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I am a board member for a local non-profit where all board members are considered equal.

During meetings, when two people begin speaking at the same time, one member consistently dominates. That individual continues speaking while, invariably, the other person yields the floor. This scenario occurs frequently with the same individual rarely, if ever, allowing other board members to continue speaking.

[Edit:] This behavior is annoying though not disruptive to meetings. It isn't an act of rudeness but rather a demonstration of power or authority. I'm looking for a subtle but effective solution that will not offend other board members.

What tactic, technique, method or philosophy can be used to equalize the opportunity to speak without being interrupted while maintaining dignity and decorum during the meeting? If possible, please include a description of how I would respond when I am one of the two speakers and also how I may assist other board members when they experience this behavior.

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    Does somebody chair your meetings, or is it a free-for-all? Who manages the agenda? – Monica Cellio Mar 27 '15 at 21:58
  • The meetings are chaired by the board President who allows open conversation. I don't fault the President for allowing conversation. This person is an accomplished speaker and new to the group. The issue is about equal time to speak and reciprocity. – John Mar 29 '15 at 11:41
  • I don't believe this issue is about meeting protocol. This person's behavior is intentional. It's about power to dominate the conversation. – John Mar 29 '15 at 11:57
  • What country/culture are you in? – A E Mar 29 '15 at 17:10
  • This board meeting takes place in the United States. – John Mar 29 '15 at 21:31
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BAsically, you interrupt him every time he interrupts and say, "I wanted to hear what Jane was saying." In other words call him on his rudeness every time. He will get the message and others will too.

If he starts talking and you think it is time for someone else to have a turn, wait until he takes a breath, break in and say, "John, what do you think about..." to a differnt board member.

If it is you he cuts off, you interrupt him and say, "Excuse me, I wasn't finished."

  • I don't believe the behavior is rudeness. This person is an accomplished speaker and respected within the group. I believe it's a demonstration of power. – John Mar 29 '15 at 11:49
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    I don't believe the behavior is rudeness and I believe it's a demonstration of power. Feeling, and acting self-important is a form of rudeness. It demonstrates one's belief that nobody else matters. – Kent A. Mar 29 '15 at 13:15
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    I agree. This is rude behavior but it is not done out of rudeness. This person knows exactly what they are doing: Attempting to project authority. – John Mar 29 '15 at 21:37
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Do you use Robert's Rules of Order? They make provision for a Speaker whose responsibility is to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak for the allotted time.

  • I don't believe this issue is about protocol. The meetings are orderly. I believe this behavior is intentional. The person knows what they are doing. – John Mar 29 '15 at 12:00
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    @John The point is to enforce a protocol so that this behavior is not permitted to occur. Of course, if you standardize on Robert's Rules of Order but you don't enforce them, we might as well have no rules at all. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 29 '15 at 12:34
  • The other board members are willing to allow this behavior to avoid disputes or they may feel the issue isn't that important. – John Mar 29 '15 at 21:40
  • You are not going to be able to change anything unless you convince the other board members to see it your way. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 29 '15 at 21:43
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Philosophy When everyone subscribes to 'all board members beeing equal' everyone should agree that it's not ok to steamroll over other participants. However, the dominant person will likely no see the problem. I was not at your meetings but I've seem similiar behavior, most likely the folks acting this way get carried away and are also used to not moticing that they are now silencing someone. While talking about the issue is an important step (Everyone should be aware that there's a problem), don't expect marvels. Even when the dominant person is generally well-meaning.

Technics I've never seen it employed in a work contexts, but other meetings I've been to used a speaker list: One person present keeps a list and notes down when someone signals they want to say something, you get your turn when everyone before you finished. People talking out of turn are reminded to wait. The advantage is that non assertive people get their say (usually later).
The disadvantages are that the flow of the conversation is less natural and that someone used to the system will hold long monologues, touching every subject relevant and dear to them. Which forces others to reply to evey raised subject, leading to more monologues. This can turn into a situation where those most used to a speakers list can dominate the discussion.
There are ways to fine tune the system: Limit speaking time (say two or three minutes), move those who did not say something to one point of the agenda ahead. The flow will not be normal, but these can be improvements - I often found 'first speakers lists' great, not only to empower less assertive people present but also to have a discussion involving everyon right from the start.
Often but surely not always speaking behavior is heavly gendered, some groups tried to fix this by having a gendered list - one man may speak, one woman. This often means that women have shorter wait time. I can't vouch for this approach since I havent tried it, this will depend heavily on your group.

I would expect your group to be reluctant adopting a speakers list, since it feels very much like school, with waiting for ones turn etc.

Another thing you may want to look at - in my experience, dominant talkers generally spend more time talking about their issues and less time adressing the issues raised by others. Less dominant talkers will often also 'spend' some of their 'air-time' on the issues raised by the dominant talkers. But how much 'air-time' whose issue gets is only indicative of the dynamics in your group.

