How to avoid your retrospective from getting hijacked by a meeting dominator
Outside of accountability, participation is one of the biggest sources of tension for retrospectives. Gathering input from the team can be difficult so facilitators mix up the formats, have fun “Set the stage” activities, use anonymity, and do all sorts of things. Often due to recency bias, social tension, a lack of trust in the meeting’s impact, or an uneventful sprint, generating responses can be tough. But what about those times where it’s not?
You know who I’m talking about. That one person who loves to chat. Who needs to add their two cents to every topic. Who answers every question before anyone can respond. Who causes the meeting to run long. Who talks so much that their input represents the majority of the discussion and indirectly influences outcomes. The meeting dominator. It’s not always aggressive either. It’s often well-meaning and intentional. But when you have to “parking lot” every topic or only cover a fraction of what you had planned because the hour runs out, you know you’ve got an issue. How do you deal with them?
Facilitator tips 🚦
- Set clear guidelines. Start by making sure the team is aware of the meeting’s goals: “Everyone should participate for us to truly discover our opportunities for improvement. This is a safe space for constructive criticism that requires open dialogue. We all win as a team and fail as a team.”
- Set a discussion timer. There are all sorts of handy tools to help with automating this process. It’s important that the team is aware of the time left to discuss a topic as the meeting occurs or you won’t get to every topic.
- Use the parking lot. If a topic is going far beyond its allotted discussion time, create a culture of parking items for later or offline discussion. The goal isn’t to resolve everything that moment, but to at least identify and bring them to the forefront.
- Use body language to navigate the discussion. Build a habit of squaring your shoulders and body to face the person speaking each time and when you need to extinguish a dominator, direct your body away from them and towards another person for input.
- Give neutral reactions. Avoid giving cues of enthusiasm or encouragement that can spur on needless discussion. It shouldn’t be negative, you should just acknowledge the conversation and move on. Sometimes a polite “Thank you” can be just as effective at stripping down the rant and letting the group move on.
- Recap the dominator’s points. Without cutting them off or being rude, if you’re noticing repetition or rambling in a point, you need to make sure you preserve the meeting’s efficacy and time. Directly acknowledge the person, summarize their point, and ask if anyone else has input:
“Alex, you’re saying that the next steps should be:
1) Moving to Tuesday backlog grooming, and
2) Holding daily standups at 10AM, right?
Does anyone else have an opinion?”
- Respond inversely. The longer the input, the shorter your response should be and vice versa. This goes for your physical and verbal reactions.
- Prevent interruptions. Participation is the goal and we don’t want the team to think there’s a hierarchy of opinions here. Keep things respectful and make sure that everyone feels heard. Meeting dominators tend to have trouble with this because they’re so eager to contribute. Allows others — especially folks who don’t often participate much — to finish their thought.
Aligning with the dominator 🔗
- Ask them to become the notetaker. This is an easy one and you have to do it early in the meeting but if you already know that this is a problem, making them the notetaker encourages them to channel their enthusiasm into listening.
- Have them prepare notes. If the dominator is asked to prepare notes in advance, they’ll distill their points and keep them crisp because it will force them to review the content. Then if they feel that it still merits discussion during the meeting, it will more organized and concise.
- Partner with the dominator. If this is a habit for a person, I would consider chatting with them in advance of the next meeting and asking for their help to get specific people involved. If they are keeping it in their minds that “Oh we need to get Sam to participate”, they’ll focus their enthusiasm on that goal.
- Acknowledge the dominator in private. Following the meeting, engage the person directly. Let them know how appreciative you are for their involvement but kindly remind them that a balanced perspective on the team is the most important outcome for this meeting. Ask them if there’s anything more or deeper that they need to talk through or if there’s a message they specifically want to get through to certain people and see if you can help with that. If something larger is going on beneath the surface, they should know that they’re entitled to more effective help than a retrospective and that you’re there to listen.
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be an issue and everyone would participate evenly. But it’s never like that. People will either participate too little or too much. Either way, the goal is the same — balanced input to ensure the team uncovers learnings and actions improvements to get better for the next sprint or project. Derailing a dominator can hurt their morale and distract them from that goal. Make them feel appreciated and valued for their input, but channel their enthusiasm towards getting the entire team involved.