Emma: I was trucking through the archive the other day and spotted this great Ask Us Anything from someone whose boss asked them to speak up more often in meetings. This is feedback I’ve also given before, and it’s always felt very obvious to me. Like, if you’re not verbally participating within a larger group setting, obviously that’s an area to work on. It’s important!
Andy: I totally understand the impulse. I crave verbal participation, too! Part of it is I think because you and I are both verbal people, and we both feel good when the people around us want to share their thoughts. But I think another part follows us from academia, all the way back to elementary school. We enter the office with all these unquestioned beliefs: Participation is important. Paying attention means asking questions. The invested speak up. My team needs to be engaged. Silence is bad.
Emma: I’ll admit this: silence might not be capital-b Bad, but it can certainly make me sweat. A quiet meeting sounds an awful lot like failure — like I’m not asking the right questions, or this meeting is pointless, or I’m talking to a bunch of people who don’t respect me, or no one is prepared and we’re all going down in flames. All 31 flavors of insecurity are ready to be sampled.
This is making me think I’ve only ever encouraged people to speak up more in meetings for purely selfish reasons.
Andy: Ha! I don’t think it’s the only reason, but I’ve definitely felt that way, like a stand-up comedian bombing up there alone on stage. As a graduate student teacher, one of the biggest learning curves I had was figuring out how to get my students to participate. Over time, I worked in from both sides: I got a lot more comfortable with silence — interpreting it not as failure, but as time and space for processing. And, I learned a lot of ways to create safe ways for my students to participate beyond prompting them to toss their uncured thoughts into the air.
Emma: When I hear that a manager wants someone on their team to speak up in meetings, my first instinct is to say, “Absolutely! Have you tried this or this or this?” Then another part of me says, “Wait. Why do they need to speak up in meetings? Is there another way to achieve what you want to achieve?”
Andy: There’s a balance here, right? On the one hand, I believe that someone who isn’t particularly vocal can still be all the way engaged.
Emma: Yes, and they don’t want or need to be “forced” to talk, the same way I don’t want or need to be “forced” to run a 5K. On the other hand, if they aren’t speaking up because they don’t feel safe, or welcome, or valued — that’s something I can impact.
Andy: Running a meeting puts you in a position of power. It’s your job to use that power to create a safe space and to referee that space well.
Emma: It’s also probably your job, in terms of your actual job description, to achieve something in the meeting or for the project. You can do both. Let’s figure out how.
11 Ways to Help Your Team Participate in Meetings
1. Give time for pre-work
There’s a lot of psychological security that comes with feeling prepared, and not having to develop a perspective on the spot. Sharing a detailed agenda or highlighting the goals of any discussion the day before gives everyone a chance to bone up.
Try it: It can be as simple as emailing this in advance: In tomorrow’s meeting, we’ll be compiling a list of questions we can give to the client to ensure we can deliver our first round of designs on time. Please come prepped with what your department needs to know.
2. Make it extra-super safe to contribute
By safe we mean that speaking up won’t lead to a negative experience — or as Adam Grant describes it in his book Give and Take, “the belief you can take a risk without being penalized or punished.” There are lots of ways to do this, but one that we’ve both used often is to set some ground rules, give examples, and then follow-through.
Try it: It might sound something like: Our team meetings are a spew-safe zone! You don’t have to have your idea fully fleshed out to share it. In fact, ideas in progress are really helpful. You can also contribute by plus-one-ing an idea, with something like, ‘What Nicole said is really great. I think that would really work.’ On our team, we don’t shut people down or flame them out.
3. Offer ways to participate non-verbally
If you’re not used to putting together activities that aren’t rooted in talking, this one can be a little intimidating — like suddenly you have to design worksheets before every meeting, too? It does not need to be so structured.
Try it: We’ve both had a lot of success having everyone in the group join a live Google doc to type or highlight or move content around. Other tools: sticky notes, cards, secret votes, white boards.
