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October 12, 2010 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How to encourage more people in our group to voice their opinions to balance out some stronger characters?

I'm a member of a 6 month old sports league (Roller Derby, if it matters), and we're taking baby steps in organising ourselves. We have an elected committee with no "chairperson", but it feels like one person with a strong personality is running the show, making others either feel like they don't have to participate in the running of things (because it's all under control) or that they shouldn't participate (from having their opinions struck down by strong personality person). Without having a confrontation, what are ways to foster communication and cooperation within this group?
posted by hannahlambda to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Use the technique of ensuring that each phase as a 'divergent' phase (when the goal is volume of ideas) and then a convergent phase (when the best ideas get chosen). This works well because during the divergent phase, every single idea/contribution gets recorded, without any comments about whether they're good or bad ideas.

When trying to come up with ideas or solutions to something, rather than having a 'leader', have a facilitator or note taker (taking notes on a blackboard/whiteboard/flip chart/something visible). First phase of discussion is everyone contributing their ideas, and EVERYTHING gets written down, and NOTHING gets criticized or discussed. Make everyone contribute - go around the table so that everyone suggests something. Feel free to let people build on previous ideas. Quiet timid ideas are just as valid as loud ideas.

Go through your list of ideas/options and, as a group, select a few that seem like options. (Give everyone a marker or sticker or piece of chalk, and ask them to put a check mark beside their top 2 or 3 favourite ideas). Then discuss your top 2 or 3 ideas and determine a winner.

This method, part of design thinking and/or ideation techniques, is useful because it forces people to participate and requires the loudmouth to tone it down, and the democratic nature of both phases means that whatever idea wins feels like it came from the group.
posted by Kololo at 9:28 AM on October 12, 2010

Ask strong-personality-person if they would like to be responsible for trying to increase levels of communication and co-operation within the group, making sure everyone's voice is heard, etc etc.
posted by emilyw at 9:37 AM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a member of a 6 month old sports league (Roller Derby, if it matters), and we're taking baby steps in organising ourselves. We have an elected committee with no "chairperson", but it feels like one person with a strong personality is running the show, making others either feel like they don't have to participate in the running of things (because it's all under control) or that they shouldn't participate (from having their opinions struck down by strong personality person).

Humans invariably and inevitably create self-organizing, self-repairing hierarchical structures which often form in exactly the manner you described. As long the "strong personality" (natural leader) makes good decisions, what's the issue? If she doesn't make good decisions, the antidote to dictatorship is bureaucracy: drawing up formal procedural rules is a good way to ensure that different people get floor time.
posted by Electrius at 9:46 AM on October 12, 2010

Best answer: I just did two weeks of jury service and this problem was really apparent.

I do not have a "strong personality", generally speaking, but when it comes to argument and discussion I tend to be quite confident. I am also very, very keen on fairness. When the time came to elect a jury foreman no one wanted to do it. So I said "Well, I don't mind doing it if absolutely no one else wants to" and sure enough, that was that.

And then, that done, suddenly the strong characters (read: loud, pushy, opinionated people) wanted to be all over the discussion. It quickly became clear that we had about four of these types, then about three people who were calmer and more patient and would quietly and tenaciously make their case, then about four who just sat there in silence. Of these, I think one just didn't give a damn and the other three were shy and/or intimidated.

Here's what I learned. Do have a chairperson, but don't make that chairperson one of the pushy, highly assertive people. Make it someone who is confident enough to keep order but who is also fair-minded, relatively calm and who pays attention to what is going on. Then, have that person gently involve the quiet ones. By "gently" I mean never make them feel they're being put on the spot (Hey, Jane! You're not saying much! Let's hear what you think!) It can help to initiate things by going round the table and getting everyone to just say what they initially feel, having made the clear proviso that at that stage no one criticises or argues with anyone else's opinions. They're just put out there as fuel for subsequent discussion. Keep notes. Visible ones.

