Facilitator’s Dilemma: Dealing with an overbearing or demanding individual

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca Colwell

Rebecca is a leadership innovator, a thought leader in facilitative leadership and one of the world’s top two experts in Integral Facilitation. For the last decade, she’s been bringing her vision to life as the developer of the world’s premiere Integral facilitative leadership training, Integral Facilitator® and Next Stage Facilitation, with graduates in 5 continents.

Recently we sent out an invitation to you to share a challenging topic or dilemma that you were working with in your facilitation practice. We loved what came back to us – here’s one we felt moved to respond to:

“My dilemma is around addressing an overbearing, demanding person who’s not receptive to feedback. Others are managing their experience around this person, resentment is building, and they are unable to make a shift. I’d like help in my role of addressing this, as well as helping them to address this. This is something I am currently unable to resolve either way, but it is something I think about a lot.”

Rebecca’s response:

Hi there, mystery dilemma holder:-)

Let’s set the stage with a few orienting assumptions. I read in your candid description that a group member’s way of being is causing some heartburn for the group, and both the group members and you are not sure what to do about it.

I’m not sure specifically what your role or relationship is with the overbearing, demanding person? Are they a team member? Do they have a position of authority that is different from others, for example, a boss? I’m also curious whether you’ve tried something and if so, what the result was? All of those things would be helpful and inform what we might consider.

And yet, here we are, just as we are. So here are some initial thoughts that focus on 3 key areas:

  • Beginning with yourself – an inner move
  • Becoming an ally to the challenging person.
  • Supporting the group to find trustworthy and safe ways to build tolerance for risk-taking together in their shared interest for more thriving.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

1) Starting with yourself: Begin by ‘trying on’ the qualities of this person, and see if you can recognize something that correlates within you. Pick up the one inside you who is overbearing and demanding, and not open to feedback.

As that voice, what is my ‘job’ (in this case, being overbearing and demanding)? How hard is that job? What actions or behaviors do I have to bring into the meetings or conversations to be good at this job? What role does it serve and what is its wisdom? Is there anything in the group itself that makes me (as that voice) want to come forward?

Now as you, consider:

What is the upside of being overbearing and demanding? (You might notice some pleasure in saying it out loud):

“The upside of being overbearing and demanding is…

  • …that I get to have my way
  • …that I make sure my views are visible to others
  • …that I can demand what I want and what I need
  • …that I am more powerful
  • …others know where I stand and what I want – there’s no guesswork
  • …things might get done faster

Next, what is the downside of being overbearing and demanding?

“The downside of being overbearing and demanding is…

  • …others walk on eggshells or avoid me
  • …I might get what I want or need but at the expense of trust and good will
  • …others won’t feel safe to share important information with me
  • …I get less creative when I am forceful with one idea
  • …I make it less likely that others will think for themselves
  • …I set up more of an atmosphere for debate vs discovering a third way

The more we can see and feel more of this “voice”, the more we can include it as ‘me’ and not ‘other’.

This more spacious orientation increases your own unbiased neutrality as you reinforce a more thriving way of being and collaborating for the group.

2) Becoming an ally to the challenging person:

While tempting, resist your desire to either fix or change this person. Also be careful about unconsciously feeding into ‘othering’ or us/them frames, countering this impulse with supportive self-inquiry and allyship. See if you can make the distinction between the person, their intention, and the impact of their behavior on others.

Take time to sit down with this person and find out more about how they experience others in their team or group. Demonstrating your own openness and curiosity, discover as much as you can about their point of view.

What is the why behind what they say and do? How would they like to be received? How would they like to contribute and be seen as a valued member? Are they curious about how others experience them? The aim here is to surface what may be in the shadows for them.

If there’s an opening, you might also share the impact on others based on your own grounded, first-hand experience. Is there a metaphor that might describe it, for example, a bull in a china shop, a fire hose, a dictator? This may help to reveal where their impact is misaligned with their intention. If you can discover that and help to make it more visible, it’s a golden opportunity to help them shift out of the rut they are in.

It may be that they are terribly impatient and acting out of frustration or irritation. Perhaps their way of participating is intended to exemplify strong leadership. You might explore: If you could request something of the group, what would that be? (And with that, the reciprocal might be – what might the group like to request of you?)

Take note of any moments where their awareness softens, pointing to an inkling of recognition of their current way, and whether they can include the possibility of their unintended impact.

If so, you may invite them to consider how they might dial up their patience and receptivity and dial down overbearing-ness at the next meeting, with your assistance – perhaps with a private signal. Maybe they will claim their intention to the group and say they are practicing with a change in habit and are requesting feedback as they practice.

3) Working with the whole – the system of relationships, or the WE – to find trustworthy and safe ways for the group to build tolerance for risk-taking together in their shared interest for more thriving.

It sounds like the system has adapted in response to this individual, mostly through avoidance or workarounds. Here’s an opportunity for your leadership in supporting the group’s capacity to more directly engage with and include the issue, instead of resorting to behaviors that reinforce and enable the status quo.

Here’s a facilitative process you can use with the whole group, including the challenging individual:

In this structured reflective listening exercise, ask the group a question or invite them to provide sentence stems, for example: “The kind of conversations I am yearning for here are….” Invite people to keep their comments concise (say a maximum of 2-3 sentences).

When Person A shares, someone else (Person B) in the group is invited to both reflect back what they heard, and check for how it landed. Person A can then add to clarify or fill in a gap, but without any cross talk.

Thank Person A, and pass the role to Person B for their turn in speaking. Then Person C can receive and reflect back to Person B. This is not only a skill-building activity – it also gives folks the direct experience of being heard and received, with a higher level of quality and more depth than many of us are used to.

Keep coming back to your own discerning wisdom about what will serve the whole, and the parts. You’ve got this! 🙂

I hope this helps stimulate some fresh ideas and inspired action – feel free to keep us posted.


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