So here's a bunch of ideas that can make your meeting not only more equal, but also more productive. Or not, YMMV. Ultimately, you need a widely shared agreement that 'everyone is equal' translated to 'everyone should have the same say', that dominating the discussion in the way described is not okay and that 'well, if I inereupt them they should just interupt me' is not really a solution or an excuse. Starting from there, you will need to find approaches that work for your group.

  • The meetings are generally well run with participation by all. Most board members are unwilling to 'rock the boat' unless the behavior is egregious. – John Mar 29 '15 at 12:04
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    @John, the behavior is egregious enough for you to ask the Internet for help with it. Or is it? Maybe you should add a disclaimer to the question along the lines of this is a minor annoyance, that I'm not really even sure is a problem... – Kent A. Mar 29 '15 at 13:27
  • In my experience it's easie to reign in such behavior by pointing to a general rule, instead of by saying "You baheve like an asshole!" – mart Mar 29 '15 at 16:12
  • You're correct. The question has been edited to clarify the situation. – John Mar 29 '15 at 21:55
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This is not about equalizing the opportunity to speak. This is about a single person being disrespectful to the rest of the group.

You, together with your peers, need to take that person aside outside of meeting time to speak with them and let them know their behavior is inappropriate and needs to end.

Discussions generally run better if there is a moderator who can keep things on track. The moderator is resposible for cutting off inappropriate comments. He/She can literally stop the meeting if that individual continues to talk and not resume it until they get the picture. The moderator can be a rotating role amongst all the board members.

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    you need to have a Chair take control of the meetings – Pepone Mar 27 '15 at 23:45
  • The meetings are orderly. This person is demonstrating power to override or overtalk another person. When two people being talking at the same time, this person never allows the other person to speak first. They simply continue talking without interruption. – John Mar 29 '15 at 11:53
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    How can they be orderly if one person precludes all others from the discussion? It's good that there is no yelling, but in order for a board meeting to be orderly, there must be some order in place, and followed. – Kent A. Mar 29 '15 at 13:20
  • The other board members are willing to allow this behavior to avoid disputes or they may feel the issue isn't that important. – John Mar 29 '15 at 21:38
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First discuss it (in private) with the Chair.

It should be part of their role to ensure that 'airtime' in the meetings isn't dominated by one person.

If there's a discriminatory aspect to this - if person X is dominating the meeting because they perceive themselves to be superior to the other participants or more entitled to speak because of their gender, race, etc versus that of the other participants - then this applies even more.

On the other hand, it is possible for people to do this - dominate the 'airtime' of a meeting - without really intending to, particularly if they're very enthusiastic about their contribution. They might (perhaps) not realise that they're denying other people the opportunity to speak - so a good first option might be for the Chair to have a quiet word with them in private (outside of the meetings).

please include a description of how I would respond when I am one of the two speakers

OK, so if I understand correctly, when you're speaking, you're railroaded into silence by another person, and they do this constantly to you and to other board members (have I got that right?).

So what you need to do is find an assertive way to respond which allows you to make your point.

Address the person interrupting you directly, using their name:

"John, could you let me finish please?"

Try again:

"Jane, I'd really like to finish what I was saying".

And again:

"John, please could you allow me to finish speaking?"

If that still doesn't work then address the Chair, using their name:

"Dawn, I'm not being allowed to speak here. Could you please ask Jane to wait until I've finished, and make her contribution then?"

At that point, if the Chair and the rest of the meeting don't do anything then you really have a dysfunctional board... in normal circumstances the steps above would work quite reliably, here in the UK (other cultures of course may differ).

how I may assist other board members when they experience this behavior.

Interrupt the interruption with:

"I'd really like to hear what Joe was saying".

Interrupt the interruption again with:

"John, I really do want to hear what Jane was saying. Could you wait until they've finished?"

Appeal to the Chair on behalf of the person who's not being allowed to speak:

"Dawn, I think it's only fair that John be allowed to finish. Could you call the meeting to order please?"

Things that can help:

  • Talk to the Chair before the meeting.

  • Talk to the other participants before the meeting, see if they think it's a problem too, agree that you will support each other in making sure that everyone gets a chance to make their contribution.

  • Sit next to the Chair so that you can make yourself heard to them without needing to raise your voice.

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At some point this person will stop talking. The polite way to handle it is to just let them finish, then the person who was interrupted begins again as if they had never been interrupted.

Essentially, ignore them.

That said, it's the responsibility of the board president, as chair, to deal with this. As that person isn't doing their job you need to speak to them about this. Take a few other members who have a similar view with you so that the president knows that this is a problem.

  • It is polite to let them finish, yes, but that's exactly what's everybody doing as OP stated. The dominant person has to be called on his behavior. It is plain rude to keep talking or interrupt when someone else wants to speak. I agree that the chair has to keep things in order, but more often than not, the chair just sits there and keeps his own mouth shut. – Edwin Lambregts Mar 30 '15 at 13:56

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