I have been facilitating meetings for a long time. From one on one meetings to large scale workshops, the one thing I always seem to encounter is the dynamic between over-talkers and, let’s call them, under-talkers. We have all experienced this scenario: we’re in a meeting; a few dominant people take over a conversation. They may hold formal roles, they may be considered experts in the room, or they may just be extroverted, quick thinkers. Either way, their voices speak for everyone regardless of if their voices actually represent everyone.
More and more in the workplace, our success depends on the ability to harness diverse opinions and perspectives to solve complex problems that no single person can solve. The expert model that some organisations are still clinging to, is increasing becoming obsolete, and our ability to ask for and consider input is more and more crucial.
As a facilitator, one of my main roles is to ensure people have equal air time to share their voice, perspective, opinions. That means making room for the under-talkers. But perhaps the critical role facilitators have been playing should be reserved for the modern, human leader. Why wouldn’t we expect our leaders to faciliate and enable rather than dictate and direct?
Maybe this is a new idea to you – leaders as facilitators. The good news is that there are many simple tools leaders can use to solicit input from under-talkers, and it all starts with this:
If you’re an over-talker, simply, shut up.
Sounds a bit direct? Well, yes but sometimes you have to be. I’ve been in far too many scenarios in workshops where I’ve re-directed conversations away from over-talkers, only for them to continue to chime in until I directly say, “let’s make room for some different voices.”
I acknowledge simply shutting up is easier said than done so here’s some guidance on how this could actually work.
Self-identify. Ask yourself this really tough question – are you an overtalker? Do you tend to interrupt people? Do you find that you are speaking more than others in the room in meetings? Do you believe that it’s expected of you to do all the talking? Do you tend to take control of conversations? Even if a sliver of this rings true, you can benefit from quieting down.
Make a deliberate choice to quiet down. This doesn’t mean becoming completely silent in meetings, but it does mean finding the balance between contributing your voice and inviting other voices in. It’s as simple as introducing small structures to help you do this, such as reserving your opinion until everyone else in the room has spoken, allowing others to lead meetings, or doing a round robin where everyone goes around the room to weigh in.
Use silence as a tool. Holding silence is really hard for many people. But when used as a tool, it has some really incredible results. The next time you ask a question or ask for input, hold the silent space and resist the urge to fill it until someone else speaks up. What may feel like an eternity of silence tends to only be a few seconds. The majority of business challenges are quite complex and require some extra processing time. The extra few seconds of silence allows people the space to form a complete thought to articulate or to muster up the courage to say something they feel is difficult (e.g. presenting an opposing opinion, expressing concern, disagreeing with someone). Often, it is the difficult conversations that lead to real insight and innovation.
Get curious about what’s behind other people’s silence. Often we label people “quiet” or “introverted” or “shy”. We then consciously or unconsciously expect them to play these silent roles in our meetings. But in my experience, the silent people in a room are often your deepest thinkers. They are creative and reflective and they are also more than happy to let you speak. However, if you engage them, they actually have plenty to say. These people are your organisation’s greatest hidden treasure. They’ve probably pondered your questions days after you asked it and came away with many ideas that will lay hidden unless you unleash them. So start asking them directly, “what do you think about <insert complex problem here>”. Ask them what you can do to make space for them to speak. Get to know them and their way of operating to harness their gift of silence.
I have seen time and time again so many situations where quiet team members have been explicitly and openly invited to speak more. The addition of their voices create a tapestry of diversity and creativity to the conversation where new ideas and insights are created through healthy discussion and debate. On top of this, they become more and more participative and talkative as time goes on, balancing the dynamic of over and under-talkers in meetings.
Our world is a noisy place. If each of us invited each other to a few seconds of silence, perhaps we could make better decisions and reclaim our freedom from the tides of chatter that sweep us away from our own individual thoughts. This post is dedicated to all the silent, thoughtful friends and family members in my life who have taught me that silence is the truest form of generosity offered to another human being. After all, great listening is sown with the seeds of silence.
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