Chapter 18 Loudmouth
. . . in which a team member needs to hear him- or herself all the time, at everyone else’s expense, and the facilitator applies various tactics to ensure the rest of the team is heard
In the development team, Rene likes to talk. He talks a lot on a daily basis, and the other team members try to start conversations with him only in places where they can get away easily, such as at the coffee machine. He loves to hear his own voice, and in the last retrospective, he spent a lot of time explaining, in great detail, the issues he was interested in.
Sarah decides to count the minutes he spends talking to compare it with how much time other people get to speak at the retrospective. Even though she expected Rene to take up a lot of time, she was surprised to find that he spoke as much as everyone else combined.
She starts noticing other team members getting even quieter at retrospectives, and some of them start focusing on their phones once Rene starts on one of his monologues. Sarah would like to call Rene out on his monopolizing the discussions, but she doesn’t want to embarrass or anger him. And Rene keeps talking.
Many teams include a Loudmouth, someone like Rene, who seems to enjoy hearing him- or herself talk. While most of the people are mindful that a retrospective is meant to give all team members the chance to voice their thoughts and concerns, this person often uses the retrospective as an opportunity to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk. He or she might tell long stories or interrupt other people if they pause for a breath. Calling out this behavior as it happens can feel impolite or uncomfortable to the facilitator, so the Loudmouth is often allowed to be just that.
Let the Loudmouth talk, because you do not want him or her to be angry with you. This antipattern solution is used too often, perhaps because the facilitator does not know how to explain why one person dominating the discussion is a problem. Perhaps the facilitator has difficulty interrupting the Loudmouth because he or she does not want to be rude (an inhibition the Loudmouth unfortunately does not share).
If the Loudmouth is the only team member engaging in the retrospective, the facilitator may find it easier to let the Loudmouth speak than to change the activities or the focus of the retrospective.
Sometimes, people will giggle in the corner as the Loudmouth drones on, oblivious to the team’s growing restlessness or apathy toward the tedious monologue (this is most likely to occur if the Loudmouth has low status on the team). More often, people just zone out when the Loudmouth starts talking.
People shut up because the Loudmouth monopolizes all the speaking time. They also stop listening, so if the Loudmouth did say anything relevant, the team would miss it.
There are two types of Loudmouth: the Storyteller and the Breaker.
The Storyteller is the one described in the Context section. Storytellers can’t stop talking once they have started. When they have the opportunity to tell a story, they do. It might be a very relevant and entertaining story, but time often does not permit long stories in a retrospective. Just divide the number of minutes with the number of participants, and when you do, do not forget the time needed to explain activities, debrief from activities, and do other tasks, such as write Post-it Notes. This bit of math will show you how little time there is for each person to talk.
The consequence is that some people stop listening and zone out; they might start thinking about other things or even focus on their social media or emails. When the team stops listening, the result is that the common thinking you want to achieve with a structured meeting, such as a retrospective, is obstructed, and when people do not share the same focus, the meeting, whatever type it is, is not effective.
Breakers are a different species. They speak out of turn, and they have something they believe is relevant to say regarding almost every issue. No matter what other participants have experienced or felt, the Breaker has always tried something similar or better or worse. Whatever opinion another participant expresses reminds the Breaker of his or her own opinion, which must immediately be shared.
The consequence is that people are interrupted, and whatever they were sharing is lost. As a result, other team members might stop contributing altogether, because it is discouraging never to be able to finish what you want to say. This is frustrating for the other participants, and it ruins some of the atmosphere in the retrospective. It also negatively affects the outcome of the retrospective. When some data, or some insights behind the data, are missing from the larger picture, you might miss out on understanding or possible ways of overcoming challenges.
You see people pulling themselves out of the retrospective and starting to talk among themselves. Obviously, the biggest indicator is that someone talks all the time—or at least tries to talk all the time.
You could try to resolve this situation first with one of the more obvious solutions, such as introducing a talking stick that is passed around to the one who is speaking. This works for the Breaker more than for the Storyteller—it can even have the opposite effect on the Storyteller, because he or she might just hold onto the talking stick and never pass it along to the next person.
For the Storyteller, it is more helpful to allot a certain amount of time to each participant. You could use a timer or a stopwatch to measure, say, 1, 2, or 3 minutes, and then make a point of explaining how many different things there are to talk about and how many minutes are allotted for each.
Make use of variations on this magical sentence: “This is a very interesting discussion, but we have to revisit it some other time.” You could also have a parking lot, a whiteboard where you save notes about what needs to be discussed outside the retrospective.
Depending on the personality of the Loudmouth and your relationship with him or her, there are several ways to handle his or her long-windedness. One is to plan the retrospective so that the activities include more writing than speaking. Another plan could be to keep the plenum discussion to a minimum; that way, the Loudmouth will always be in a small group of two or three people and thus can “contaminate” only a few people instead of the entire team.
