Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 9;   March 2, 2016: Allocating Airtime: II

Allocating Airtime: II

by

Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
A collaborative discussion

Travis High School students engage in collaborative meetings about computer science. Texas OnRamps Computer Science. Photo by Prof. Dr. Calvin Lin, University of Texas, Austin.

We began our exploration of allocating speaking time by examining the inner experience of those who dominate meetings, calling them the Outspoken. We turn now to those who get (or take) few opportunities to speak. I call them the Unspoken. How do they experience this situation?

Explanations for their relative silence vary from person to person and time to time. Simple explanations — "He's shy" or "She has nothing to say" — are at least inadequate and probably wrong. Here are some alternatives.

Cautiously intrigued
Some of the Unspoken find the conversation intriguing, even fascinating, but they're also concerned. They see both sides of questions where others see only one; issues where others see none; complexity where others see simplicity; or mystery where others see clarity. They seem less excited than the Outspoken, even if they are just as excited. They seek airtime less energetically than the Outspoken, even if they're just as passionate.
Avoiding looking foolish
The Unspoken Allocating airtime fairly must
begin with a grasp of the
complexity of the problem
interpret the energy of the Outspoken as confidence and certainty. If the Unspoken feel some ambivalence, they can be concerned that they're missing something, and that they might unknowingly say something foolish.
Overwhelmed and unprepared
When the Unspoken experience rapid-fire contributions from the Outspoken, they can feel overwhelmed. Some might feel unprepared. In some extreme cases, they might feel unable to follow the conversational flow.
Contemplating
Having heard comments from others, the Unspoken want to process them. Even if the meeting Chair distributed information in advance, the advantage it provided can disappear after only a few contributions from others. The preference for contemplation before speaking leaves the Unspoken unwilling to seize the floor with the alacrity of the Outspoken.
Unwilling to be rude
The Outspoken might be so dominant that the Unspoken feel compelled to choose between silence and being rude enough to gain the right to speak. Choosing to maintain decorum prevents the Unspoken from speaking. They interpret the behavior of the Outspoken as being rude or careless of the rights of others, and prefer not to join them.
Strategically silent
Some of the Unspoken might be withholding contributions that they know would be unwelcome. They might reasonably believe that merely expressing those views could be politically dangerous. But they also want to be truthful. They don't want to say anything they don't believe. They keep silent, or nearly so.
Politically threatened
When the Unspoken have little political power relative to others, some consider the Unspoken to be intimidated or unable to contribute anything of value. Possibly they are. Also possible: the atmosphere in the meeting is so toxic that for the less politically powerful, silence or toadying are the only safe stances to adopt. The Unspoken prefer silence.
Unable to hear or understand
It's always possible that the Unspoken simply cannot hear what's being said. Ambient noise, poor telephone connections, hearing maladies, or any number of issues can make problems. Exclude these causes only if you have hard evidence.
Language challenges
The Unspoken might not be fluent in the meeting's language. Another possibility: the Unspoken are fluent in the meeting's language, but might be unable to understand the speakers if the speakers don't speak the meeting's language well enough. Another cause to exclude only with hard evidence.

Understanding the full range of reasons why the Spoken and Unspoken speak or don't speak can help us find ways to allocate airtime more equitably. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Find Lessons to Learn  Next Issue

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