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A chaotic meeting v death by silence – managing meeting participation

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An illustration of two light bulbs, 1 turned off, with a tangled messy cord, the other with a straight cord and powered on.

“I’ll open the meeting up to input now.” My boss had just finished presenting a draft strategic plan for discussion by the team. Silence. An expanding silence. People started to shuffle uncomfortably but no one spoke. He sat down, willing to wait out the silence, nodding his head encouragingly at a few of the usually more vocal members of the group. It felt like an eternity but was probably only a minute or two. Then one of the quieter members of the group tentatively raised her hand. My boss almost imperceptibly leant forward, giving her permission to speak. “I really liked it,” she paused, “as an opening bid, so to speak. But may I offer an idea?” She addressed this question not to the boss but to the group. By now, everyone was leaning in.

I learned later that the boss and this colleague had discussed this approach before the meeting. The boss knew his team well, he also knew himself. He knew that the culture of the office meant that people wouldn’t speak openly about his draft plan. He knew that if he broke the group into smaller groups and got them to brainstorm ideas, the groups still wouldn’t share back to the main room. But he knew that the group respected the quieter member he had chosen, that she had good ideas and that if she shared them, others would listen and then respond with their own ideas. He was right. The team responded well to her ideas and it opened up a meaningful discussion leading to a very sound, group-endorsed strategic plan.

Finding a strategy to encourage participation in meetings, the right kind of participation, takes both self-awareness and an understanding of the dynamics of the attendees. It also takes planning and forethought.

It’s important to be clear with attendees what you expect of them – we covered some of these steps in earlier blogs – Who should be in the room?, What is the purpose of the meeting? and What preparation do they need to do?.

There are many different approaches to encourage participation in meetings. Here are a few of the common ways participation in meetings can be derailed and strategies we have used to get the meetings back on track:

  1. A meeting that’s become tense due to a confrontation or a sensitive topic - Often, as the volume of people’s voices increases as they make their contributions, the value of the meeting decreases. If people are raising their voices and speaking over each other, point out what you notice is happening – “I notice that our volume has increased and there is frustration in the room.” – and remind them of the time frame for the meeting, asking them if we need to allow time for them to shout before getting back to the agenda. Sometimes, delivered in a calm, deliberate tone (without venturing into kindergarten teacher territory!), this reminder can make them aware of their behaviour.
  2. Battle of the siloes – This is a really common one when you have different departments present in a meeting and it can result in a lot of repetition of the issues as groups push their own agendas. If this occurs, reminding the group that there is a limited time on the agenda and pulling them back to the common goals and the bigger picture that you’re addressing can help. A sub-category of this issue is hidden agendas either of individuals or departments. The best way to deal with these is to address them head on and bring them into the open. That way, they can be discussed by the group as a whole, bridging the gaps and ensuring that all relevant issues are taken into consideration. Suggesting a way forward also enables the group to focus on possibilities rather than positions.
  3. Sulking behaviour – We’ve all had the meeting with the person sitting at the table, arms crossed, exuding an energy that could poison a cat! This energy and body language impacts the meeting, even if the person doesn’t speak. Sometimes, people just need to be heard and validated. Acknowledging that they are upset and giving them a chance to share what is on their mind can help to take the tension out of their body language. Don’t shame anyone or you’ll get more sulkers or aggression in the room.
  4. Creativity block – Sometimes when you’re trying to get a group to brainstorm innovation, creativity gets blocked. Setting up an ‘innovation sandwich’ can be an effective strategy to give people an opportunity to contribute their ideas. Initially bring people together so that there are the benefits of shared knowledge and ideas, then give them time to go back to their desks for quiet contemplation of what has been discussed. Bringing everyone back together to share their thoughts can spark even more ideas from the group. Time out in the middle gives everyone an opportunity to have a break and reflect on the discussions and ideas.

The reality is that meetings go off the rails, despite all our best interests at being prepared. They involve human personalities after all! Addressing the tension directly and holding people accountable or giving everyone space to calm down before returning to the agenda are the most effective ways to ensure that the outcome is strengthened relationships and not damaged ones.

  • Bec Ordish avatar
    Bec Ordish
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