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Three Tips to Make People Talk

I am sure we've all been at both ends of meetings where everyone seems disengaged and silence dominates. Perhaps one or two persons dutifully talk or comment on things, but it's like pulling teeth.

Getting people to speak up in meetings can be challenging for many reasons:

  • Simply not interested

  • Multitasking

  • Lack of psychological safety

  • Don’t know what to say

  • Still thinking

  • Unused to being engaged

  • Expect someone else to talk in their stead

  • Resentment

  • Cultural norms

You can try exercises and different practices to get people involved. For example Poker Planning for estimating, Lean Coffee as a way to run structured agenda-less meetings, using Breakout Sessions in larger meetings, do Check-Ins in the beginning of meetings, and various other round robin exercises.

Let me now suggest three other strategies to get people more engaged and taking responsibility for constructive discussions.

Tip 1: Give People More Responsibility

Give people more responsibility by employing self-organization.

How To Do It

In a workshop or meeting instead of detailed instructions, a step-by-step guide, template or specific questions to answer, give a topic or area to be discussed, or a problem or task to brainstorm on, without further explanations.

Short Term Expectations

First there might be confusion and inaction. They might get back to you and ask what they are expected to do. Refrain from giving too much help here. The first times it is possible you don't end up with the most constructive discussions.

Long Term Benefits

As people get more used to not getting detailed directions, the threshold lowers before acting autonomously. Who knows, it could even spill over to other contexts and become a step towards cultural change.

Tip 2: Practice Uncomfortable Silence

Get used to uncomfortable silences. It is easy to feel a need to fill silence. Pair it with self-organization.

How To Do It

Ask a question or open the floor to questions. Then stay silent. When you start to get uncomfortable, resist the urge to say something. Count in your head to 100. If you don't get any response drop the subject and move on without pushing the topic further. Don't make anyone feel guilty or make a big deal about it.

Short Term Expectations

Uncomfortable silence. No one responding or asking any question. Eventually someone probably will respond though.

Long Term Benefits

Once people get more comfortable, and as they realize no one else will fill the void, questions will come quicker and more often.

Tip 3: Self-Perspective and Humour

Psychological safety is needed for people to open up. A bit of self-perspective and showing a lighter side is a good way to get people to feel safe. Humour helps as you employ self-organization and using uncomfortable silence.

How To Do It

First, only do what feels comfortable and natural. Don't force it, or try to be someone you're not. We're not talking stand-up comedian funny. Just lighten up and don't take yourself too seriously. Obviously depending on the matter at hand, this may or may not be appropriate.

Short Term Expectations

Raised eyebrows, nervous laughs and nods of approval.

Long Term Benefits

As you lead by example, and people realize things aren't necessarily life or death serious all the time, the bar for engaging lowers. A relaxed surrounding increases psychological safety.

Bonus Tip: The Thing to Avoid

Lastly I want to share a guaranteed way of getting people to clam up, and running the risk of people engaging less and less over time, to the point where they stop showing up to meetings.

So what is it? Pointing out that no one asks questions. Asking people why they are silent. Commenting on people not being engaged.

Avoid putting people on the spot. For example, when having a Q&A towards the end and not getting any questions, stay silent for some time and then - if there are no questions - end the meeting, maybe early. Tell them that they can reach out later if they think of anything or prefer talking 1-on-1.

Conclusion

Next time you get frustrated with the lack of engagement, reflect on why people don't ask questions. Be self critical in this, and think about what you can do differently to increase engagement. Sometimes it's not reasonable to expect questions. Give people a chance to reach out 1-on-1 later and show that you mean it.

Maybe it’s not the end of the world if no one asks anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t listen and appreciated the interaction, or that they won't get back with questions later.

To quote the number one rated movie on IMDB. Building psychological safety and getting people to open up takes time.

What are your tips and tricks to get people engaged?


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