Professional facilitators try to ensure that participants have opportunities to contribute. But many meetings are run by team leads, managers, and project managers, whose focus is often the content of the conversation, rather than the form it takes. Some meetings, especially smaller meetings, aren't facilitated at all. When groups make no attempt — or try but fail — to ensure that all those who want to contribute can actually contribute, two results occur with some frequency. First, these groups miss out on the contributions and perspectives that are suppressed. And second, the participants who can't participate can become frustrated and withdrawn.
The consequences can be severe for small groups, because of the significance of the loss of access to the thinking and energy of even a single member. If you're a member of a small group or team, or if you attend small meetings that aren't professionally facilitated, what techniques can you use to break into the conversation? Here are some possibilities.
- Know thyself
- Knowing your own feelings is a first step. Given your status, your areas of responsibility, and the topics and issues at hand, do you feel that you're getting a fair share of time in the conversation? Suppressing or denying your feelings elevates the probability of anger and outburst. Acknowledge what you feel. See "Ethical Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 4, 2007, for more.
- Check for rules
- Some of us carry Because everyone has unique
responsibilities, and because
meeting topics do vary, equal
time isn't an appropriate
standard of fairness
in most meetingsaround over-generalized rules that we adopted unquestioningly as children. For example, one such rule is, "I must never interrupt others." It's usually a good rule to live by, except when others don't feel obliged to return the courtesy. Either find a way to propagate courtesy, or transform your rule to something like, "I must treat others as courteously as I can reasonably expect them to treat me." See "Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never," Point Lookout for February 27, 2002, for more.
- Know the situation
- Because everyone has unique responsibilities, and because meeting topics do vary, equal time isn't an appropriate standard of fairness in most meetings. The time allocated to each individual depends on the situation. Objectively determining what is an appropriate share is difficult. Deciding that there is a problem requires careful consideration.
- Know the competition
- When some people have difficulty getting into the conversation, competition for time is often a contributing cause. If some participants insist on time out of proportion to their ability to contribute, wait for a particularly egregious incident. Then raise the issue. You're more likely to be successful if you raise the issue in the team's interest, by demonstrating that someone other than yourself has been unable to contribute.
- Ask questions
- In a competitive atmosphere, questions are more likely to be welcome than are assertions, because they're less threatening. And the social credit earned by asking a brilliant question can be just as significant as making the equivalent assertion. See "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout for November 22, 2006, for more.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Questioning Questions
- In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution.
Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
- An Agenda for Agendas
- Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed"
agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
- Presenting to Persuade
- Successful, persuasive presentations involve a whole lot more than PowerPoint skills. What does it take
to present persuasively, with power?
- The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: II
- Where the handshake is a customary business greeting, it's possible to offend accidentally. Here's Part
II of a set of guidelines for handshakes in the USA.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: II
- Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use
are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
- And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
- When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.