Of all the book group topics I blog about, I’m rarely asked about how to select the right book, how to compose discussion questions or how to keep conversation going.
I’m always asked how to handle “challenging” members of a book group. I must admit, I haven’t had as many “special” participants as some of the folks I’ve met at conferences and workshops. But that changed last week when I guest facilitated for a friend’s book group and I had a very challenging reader.
Gertrude could not stay on topic and kept interrupting the others, even after a question had been directed to another member of the group. I had heard about Gertie from the facilitator, how she was very vocal about never liking the selected title, always interrupted others, and constantly talked about her own personal history and it’s tangential relationship to the topic at hand. I didn’t believe it until I experienced it for myself.
No matter what the group talked about, Gertie would jump in first with, “I don’t know, but when I was a girl….” And launch into a very long story about her own personal experiences. She wouldn’t draw connections between her memories and the reading and she would talk until everyone forgot the nature of the question. When I pointedly addressed a question to another reader, Gertie would interrupt the other speaker with, “and that reminds me of ….”
This went on for about 40 minutes. The other attendees were getting discouraged and one woman refused to say anything at all. So when I say I feel your pain, facilitators out there in book club land, I mean it. Now, how did I handle this tiny senior bundle of energy, opinion, and egomania?
I interrupted her. I said, “That’s an interesting point of view, Gertie. Do you mind if Ophelia comments?” When Gertie interrupted Leo, I said, “Pardon me, folks. Leo, I didn’t catch that last comment you made, would you mind repeating it?”
I quickly realized that Gertie did not take offense when she was interrupted as long as she received an opportunity to talk—about whatever she wanted. I also realized that pointing out this rather unrefined habit of hers would do no good. She didn’t realize what she was doing. I hoped I demonstrated to the other members of the group how to continue talking about the book even if it seemed Gertie was dominating conversation.
I was worn out at the end of the discussion because directing conversation with Gertie was like moderating a discussion with cats. Want to hear something funny? On her way out, Gertie said this was one of the best discussions the group had ever had and hoped I’d be back soon.
I look forward to the challenge.