4. Assign jobs
Another safe way to make everyone contribute is to give out different jobs — not all of them require talking. These assignments give a sort of permission to contribute in only that defined way.
Try it:Ask someone to be the time-keeper, someone else the action item person, someone else to keep track of ideas. The time-keeper doesn’t have to dive into the debate, but they do need to speak up to make note of the 10-minute mark and so on.
5. Recruit a second referee
It can be tough to run a meeting and encourage active participation. We often think of “The First Follower,” the TEDTalk from Derek Sivers that walks through some video footage of a massive dance at an outdoor concert. It starts with just one person dancing. This person, Sivers says, isn’t so unique — they want to dance, so they dance. It’s the second person to start dancing who’s beginning something. They’re not just dancing, they’re dancing with the first person. They’re the first follower. Sometimes you’ll have a person like this in your meeting; other times you can seed the field to help start the group dance.
Try it: Instead of doing it all yourself, ask a co-manager to help you! Would you be willing to come to my meeting and help kickstart the discussion, amplify ideas, and mitigate the silences?
6. Look for “I Have Something to Say” Face
Lots of times you can literally see when someone has something to contribute but isn’t sure how to dive in — they might shift in their seat to sit up a little taller, open their mouth, take a deep breath, raise their eyebrows. It’s I Have Something to Say Face, and when you spot it, simply insert yourself and direct the conversation their way. (Your second referee can also keep a lookout for this — see above.)
Try it: It might sound something like, Thanks Ben, let’s pause there for a moment. Kareem, it looks like that sparked something for you? You can also use this if someone got cut off or lost the two-people-speaking-up-at-once battle: Opal, you started to say something but got cut off.
7. Encourage self-monitoring
A quick reminder at the top of the meeting or right before any live debate can do a lot of the refereeing for you.
Try it: A friend of The Bent was just telling us how a dean at her PhD program recommended everyone “consider their proximity to power” before asking a question during a live Q+A. The LA Tenants Union promotes a Step Forward/Step Back model, which encourages those who don’t typically take up space to “step forward” and and vice versa.
8. Round-robin so everyone talks
Going around the room, or going down the list of participants in the Zoom tab, or even announcing an order, can eliminate a lot of the anxieties of participating: When should I speak up? Should I speak up? Do I have something meaningful enough to say?
Try it:It’s as easy as saying: We’ll have everyone comment, going clockwise around the room. Would anyone like to volunteer to start us off?
9. Tee up some softballs
Definitely on the corny side, but let’s be frank: it’s a lot easier to contribute when the bar is lowered. And we’ve found that if people speak up once, it’s easier for them to say something more.
Try it:Reading aloud: Can someone start us off by reading the three-sentence summary at the top of the quarterly report? Or: Would anyone like to read the first item on the agenda? Recapping: Rohit, you just tackled that issue on the last estimate we put together. Do you remember what the solution was? Adding on: Would anyone like to build on what Erika just said?
10. Tell people you expect them to contribute
If you have an expectation for discussion that people aren’t meeting, it could be you never told them! We’re not fans of mandatory talking for the sake of talking, but there are some meetings that can’t get off the ground without everyone contributing.
Try it: Setting an expectation can be as simple as stating it — it helps to include a Why statement: For this brainstorm to be successful, we’ll need input from every person here. So, make sure you share at some point before it’s over. This is also usually well paired with a lowering of the stakes, such as: Your idea doesn’t have to seem genius — even agreeing or questioning another idea is valid!
11. Make it a goal
We’ve had great 1-on-1 conversations that introduce speaking up as a skill worth building. When we do this, we make sure to affirm the other ways the person contributes well already.
Try it:We’ve said things like: I appreciate your point of view, and I think we’ve found a great way to communicate with each other. At the same time, speaking up or vocalizing is a skill that will help you get where you want to go here faster. It’s just easier for people to recognize more quickly. We can work on this together in a safe space to practice, so when you get that facetime with More Important People, you’ll have built up some muscle.