After that, when the to-and-fro discussion begins in earnest, the chair should always keep an eye on those quiet ones and gently involve them when it's easy to do so ("You look a bit uncertain about that, Jane... correct me if I'm wrong there.") Also, the chair needs to be able to get the noisy buggers to shut it and give others a chance if they're monopolising the discussion. I actually said things like "Okay Sue, we get your point, now what do the rest of us think about that?"

Taken out of the context of the discussion these comments might sound wrong, but all I can say is that they worked, everyone got involved and several people - including the quiet ones - complimented me on my handling of the session later. So, I guess the key is do have a chairperson and try to make it someone who is neither a pushy bugger nor a shrinking violet.
posted by Decani at 9:54 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Person is *seen to* be making self interested decisions (or pushing towards self interested outcomes) and uses quite dismissive language when addressing others' comments. Person shouldn't be the leader - has already frozen at least one person out of the league.

I suppose a good way of putting it is: How to make more democratic decisions without making bureaucracy? Bear in mind that I'm not an autocrat, and say "right, this is what we're doing now". Softly softly :)
posted by hannahlambda at 9:56 AM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: Decani, sounds like a similar mix of people here. This raises another issue: the elected committee feel like we shouldn't have a President - don't want so many strata. How to have good, fair, productive meetings then? Rotating chair?
posted by hannahlambda at 10:00 AM on October 12, 2010

hannahlambda - why not try a rotating chair and take a vote on who works out the best?

The great thing a chair gives you is someone who has the authority to stop things descending into a noisefest for the alphas. But you do have to get buy-in, by which I mean everyone has to accept that the chair has that authority.
posted by Decani at 10:17 AM on October 12, 2010

Best answer: This is absolutely a job for facilitation/a facilitator — someone whose job it is to ensure the meeting runs smoothly and everyone gets to participate. I do/have done a lot of facilitating and getting this balance right is a large part of the role. Often it can be as simple as asking the people who haven't spoken for their opinions ( I try and keep a running tally in my head of how much people have spoken -- though its pretty obvious when somebody is dominating proceedings). Another thing that is important is insisting that people raise their hands if they want to speak and don't let people interject out of order, jump in with immediate responses or talk over people. It definitely need somebody in the facilitators role, who makes this their job rather than trying to participate in their meetings. Decani is spot on in saying that dominant personalities don't always make a good match for this role.

It is worth drawing out the difference between the facilitators role and that of a chair. Though a chairperson is typically in charge of running meetings its tends to be a fixed position of leadership and often they have extra power-- e.g. the deciding vote. On the other hand the facilitators role is almost always one that rotates between members of the group, or even is someone form outside that group, in order to ensure that no power accrues to that position. There is a definite skill set to facilitation so often groups will have a sub set of people to draw on for this role. I would recommend you start with two or three people who are willing to put time in to learn things and try and draw other people in. Its absolutely something that one person can start though and once its gets going the benefits tend to be obvious to people.

A lot of work on facilitation has come from the tradition of consensus decision making, it self a useful tool for ensuring equal participation, but the uses are much wider that that.

A useful place to start is with the free resources from Seeds for Change. They are aimed at activist groups but are widely applicable. See their short guide to facilitation, and the more indepth version as well as their tools for meetings.

Feel free to ask me any specific questions here or by (m)email, I've been facilitating meetings for 25+ years and I'm happy to pass on what I have learned.

posted by tallus at 10:39 AM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

It'd be useful to try KJ Analysis (aka "KJ Technique").

We were introduced to it by our UI guy at work. You can read more about it here:

...and here:

Basically, you use post-its and voting with stickers to get ideas out of a group, instead of dominating personalities taking over group dynamics. Comes out of Japan, I think Toyota, and is specifically designed to maximize the input of people who might not be good at the group dynamics thing, and minimize the impact of those who are.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You question made me instantly think of the documentary Hell on Wheels (Hulu link) where the women of that roller derby team were having similar issues. In the end there was a mass exodus where the disgruntled players formed a new league which was kind of a player owned co-op. The original team also ended up using the same player ownership model even though that was the main issue of contention to start with.