A third possibility is to talk to the Loudmouth outside of the retrospective, either before, if you know you are dealing with a Loudmouth, or after, if you were unprepared for it. The most important advice when dealing with personality issues is that they are usually best dealt with one-to-one and not in plenum. If you ask people in front of a group to change their behavior, you are likely to get a bad result. Most people feel threatened, embarrassed, or exposed if you confront them with their unwanted behavior in public, and they are likely to react with anger, frustration, negativity, or sadness. By contrast, a private conversation shows respect for the Loudmouth, and he or she is more receptive to changing the behavior.
Sometimes, explaining the effect their behavior has on other people is an eye-opener for Loudmouths, since they might not even be aware that they are talking so much. If you think that may be the case, it is helpful to have measured the time they spent talking in relation to how much time other people spent talking. When you have had the discussion with them, either it can help tremendously because they just needed to understand the situation, or it can have no effect at all, since they are unable to shorten a story to the most important parts. I see the latter often with people on the borderline of the autism spectrum, who find it difficult to summarize because all the details seem important to them.
In those cases, my favorite strategy is to agree on a discreet sign I can give them at the retrospective, so they know when they have to end the story and ask for questions instead. Generally, the team will have few if any questions. Often, the Loudmouth is happy to have been made aware of the issue, since he or she might be able to apply the lesson in other situations by learning how to summarize a story or at least to recognize when it is appropriate to stop talking.
In an online retrospective, this antipattern could easily be solved by muting the Loudmouth. That is not a good solution, though, unless it is something you have already planned with the Loudmouth as the way to deal with this issue. In some ways, this antipattern is more easily solved in an online retrospective, because it is more accepted to make use of round robins where everybody has to say something in an online setting. You can also put the participants into different breakout rooms so that the Loudmouth is contained. Since online retrospectives generally are shorter than offline retrospectives, you have to be very aware of this antipattern and find a solution as fast as possible.
For this common antipattern, I have many anecdotes. Let me tell you about two from each end of the spectrum.
One was at a company where I often facilitated retrospectives. The company did not have retrospectives on its own, only with me as an external facilitator. One of the people on the team was a Loudmouth. He and I had studied computer science together, so we already knew each other well, and we were both aware that excessive talking was an issue for him and thus for everybody around him.
He was intelligent and funny, and people often enjoyed his monologues, but in a retrospective, where people are forced to stay and time is limited, the entertainment factor was not helpful. It was easy for me to find a solution in this scenario, because I knew this likable Loudmouth, we had a relaxed relationship, and I knew that his ego could take almost anything.
In this case, I would make fun of it at the retrospective with comments such as, “Thank you, we have heard from you now; maybe someone else would like to say something” or “Oh, I can always count on you for every detail, but we might need to speed this up a bit. Could someone else explain this as well?” This was, in the situation, funny, and it relieved the tension that arose when he started talking. The tension occurred because people were worried about when, or if, he would stop talking and give someone else a chance to speak.
Of course, I am not asking you to start making fun of the retrospective participants, but in rare cases, this can actually be the most effective and least painful thing to do.
Another example was the first time I facilitated a retrospective for a new company. When I am invited or hired to do a retrospective, I ask beforehand about various things. One of the questions I ask is whether there are any tensions I should be aware of. Another is, “Who likes to hear themselves speak?” because then I can prepare for these challenges by preparing different agendas I can change to on the fly. For example, when someone starts to show aggressiveness, I can change to a silent, reflecting exercise, or I can divide the team into smaller groups to ease the tension. The tension, in my experience, often builds up when everyone is watching.
In this case, though, the person who had invited me happened to be the Loudmouth, and he was unaware of his own tendency to take over the entire room by talking for half an hour at a time. My host did not warn me about his own verbosity, of course, so I did not know about it until I started facilitating. Luckily, my opening question was to ask the team members each to explain in two or three words how they felt about the last sprint.
This is a dead giveaway exercise for a Loudmouth, of course, since two or three words often turns into 20 to 30 words. This person simply cannot or will not shorten what he or she has to say. In this case, I had some time to change my plan, and I opted for activities with a lot of writing and very little plenum discussion. After the retrospective, I was invited to facilitate another retrospective, and before the next one, I had a chance to talk to this Loudmouth and explain the issue. He was receptive to what I had to say, and the Loudmouth became less loud.
As one final example, I met a new team recently that boasted not one but two Loudmouths. Since I was unaware of this situation until it was too late to react, one of them took over most of the discussion time in the retrospective. Afterwards, the other Loudmouth confronted me furiously. She was angry with the other Loudmouth and also a little angry with me, because she had been allowed to say almost nothing. But actually, she had taken up the rest of the speaking time herself, and I found it hard not to smile a little bit. It is often the case that what makes people most infuriated with others is the shadow of themselves they see in them. Listening to their frustrations can give you a hint about what they struggle with themselves.