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Step up Step back

Are you comfortable speaking up or sharing in meetings? Do you always raise your hand to give your answer or perspective?

What’s going through your mind when someone else is doing a lot of the talking? What is your reaction to them?

Do you tend to be quiet and just listen in big meetings? Perhaps ideas are percolating in your mind and you are trying to put them together or consider the impact. Maybe you feel like no one cares about what you have to say. Or that what you say won’t make a difference, because the outcome of the meeting has been pre-determined. Or, your idea is contrary to what is being said, and you don’t feel safe sharing it. Or maybe the boss is in the room and you don’t want to make waves.

Frankly, as a meeting participant, I’ve been or felt all of these things.

When facilitating a meeting, to allow for even sharing, and good discussion, I suggest this guideline for the group: Step Up/ Step Back. This means, if you are the person who feels very comfortable sharing, take note of how often you are sharing, and consider giving time for for others to share. By all means, be present and active in this conversation, but make sure others have the time to as well. If you tend to be a quiet participant, take a chance and “step up” with your idea, share your concerns, your ideas, concerns, and excitement with the group. A good facilitator will make sure this is safe for you.

Step up Step back
Step up Step back

It is easier for the facilitator to remind a participant to “step back” during the meeting and allow for other voices, when it has been pointed out ahead of the meeting. I was once facilitating a meeting and a group of dynamos, all sitting at one table, spoke up so much that it was hard for people to start to talk before they chimed in. It wasn’t that their ideas weren’t good or valid; I could tell some of the participants weren’t speaking because they didn’t think they could get their point out. I had never met the attendees ahead of time, so at lunch, I spoke with the Executive Director and we decided to mix up the group before the next session, to even out the participation. They were actually very aware of their actions and were happy to do so. A colleague of mine tells the story of very directly asking a very dominant participant to hold back during a meeting, as they were visible intimidating someone in the group. At the break she checked in with the participant, who thanked her and acknowledged their personal inclination to be dominant, and that stepping back was actually something they were working on. It worked out okay in that meeting, yet there is a risk in this approach. Someone less self-aware of their behavior may have felt embarrassed. Saying, “Let’s give someone else a chance”, or “I want ask those who are sharing a lot to step back and listen and give others a chance to step up and speak”, might be less risky. Or, take a quick break and ask the participant privately and directly to allow time for others to share.

There are times I am facilitating a meeting where I also have content expertise. As a facilitator, I try to hold back and refrain from sharing my perspective. It isn’t my place to share my expertise or experience. That’s not what I am there. My job as facilitator is to ask questions to get different data, perspectives or answers. It is quite remarkable when others share and talk, someone often says what I really wanted to say. On very few occasions, when I had subject matter expertise and after long discussion something really important wasn’t said, I’ll say, “I’m taking my facilitator hat off for a minute to share xxx. I don’t want to influence anyone; I just to share this fact.” I put it out there, and if it resonates, fine, if not, that’s fine too. It is the group’s job to make sense of things, not me.


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