Your perception of how useful and productive a meeting was tends to be directly related to how often you were able to share your ideas, concerns, and questions. This means that those who aren’t able to make their voices heard often feel frustrated and undervalued. To fix that, organizers must consider who’s speaking the most, who stays silent, and how to create better balance.
Those who monopolize available speaking time or switch the agenda at the last minute to discuss their own projects can make others feel ignored. The blame for these sour feelings is often placed on meeting organizers, who are seen as leaders with the power to set the meeting’s dynamics.
In her Chronicle of Higher Education article, “10 Ways to Better Manage Your Meetings,” Allison M. Vaillancourt offers this advice for creating environments that encourage a greater diversity of voices:
- Respect different thinking styles. Some people process information by talking through it, while others prefer to reflect on details before voicing an opinion. Sending out key information and agendas in advance can give reflective types the time they need to show up to meetings ready to speak.
- Track who’s talking. Be aware of who tends to contribute the most and least by taking note of how many times each person speaks. This can help you focus on how to best tailor the meeting experience to include those who don’t usually get the chance to share their ideas.
- Establish ground rules. While a request to set ground rules may be met with resistance, agreeing on guidelines ahead of each meeting can help the group assess a meeting’s effectiveness and help you adjust strategies for encouraging conversation.
- Rotate meeting leadership. It can be difficult to both facilitate a meeting and be a full participant whose words carry the same weight as any other person’s. By rotating leadership responsibilities, you also rotate who has power and who has an opportunity to practice listening.
- Gather ideas in creative ways. Simply opening the floor for people to provide their input often results in uncomfortable silence or the same voices speaking up. Consider more dynamic and creative ways to ensure that everyone’s thoughts are heard.
- Manage interruptions. Give your meeting participants strategies for handling interruptions, and make sure everyone knows that interruptions will not be tolerated.
- Enlist allies. Confronting an interrupter or idea thief can be difficult, so ask colleagues to speak up on your behalf if you need backup. Meeting facilitators can also act as allies by specifically asking for a quiet person’s thoughts and giving credit for ideas when due.
- Stand up to bullies. Personal attacks and other aggressive behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, either, and it’s important to vocally address these as directly as possible — silence can be emboldening.
- Allow post-meeting contributions. People who find it difficult to participate in meetings despite one’s best efforts should always feel comfortable speaking to the organizer in private, so make it clear that you welcome one-on-one meetings or emails with further thoughts.
- Consider how you can change your own behavior. If you’re often the first to raise your hand to speak, consider taking a backseat for a few meetings to see if others jump in.
Creating an inclusive speaking environment takes the active participation of other meeting invitees, not just the organizer. No matter your role, though, being aware of how meeting dynamics impact individuals’ comfort level and doing your part to amplify their voices can help your coworkers feel more valued in the workplace.