Perhaps it's worth watching if you haven't seen it already.
posted by cazoo at 2:28 PM on October 12, 2010

I fave Decani's comments. More than one human being always implies some sort of hierarchy... but a healthy small democracy requires a strong BUT impartial chairperson, which is often a rare individual.

Note: Robert's Rules of Order is where one might start. But also note that Robert's Rules of Order can be perverted by a biased chairperson, and I've seen that happen.
posted by ovvl at 4:15 PM on October 12, 2010

You could have them listen this story on NPR about group dynamics. They talk exactly about your problem, ie having one person dominate discussions and decision making. I thought it was very interesting. They really make a case for why everyone should contribute.
posted by aetg at 4:48 PM on October 12, 2010

Best answer: Bylaws. Now. You can ask other leagues (via the roller_girls board on Yahoo--You've seen that, right?) for copies of their bylaws so you can get an idea of what yours should look like. Also, having been there (new roller derby league figuring things out), this really needs to be addressed, and fast. Whoever your chair is closest to, have that person take her out to lunch and explain that her style is potentially destructive--in nicer terms than that, but you get the idea. Perhaps she feels that she needs to have all the responsibility, especially if the league was her idea. Delegating, through committees, a Board of Directors, and elected positions, is one way to spread the work around and avoid any one person from being too powerful.

Having seen many a league form and subsequently disappear from similar issues, I'd say that if you're serious about sticking around, either a) join a more established league, or b) put the groundwork in place to become a more established league. The business side of derby is no joke, the leagues with conflict don't survive unless they can deal with it effectively, and that involves being a real business with structure in place to combat the possibility of it being just a clique of girls run by a strong personality.
posted by Fuego at 7:08 PM on October 12, 2010

Response by poster: A lot of useful advice here. Fuego, it's the only league in town (and the second in my country!) A great bunch of enthusiastic, talented women and I hope it'll survive the rumblings against this lady. Her personality was definitely great for getting the league off the ground but now we need democratic governance. I've been tasked with coming up with assembling the constitution and am trying to get in good conflict resolution policies and to think of ways to get this idea of "facilitator" into the meetings - right now they've barely got an agenda, and consist mainly of a monologue from lady.

Cazoo, I saw Hell on Wheels - I hope we're not heading in that direction! We're trying to spread the co-op, self-led league model instead of the commercial.

I'll read more into those links. Thanks all.
posted by hannahlambda at 2:36 AM on October 13, 2010

I play roller derby, and one of it's greatest strengths and weaknesses is that you have quite a few women with strong personalities. This can lead to situations like the one you mention and lots of other personality clashes.

In my experience, part of the problem may be not having elected a committee head. You've got a leadership vacuum at the top and this woman is filling it. It sounds as if people wouldn't vote for this person. If they did vote for her, at least she would have some legitimacy as the person who is supposed to be in charge and maybe lead to people's fillings not getting hurt as much since roles are more clearly defined.

Also, don't reinvent the wheel of organization. Not sure from your question if this is your league's only committee. If this is the only committee, consider breaking up the work. My league has been around 6 or 7 years now and has tons of committees-merch, events, charity, bout production, marketing/pr, recruitment, and a bunch of others I can't think of right now. We also have a board of directors and a grievance council. The board members each work with a few of the different committees and handle the official business end of things. Grievance council is for intraleague problems exactly like the one you mention. Although I think it's best if you can encourage everyone to act like grownups and talk to people before taking it to council.

Reach out to other leagues either on the forum mentioned above or by directly contacting some of the leagues. Every roller derby leagues is set up a little differently, and there's no one way that will work for every league.

Congrats on getting a roller derby league started and good look working it all out!
posted by bubonicpeg at 7:02 AM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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