Handling a team member who “talks too much”

How do you handle a situation as a team manager or coach where one member of the team seems to dominate the conversation? The scenario below is based on several experiences where team members think “that person’s talking rubbish!” but don’t know how to address it. This blog shows how the Ladder of Inference can be used to deal with these  difficult or complex issues productively.

listen to me

Mike, the Development Team Manager, sat in on one of his team’s retrospectives. During the meeting he noticed that one member of the team, James, was taking more turns speaking than other members of the team and often speaking for a long time about how he wanted to solve problems he saw. Mike noticed that the rest of the team had stopped talking.  While James was talking the others were like ‘frozen statues’ looking at the ceiling or their shoes.

After the meeting, Mike went up to one of the team members who had leaned back in their chair so much that they were almost lying horizontal and asked “Can you tell me how useful you thought that meeting was?” The team member said “It wasn’t very good; James spent most of the time talking utter rubbish!”

Mike approached James later in the day “James, I had some observations about how you acted during that meeting that I wanted to check with you. Would you be interested in talking about this?” James said he was interested in hearing more about it.

Mike continued “I noticed that you took more turns speaking than others in the group and often spoke for longer than other people. Did you notice that or did you see it differently?” James said that he’d thought that might have been the case.

“I observed that when you were speaking others in the team weren’t looking at you. In fact one person was leaning back to the point of being horizontal and the others were often looking at the ceiling. How does that match your experience?”

James said that he was aware he might have been talking for too long, but that this was because he was trying to avoid being too “black and white” when describing his views.

Mike agreed that he had seen James be less extreme in his description of the issues in the meeting, then said “From my point of view, if people weren’t looking at you then this suggested they were probably not listening to you, so it would have been unlikely that you were communicating effectively with them.  Can you understand how I’ve arrived at that view?”

“I agree, I’m just struggling to know what to do – on the one hand I can bee too extreme with my views and that stops people talking, but when I try and be less extreme I talk for too long and they also stop listening” said James.

Mike was pleased to have found out more about what James was struggling with. They talked a bit more about what lead James to experience this bind before going on to design options so that James could act more effectively in future.

“If you were in this situation again, is there some help that you could ask for from me or the team to help you recognise that you were starting to speak for too long?” asked Mike

After that they had a discussion that James would start the next retrospective describing the bind that he was in to the group and asking someone on the team to give him a visual signal, such as raising their hand, if they thought James was starting to lose people’s interest.

There are several points I wanted to highlight in this scenario:

  • The feedback from the other team member “he just talked a lot of rubbish” was a high level evaluation that couldn’t be shared publicly with James because he’d likely feel quite defensive and accused.
  • Mike started out by offering James an invitation about whether to have the conversation.
  • Mike walked up the “ladder of inference” from the bottom ‘rung’ of directly observable data, to the meaning Mike made of what he saw, and finally to the evaluation that Mike took (“It’s unlikely that you were communicating effectively when you continued to talk even when others were visibly not paying attention”).
  • Mike did this is in a way that remained curious about how James saw the world, and open to the fact that Mike may have missed other cues or come to the wrong conclusions. Mike showed this by checking for James’ view at each “rung of the ladder”
  • Mike balanced sharing his view at each rung of the ladder with asking James for his view.  This style meant that Mike was able to uncover the bind that James felt in, which also provided a possible explanation of James’ behaviour.
  • Finally, Mike was able to work with James to jointly design a way to improve this situation in future.

I believe this scenario shows how adopting a curious mindset, combined with using the ladder of inference, results in more productive sharing of information which helps design more effective future actions.

I’ve seen clients who have taken these approaches to benefit from reduced time to solve problems, more productive team conversation and a better experience of working as a team.

Image Credit: Leonard John Matthews




5 responses to “Handling a team member who “talks too much””

  1. Phil Nash Avatar

    Thanks for this detailed example, Benjamin. I’m still getting my head around the Ladder of Inference and this example really helped clear it up.

  2. Andi Roberts PCC CPF Avatar

    A great example Benjamin, it makes the idea come to life.
    The challenge I see, as usual, is if the level and quality of trust is high enough to follow up and give feedback.

    1. benjaminmitchell Avatar

      Thanks for the comment.
      Curiously, I think giving feedback in this way (treating it as a mutual activity, where both groups might learn, offering it as an invitation to engage in a discussion, owning the observations and the meanings personally rather than labelling the other person with them) can actually increase trust.

  3. badapples Avatar

    I think that you talk/write rubbish in this blog. You try to speak about an important aspect of team working with just describing a point of view from a dozens. But if James wanted to describe a very important problem concerning productivity and software reliability, but the others wanted to hear because for them it is simpler to just put the dirt under the carpet? Or maybe even Mike started previously to discreditate James in front of the team and the others responded accordingly based on the “ladder of influence”?

    And by the way I even cannot read your blog entry till the end. So rubbish it was.

    1. Marc Avatar

      Some don’t listen in conversations, others don’t read blogs fully. Same phenomenon?

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