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June 30, 2008

Men and Books: Quieting the Alpha Male

Posted by carol
If there are one or two members of your reading group who tend to dominate discussions, contributor Andrew McCullough has a solution...

When I first formed a men's book group, my biggest worry was that no one would have anything to say. Maybe the chosen book would chill the discussion. Or, worse, my handpicked group would develop acute performance anxiety. Either way, my grand experiment would fail and our nascent book club would quickly wither, in the manner of all those committees, study groups and other forced business associations we look to disengage from.

My early fears were realized, and during our first meeting an uncomfortable silence enveloped us from the moment the floor was opened for discussion. That silence lasted for less than two minutes. And that's when I realized that the real challenge was silencing the loudest voices so that others might weigh in.

I had heard about this phenomenon. In its worst form, a single book group member can choke the life out of the group by refusing to yield the floor or accept other opinions. In my discussions with other groups, and in my research online and elsewhere, I heard about a number of solutions to the alpha issue. Some groups conduct quiet interventions with their more outspoken members, others hire temporary facilitators, and others have resorted to more desperate measures (including the apocryphal --- but believable! --- decision to shut the group down and re-form without the alpha). I decided that a more preemptive approach might avoid the unpleasantness arising from each of these solutions.

My initial, misguided approach was to use the power of the keyboard to try to tame our loudest members. After the first few meetings, I was merciless in my follow-up emails: the guys who dominated the discussion were skewered, for any or no reason. While these provocative communiques were fun (especially when others joined in), they ultimately had the reverse effect. Our loudest voices remained loud and seemed to revel in the attention.

My second approach tried the opposite tack. Rather than muzzle some of the guys, I tried to empower the rest by making a small change to our discussion model. We sidelined the customary free-for-all (you know, the one that starts with "So, what did you all think about....?"), and instead we went around the table and took turns reacting to the book. Each guy was given a couple of minutes to share his thoughts, any thoughts. No topic or issue was off limits. The result was amazing. Suddenly, guys who rarely spoke before had plenty to offer the rest of us. And the guys who were used to speaking volumes realized that theirs was only one of many opinions.

Our roundtable approach is not unique; I've heard that other groups do the same. But I think this discussion model successfully mutes the alpha member while drawing out other voices that might have remained quiet. And, with more participants and more lively conversation during our meetings, I now have more targets to aim at in my follow-up emails.

---Andrew McCullough