Finding the Pause Button: Empowering meaningful dialogue without muting the chatterbox

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.

As you find yourself standing before a group of senior leaders, you relax into a well-earned sense of confidence. It is during these moments that you truly come alive, effortlessly navigating through the realm of issues and ideas, stuck points and possibilities to grow your groups’ passion and make pursuit of their purpose even more worthwhile and vibrant.

However, one aspect of your facilitation where you may not excel is in how to skillfully redirect those members of your groups who tend to get carried away, talk on and on, and over-contribute. You know who I mean – the “over talkers”.

You want to ensure that your discussions remain focused and fruitful, and yet, here you stand, wondering how to make a move to cut off this verbose person in front of you. Your dilemma is that their behavior is dominating and compromising wider participation in the group, and to stop them feels rude, challenging or awkward at best, and you are out of your comfort zone.

We have all had thoughts like “How can I be so proficient in the art of communication, and then so frozen when it comes to intervening with someone who is not consciously managing their own impact on the group?” 

And maybe even more practically, we can also pick up the question “how can I respond more skillfully?”

Here are a few tips.

Our interpersonal communications are a two-sided coin – on one side we express and speak, and on the other we contribute by being receptive, or listening. 

Facilitative leadership places value on the quality of the discourse, equitable participation for all participants and also on creating shared value – perhaps shared understanding, or shared commitments. So navigating interpersonal communications is a core competency to master. 

The most effective leaders I know, know how to balance these two sides of the coin themselves, and know how to listen for the feedback when they are making a contribution.  They check for  feedback – is it too much? – did I sufficiently make or advocate my point? 

Unfortunately, far too many of us lack these precise communication skills and have not had coaching in this domain, so you may find that helping facilitate some of your group members to demonstrate and grow these skills becomes your purview.

Keep in mind, most people (the over-talkers and the rest of us!) are interested in receiving some confirmation –  that they are being heard and received

That can be tricky, however; because not only is the over-talker highly invested in the topic at hand and in an emotional state and not picking up on feedback, the facilitator can be stressed about managing the process, and less resourceful in being able to demonstrate they are hearing and receiving the overtalker’s main messages.

When this feedback is conveyed and taken in, the over-talker can relax and is generally willing to let go, and allow others to step up.

Here are several common dynamics that you can watch for and facilitate. When you try these suggested approaches, you’ll become more adept at interrupting the firehose, slowing down the flow, and facilitating listening, receiving and the completion of the feedback loop. 

Here are several common dynamics that you can watch for and facilitate. 

  1. Facilitate their clarity: Some speakers go on and on because they have not clarified for themselves what they actually intend to say, and the pressure to get there leads to over-expressing. In this case, you can ask them to simplify their point in a “one breath” closing statement – either a declarative statement, or as a question for folks to respond to, so that we all understand what is most important to you. Be ready to reflect back what you heard and ask them “does that capture it?’  Hold them to this to get closure and feel the release, before you shift focus back to the group.
  2. Interrupting the flow: Using your body language, signaling by holding your palm vertically pointing towards them in an assertive but non threatening way. Use their name to get their attention, genuinely appreciate the value of their contribution, and ask them if you can reflect back what you heard them say. Then do so. (You should try to be the role model for the best listener in your group at all times.)  Then check – “did I capture your key point?” and if so, say something like: “great. Thank you. Are you interested in pausing now to hear from others in the group so we can add new perspectives? Maybe we could hear from Joanna next?” 
  3. Mixed messages and unclear intention: It may also be the case that the speaker is using declarative statements to mask a deeper desire to make a request, or to ask a difficult question (and vice versa). Observe the communications to see if their energy is congruent with their words, or notice if the energy they are expressing and the words and speech acts they use. Based on what you feel, see and hear, you may need to suggest that they might have a question they’d like to ask, or a personal commitment they’d like to share (maybe leading to asking the group to act as an accountability partner for them). When you provide feedback, ask them to respond from their first- person perspective, to make it the most real and true for them.

Remember that any ‘interruption’ you make is with an intention to uphold the value of equitable participation and clear communications. You are not intending to ‘correct’ or make a member ‘bad’; rather, you are creating even better conditions for them to be heard and respected. 

These situations can help you reflect and refine your own core values and ideas about fairness, and also notice when your own unconscious bias surfaces.  Become familiar with any judgments you have about breaches of social expectations and power dynamics – “taking up too much air space”, “hogging the air time”, and  “not letting me speak” etc. 

The more neutral and free of judgment you can be, the more compassionate and inclusive your response.  And the more energy and attention you will have to model and coach new skills into the group – creating more space for each unique individual to have a voice and be heard. 

Any discomfort you feel will soon fade after you start to practice intervening in new ways. And as in any leadership practice, the new moves you make will provide timely feedback that you can take in and learn from. 


Ten Directions offers a number of powerful training programs, courses, engaging content and coaching for  facilitative leaders like you – including: Talk to a Coach – on demand one hour consultations/coaching sessions to address facilitation, meetings or group dilemmas.

Please reach out to discuss your organization’s needs.

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