Tips on how to handle difficult book club situations

Tips on Handling Difficult Situations

These are questions that we have answered by calling on the shared wisdom of many book club members. Answers are posted in the book club advice section of our blog:

And below are answers to other questions:

One of our members keeps on putting down the opinions of others in the group

It's difficult to imagine a good discussion without disagreement - but there are ways to express a difference of opinion in a constructive way that builds trust and openness within the group - and then there are ways to crush somebody so that they never feel comfortable opening their mouth in public again.

Something to consider here is that some people actively enjoy a robust debate, while others don't - but at no point is it appropriate to belittle another person's opinion, or to repeatedly interrupt them before they've been able to have their say.

If you feel that someone in your group is too strident in their disagreement with another member, consider taking the person aside and gently pointing out what they're doing - they're probably not aware of the impact they're having (and it's probably not just at your book group meetings that they're doing this!). However, before doing this, make sure that this person is actually considered out of line by the other members of the group. It is possible that you are being oversensitive and the others do not consider this member's conversational style to be an issue.

The most important thing you can do is make sure that you practice good communication skills yourself. For example, if a person is interrupted by another, when the latter has stopped speaking, immediately steer the conversation back to what the first speaker was saying and ask them to talk more on the subject, or make reference to what they said when you next speak and build on their thoughts. Even if you don't agree with their viewpoint you can, at least, acknowledge that you have heard it and respect their right to have that view!

One member of our reading group always dominates

If the problem is that one or more people tend to talk too long and too much and it has been a problem at previous meetings, try tackling this issue at the start of the meeting and ask for suggestions from the group.

If people consistently interrupt each other (and members of the group consider this a problem) consider using a timer and don't allow interruptions until the speaker has had their say (for a maximum of 2-3 minutes), or pass around a small object, such as a ball, and only the person holding the ball can speak.

One member of our group rarely speaks

Some people speak a lot and some don't. Quantity of speech is often in inverse proportion to the quality of the thinking behind it so if somebody is fully engaged in the discussion but only chooses to speak occasionally, there's really no need to 'do' anything about it.

However, if somebody in your book club really says very little at all (and especially if it is a small group) try and find opportunities to draw them out. For example, make a comment yourself and ask the person directly whether they agree or disagree - but go gently - perhaps the person is having trouble getting a word in edgeways with all the other opinionated people in the room and will welcome your question, but equally they might be perfectly comfortable listening to other people's opinions and feel threatened at a direct question.

Try and see things from the individual's point of view. Perhaps they're new to the group or feel that everybody else knows each other but they don't. Or perhaps they think they aren't as well read as the rest of you. Whether this is reality or perception doesn't really matter - you need to find a way to make them feel comfortable in the group, and when they are they'll be more likely to contribute their thoughts. One suggestion is to try and get to know the person better in the conversational time before the formal discussion starts and perhaps even find out his/her views on the book, one to one. That way, if he/she stays silent in the discussion you can make a comment along the lines of 'Alice made a really good point when we were discussing the book before the meeting about xxxx' and ask if she could share it with the group. Preferably, try to sit next to, or near, your reticent friend because when the eyes of the room turn to hear her speak she'll feel more supported if she has someone sitting near her who she knows already values her opinions.

As a rule, when somebody is new to the group it is always a good idea to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting getting to know him/her, and giving him/her a chance to get to know you, either through informal discussion or by playing a group game.

Our meetings are turning into food extravaganzas

If your group rotates bringing food it's very easy for each person to try to do a little better than the one before and, before you know it, bringing the snack has gone from a quick rustle through the cupboard before leaving for the meeting to something that has to be planned and worried about well in advance.

It takes a bit of courage to do this but the best thing you can do for all concerned is to turn up with something simple - a packet of cookies, cheese and crackers, or a plate of vegetables and a dip - the other members of the group will probably breath a sigh of relief that the pressure is off!

Alternatively, if the group members like to flex their culinary muscles, you could suggest that the food for the meetings be kept simple but that every now and then you have a 'theme' evening based on the particular book you're discussing and everybody brings a dish appropriate to the period the book is set in, or its geographical location. You could even go to town and turn it into a costume party with members dressing as one of the characters or, at least, in theme with the book. Why not invite a guest - spouse, partner, sister, friend - and turn it into a party? Then next month you can get back to the cheese, crackers and 'real' book discussion again!

We can't agree on what books to read.

See choosing books for suggestions.

A member arrives drunk and is offensive.

If you've read this reading guide section from start to finish you've probably already heard me say once, if not twice, that if you're forming a new group with people you don't know that you should meet in a public place until you get to know each other reasonably well, and only then meet in people's houses. I added this comment some years ago after receiving an email from a book club member who, along with the other club members, was being actively harassed by an abusive member of the group who they wished would become an ex-member. Things had reached the point where they had decided to stop meeting rather than confront the individual, but she continued to telephone and visit their homes wanting to know details of the next meeting.

The chances of you finding yourself in such an extreme situation maybe unlikely, but a little caution can go a long way, so don't share personal details, such as your mailing address or phone number, until you feel confident of the group - you don't even have to share your regular email address as you can always get a free account from Hotmail, Yahoo etc.

A member insists on reading her synopsis of each book

Sometime ago I received this question: One of our members wrote a four-page synopsis of one of the books we were reading and read it to us at our meeting. It was quite interesting, but ever since then she brings a summary of every book we read and insists on reading it to us. We're so bored listening to her regurtitating the storyline that we all know. What do we do - she's very nice and we don't want to hurt her feelings?

This may seem an unlikely situation but it's one that has come up in various shapes and forms a few times. If you encounter a person who insists on taking center stage at each meeting (and you really don't feel able to just ask her not to) you need to find a way to 'redirect' her. For example, in this case, one solution would be to thank her for her input but suggest that it would be even more useful if she could summarize the book and the discussion after the meeting (essentially, making her the meeting secretary, responsible for recording the key points of the conversation). Most importantly encourage her to email the summary to the members before the next meeting so there is no need to discuss it at the next meeting - but make sure to thank her at the meeting!

Got a question? Email us and we'll do my best to answer it!


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