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 probleminterpret 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.
- 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.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Appreciate Differences
- In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions
take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate
— expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
- Think Before You PowerPoint
- Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings
or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive
dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Polychronic Meetings
- In very dynamic contexts, with multiple issues to address, we probably cannot rely on the usual format
of single-threaded meeting with a list of agenda items to be addressed each in their turn. A more flexible,
issue-driven format might work better.
- I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views,
and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the
fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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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.