Navigating Dominant Personalities At Retros

This blog post is part of a series where we hope to provide our readers with facilitation tricks, tips, and tools to make your retrospectives a success.  You can find more of our retro flavors here.

Ever been part of a retro where a single team member (or sometimes the product owner) dominated the conversation?  It’s not uncommon so know that you’re not alone.  But how can we get the rest of the team involved and how can we encourage our assertive member to spend more time listening to his cohorts?  Here are several techniques that have worked for me, and it starts with a conversation I recently had with a co-worker.

This co-worker asked me how much time I spend preparing for some of our company’s ceremonies.  My answer:

I usually spend more time preparing team members than preparing for the ceremony.

Since that sounds frighteningly similar to manipulation, let me unpack that a bit.  Sometimes team members have a hard time wrapping their heads around the intent or agenda of a particular meeting, like the retro.  If I fear that might occur, I like to stay ahead of it by having a few conversations beforehand.

It’s also how I’d begin to solve the problem we’re discussing today.  Meet individually with our talkative person and take the time understand his situation and to understand what’s driving the behavior.  Does he feel others won’t talk if he doesn’t lead the conversation?  Is there something that you, the facilitator, aren’t seeing or providing for him that would alleviate the problem?  Does he cringe at the thought of silence?  Does he even realize he’s doing it?

Based on what you find out, here are some solutions that may help:

  • Ask him if he’s willing to involve the team.  This should be your go to.  Our multiloquent member should ask for the team’s help to identify when he’s talking too much and then establish a visual cue that works for the team.  For example, a team member could stand up when our member begins dominating the conversation.  It’s easy, obvious, and non-confrontational.
  • Have a safe word.  If our talker isn’t comfortable approaching the team even after some encouragement, maybe he’s willing to employ your help.  Establish a word that only the two of you will understand.  This word will be his sign that he’s beginning to dominate the conversation.  Over time, he’ll likely come to recognize this behavior as it happens so the word should becomes less and less necessary.
  • Ask him if he’s willing to only speak in the form of questions at the next retro.  He’ll be forced to listen to the team in order to construct his questions, and he might enjoy the higher level of interaction with the team.
  • Ask him if he’s willing to facilitate the next retro.  From time to time, I’ll ask a team member to facilitate our retros, and this is a great opportunity to explore this alternative.  Provide him with direction and the resources to succeed.  Hold him accountable to the idea that he doesn’t get to create the conversation, only the container. (More on that here.) I’ve never been disappointed when a team member facilitates a retro; it provides fresh perspective for the entire team.

However, one thing you should not do is exclude him from the retro.  I’ve seen some try this technique for dominating product owners, but I think it’s a bad idea.  You wouldn’t suggest excluding a team member so why exclude any other member of the team?  Further, product owner buy-in is paramount for many ideas coming out of the retro.

Alright.  That’s all for now.  I hope you enjoyed this retro flavor, and if you have topics we should cover, please let us know.

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