Article Category: Delivery Techniques

How to Manage 8 Tough Personas in a Group Discussion


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In previous articles in this series, we learned how to plan and how to lead group discussions. In this article, we dig deeper into effectively managing different personalities that you will encounter as a discussion leader.

In an ideal world, everyone in your discussion group would actively participate, support the opinions of others, be respectful, and be a positive influence in all ways and at all times. The discussion would proceed swiftly and successfully towards achieving the objectives. Sadly, I have yet to lead a discussion group in such an ideal world.

In the real world, discussions can go awry in a thousand different ways. Often, the largest obstacles you will face come in the form of participants who exhibit traits of challenging personas. They may be doing so accidentally or they may be doing so deliberately; either way, you are responsible for managing these behaviors.

8 Tough Personas in a Group Discussion

1. The Silent Participant

How to identify?

  • Closed body language, to avoid drawing attention toward themselves.
  • Only speaks when directly called upon.
  • When speaking, appears uncomfortable.

Why is this detrimental?

  • Participants have been chosen deliberately to actively represent a diversity of perspectives. The Silent Participant disturbs this balance, so the mix of ideas is not as rich as it could be.
  • The Silent Participant may not feel ownership in group decisions or consensus.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Call on these individuals directly. Don’t embarrass them or point out their silent behavior.
  • If they give only short, shallow statements, ask follow-up questions. Don’t let them retreat into a cocoon.
  • When they are talking, exude positive body language to encourage them to continue.

Managing challenging personalities may be the hardest part of being an effective discussion leader.

2. The Dominant Participant

How to identify?

  • Always the first to jump in when a question is asked.
  • Speaks at length all the time. When they run out of things to say, they’ll often start repeating comments.
  • Does not “yield the floor” voluntarily to other participants.

Why is this detrimental?

  • Creates an unbalanced atmosphere.
  • Further inhibits contributions from the Silent Participant.
  • If unchecked, can bias results towards the views of the Dominant Participants; thus, failure to represent the group as a whole.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Acknowledge contributions from the Dominant Participant, but do not always yield to them.
  • Encourage others to participate, perhaps by calling on them directly. Use phrases like “let’s hear from someone else” or “let’s give someone else a turn” or even “I’d like to hear from everyone”.

3. The Scope-Bender

How to identify?

  • Repeatedly pulls the discussion away from core issues to explore tangential topics that are not within scope.

Why is this detrimental?

  • Other participants get frustrated with lengthy diversions.
  • Productive (on-topic) discussion may be derailed, leading to schedule slips and, ultimately, failure to achieve objectives within time constraints.
  • The Scope-Bender may not have innocent motivations; they may be attempting to undermine the group for political or personal reasons.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Reign in attempts — whether intentional or accidental — to stray from the topic.
  • Be a vigilant gatekeeper to stay on topic. Brief topic diversions are unavoidable, and may even be helpful sometimes. But when the diversions become too lengthy or too frequent, they must be curtailed.
  • Deal with off-topic issues in one of two ways:
    • If you plan to return to it later in the session, record it on a “parking lot” (a flip chart sheet, or a blank whiteboard area).
    • If not, capture it in your notes (or minutes) so that it can be dealt with at some later time, perhaps by a different group.

4. The Chronic Complainer

How to identify?

  • Complains about everything.
  • Claims the discussion group itself is futile (e.g. “It doesn’t matter what we decide here. Management will never go for it.”)

Why is this detrimental?

  • The discussion group as a whole can spiral into a “gripe session.”

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Be patient. Collective airing of grievances can be therapeutic and may even strengthen group bonds.
  • Re-focus the discussion toward constructive ideas instead.
  • Re-assert the mandate of the group. (e.g. “We’ve been tasked to identify solutions for consideration. Management is sponsoring this activity.”)
  • Stay positive.

5. The Ideologue

How to identify?

  • Refuses to accept any position other than their own.

Why is this detrimental?

  • Consensus is threatened.
  • Other participants get exasperated and may be tempted to “dig in” with equal zeal.
  • The Ideologue may feel isolated.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

Want to learn more?
An excellent book which describes how to navigate between positions and interests is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury. It is one of the most influential books I’ve read in the past decade.
  • Dig deeper to separate their position (what they refuse to move from) from their interest (their true goal).
  • Find common ground between their interests and those of others. Sometimes you need to be creative, and work from some area of consensus previously established.

6. The Naysayer

How to identify?

  • Always finds fault with every idea put forward by anyone.
  • Unlike the Ideologue, rarely puts forward their own idea, preferring instead to attack every other argument.

Why is this detrimental?

  • Other participants are reluctant to offer ideas if they are certain to be criticized.
  • The Naysayer’s actions are never channeled towards consensus-building.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • (Re-)Establish the ground rules. Gather diverse ideas without criticism first. Then, focus on selecting the best ideas together.

7. The Uncommitted Participant

How to identify?

  • Arrives late.
  • Returns late from lunch and other breaks.
  • Leaves unexpectedly during the discussion.
  • Performs other work (e.g. typing away on their laptop) during the discussion (thus becoming the Silent Participant).
  • Misses sessions entirely (in multi-session discussion groups).

Why is this detrimental?

  • At best, the Uncommitted Participant is a distraction.
  • At worst, their negative behaviors are copied by others.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Clearly communicate the discussion objectives and how everyone stands to benefit from mutual success.
  • Restate that everyone’s active participation is needed to achieve group success.
  • Determine the reason for their lack of commitment. Are they just bored, or are they attending against their will?

The Uncommitted Participant can present quite a conundrum. You may be unable to spark their interest, and at the same time unauthorized to remove them from the group. In these cases, you may have to accept the situation and try to minimize the distraction.

8. The Insult-Thrower

How to identify?

  • In a mild form, the Insult-Thrower dismisses the opinions of others as uninformed, uneducated, naive, or plain wrong.
  • In a severe form, the Insult-Thrower launches verbal attacks directly at other participants or the discussion leader.

Why is this detrimental?

  • The Insult-Thrower creates a toxic environment, turning all others into either Silent Participants or combative Insult-Throwers.
  • Success of the discussion group is threatened.
  • Insults may have long-lasting, negative effects.

What should you do as the discussion leader?

  • Act swiftly.
  • Avoid getting emotional yourself. Be a stern, but calm leader.
  • Remind everyone that passionate participation is encouraged, but personal insults will not be tolerated.

Lead by Example

Managing challenging personalities may be the hardest part of being an effective discussion leader. Ultimately, your best strategy is to lead by example, and avoid any of the behaviors discussed above:

  • Don’t be the Silent Participant.
    Contribute your ideas openly.
  • Don’t be the Dominant Participant.
    Let all others contribute.
  • Don’t be the Scope-Bender.
    Stay focused on topic and on schedule. Do not contribute to diversions.
  • Don’t be the Chronic Complainer.
    Adopt a positive frame of mind, even in a perilous situation.
  • Don’t be the Ideologue or the Naysayer.
    Celebrate contributions of all kinds, even when they differ from your own.
  • Don’t be the Uncommitted Participant.
    On the contrary, you must be the person most committed to success.
  • Don’t be the Insulting Participant.
    Never stoop to this level, even if someone else started it. You will always look like a bully. Always treat everyone in the room with respect.

When you model positive behaviors and create an environment where open and honest discussion is celebrated, you give your discussion group the best chance to be healthy and vibrant. Good luck!

Your Turn

How many of the 8 tough personas have you encountered in discussions?

How would you deal with each of them?

Please share your thoughts in the article comments.

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  1. Michele says:

    What a gem of a website Mr.Dlugan thank you.

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