is this a discussion involving half the group, or a dialog between only two people? As the leader, are you interested in the discussion? If two people are having a dialog, and the rest of the group is checking out, it's your job to shut that dialog down, too.

How to Intervene

Politely. This is the key. As the leader of the event, any reprimand you give will be felt more deeply than a reprimand given by a peer.

Wait for the person to take a breath, then speak up. (If you don't get that chance after 20 seconds or so, raise your hand like you're stopping traffic, wait a second, then start speaking.) Say something like:

That's really interesting. I'm just going to pause you for a second so we can get back to the topic. Grab me afterward and we can discuss that some more.

Note that we started with praise ("That's really interesting.") Don't worry, they'll get the message. Then, without saying anything negative about the person or his statements, simply say that you need to get back on topic.

Also, avoid saying "but" here: "That's really interesting, but I'm going to pause you…" The "but" construction negates the first sentence, and could make it sound sarcastic.

Here are some other phrases you can try:

  • That's really interesting. I'd like to hear from some of the other folks. (Then ask someone else what they think.)
  • I'd love to explore this more with you offline. Could you grab me after (the class / workshop / whatever event this is)?

[Note: Please add to this list.]

What if you don't stop a monolog during the event, but realize afterward that you should have? That's just fine. The point isn't to have every event run perfectly, but rather, to make sure that no one repeatedly monopolizes the conversation month after month. Just talk to them afterward, and say something like:

I noticed you were speaking a lot during the event. I love how passionate you are about these topics. I have a favor, though: Some of the people are a little more shy and reserved than you are, and I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. After all, if there are 10 people here, then ideally, each person would make about 10% of the remarks. Do you think you could talk a little less at the next meetup, to give everyone else more of a chance?

(Note: It's not actually important that everyone speak for the same amount of time, but it's a good way to explain what isn't working. Feel free to use your own judgement on how to help your particular time monopolizer understand what's not working.)

In all these interactions, make sure to smile and be friendly. Remember, he probably doesn't realize he was monopolizing the conversation. And keep in mind that no one adjusts instantly, and you might still need to jump in and direct the conversation at the next event, too.

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21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:55 AM
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I came here expecting suggestions for ways to spend less time on sites like LessWrong.org.

TVTropes! (Warning: TVTropes.)

LessWrong is already my substitute for TVTropes.

Start editing Wikipedia! :-D

[-][anonymous]9y 5

An even more thankless hobby...

I cannot imagine that the expected return on that is significant (as a general practice), except for a few select topics. Am I wrong?

By the way, this is my first post here. Please feel free to comment on style, presentation, tags, and anything else, in addition to pointing out anything that's confusing and suggesting additions. Also, it feels to me like this needs some kind of conclusion or summary or some other point at the end, what do you think? Thanks!

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, AND find it to be very useful. Looking forward to reading more like this!

Personally, as a meetup organizer, I actually might also want to try practicing this skill with a friend(s), where one person plays the "monologuer" and the other person practices politely halting them. I think after a couple rounds of that, I might actually have the skill internalized at a level that I can easily utilize it when the situation demands.

Interesting stuff, though missing references.

Unless this is all original research, it would be nice to see the references. Even if the ideas are all yours, surely other people faced the same problems and solved them in some way. Save your readers some googling and link to the relevant ideas. You might also learn something from these links.

How much peer reviewed stuff about appropriate interpersonal interactions is there, really? And if it isn't peer reviewed, then there's almost no reason to think it is more likely to be true simply because someone printed it somewhere.

In short, cut some slack for a valuable contribution.

Thanks, both of you. I wish I had references for this, but this is based on my experience as a professional teacher. I have 10+ years experience, starting with martial arts in high school, then running a dance studio, and now designing and teaching classes on software security. I'm sure I read some of these items somewhere, but I can't recall where anymore.

Grice (1975)'s Cooperative Principles of Quantity and Manner linguistically explain why what Mike calls 'monologs' are inappropriate to conversation.

He doesn't provide suggestions for how to handle situations when the principles are not followed, however, so discussion is most productively geared towards "add[ing] to this list."

cough having been that monologuist, I fully endorse this article.

That only covers telling the motormouth to shut it. This doesn't help a motormouth thinking "Damn, I should shut it, but I can't possibly bear to let this point go unaddressed!".

Good point. I actually don't have any experience with that, but maybe you could write up some tips and I'll add a section? Or write up an article and we'll link to each other? Thanks!

There seems to be a small cadre of swing dancers on LW. I'm curious about the degrees of dance separation between us all.

I don't think that there needs to be an even distribution of speaking time. Some people may feel more comfortable observing more and speaking less. Others might be happy that their short questions are prompting good thought out answers, even if they aren't getting the speaking time of giving the answer. And sometimes the monologuer really is holding everyone's attention.

That said, you should also look out for the opposite problem, where one or a few group members have something to say, but aren't able to interject, despite a good distribution of talking time amongst most of the group.

An alternate strategy that is sometimes appropiate is to break into small groups, if some members are interested and others are not.

There are black swan events (the monologuing member of the audience really is that interesting), but we shouldn't plan as if they are common.

I agree with you that the distribution of talking need not be precisely equal. But is the OP really saying something so strict? If one person is really dominating the available time to talk, that's fairly strong evidence that there is something dysfunctional in the discussion process.

I agree that monologuing is a potential problem, but I disagree that virtuous monologuing with an interested audiance is so rare that it should be called a "black swan event". Differentiating between good and bad monologuing is important, and OP did describe some good ways of doing so.

But is the OP really saying something so strict?

I think you may have an exaggerated sense of my level of disagreement with the OP.

It depends a lot on the social context. But I've rarely seen a moderated discussion where it was highly functional for a member of the audience to speak for 60% (or even 40%) of the discussion time.

Great feedback, guys. I added 2 paragraphs to clarify. (One below the bullet list of how to identify a monopolizer, the other below the italicized paragraph of what to say after the event.) Let me know what you think.

And I have another post in the works focused on getting quiet people to join in the conversation.