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.
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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Take Any Seat: II
- In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the
meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your
choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
- Blind Agendas
- Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants
can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
- Virtual Brainstorming: I
- When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic.
Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
- 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.
See also Effective Meetings and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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