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How to Encourage Participation in Meetings

Silence is a symptom. To encourage participation in meetings requires address what’s causing silence. These facilitation tips encourage people to speak up.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 19, 2019

12 facilitation tips to get teams to speak up

People don’t quit jobs; they quit unsafe cultures.

Silence is a symptom that something else is going on. Lack of participation in meetings is usually not a personal thing but a cultural issue.

Building Psychological Safety and practicing Radical Candor are vital to encourage participation and honest dialogue.

But how do you break the silence cycle?

Start small. Simple, small facilitation tools can create a huge impact.

Try these 12 facilitation techniques to encourage participation in meetings. I’ve used them in hundreds of workshops and meetings with amazing results. See which works for you.

1. Address the source of silence

“Silence usually means people are holding back,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations

Whether people are holding their thoughts to themselves or not being appropriately encouraged, it’s up to you to understand why.

Successful meetings (and team collaboration) requires diversity of thought. Groupthink, passive-aggressiveness, and disengagement happen when most people stay silent. They let a few control the conversation.

Address the ‘why.’ Are people worried about retaliation? Do they think their voices won’t be heard? Do team members believe their ideas are not good enough?

Grenny thinks that the average lag time between when problems are identified and are brought out in the open defines the effectiveness of a team.

I like to challenge people by reframing silence:

“Okay. If everyone is silent that means that everybody agrees.”

Reframing silence sends the message that not speaking up equals to waiving their right to challenge an idea or decision. And that they cannot come later and complain because they (silently) agreed.

Turning silence into agreement triggers people to speak up. Immediately.

2. Set up the room

Start small to go big.

You can’t expect people to start opening up and asking questions overnight. Even the most communicative groups need some warm-up.

Design an experience that builds up participation. Create the right cadence. Be patient.

Facilitate some quick exercises to develop empathy and connection. Let people share small personal stories with a partner. Working in duos makes it safer for participants to open up.

Suggested exercises: “Who are you?” and “36 questions to turn strangers into friends.

Now form teams of 3–5 people and facilitate more challenging exercises.

Suggested exercises: “Triad Feedback” and “Stinky Fish.”

Setting up the room is crucial to let people relax, engage with one another, and build trust little by little. It will then feel easier to chime in when working on more challenging topics.

3. Let people volunteer to speak up

Feeling in charge makes people feel more confident and safe. That’s why forcing people to speak up usually creates the opposite effect.

But, what if you ‘threaten’ people to take away that freedom? They fight back.

When only a few people are participating, I tell them the rest that I will choose who will answer next. But, before pointing at people, I allow them to volunteer.

“Listen up! If no one volunteers to be to share their thoughts, I will choose the next person and then the following one.”

The paradox is that people react positively to feeling threatened. They decide to speak up in order not to lose their right to choose.

More people end up participating that if I’ve called their names one by one.

Another trick is to look at a small group of people and, without pointing at anyone in particular, I ask, “What about you? What do you think?”

Usually, two or three people reply. They all feel they were the ‘you” that I was pointing at.

4. Begin your meetings with a quick check-in

A check-in round helps ground a team by focusing on the meeting rather than on their worries.

Start the meeting asking one of the following questions:

“What’s got your attention?”

“What one word describes how you feel right now?”

“What is keeping you awake at night?”

Form a circle, and let everyone answer it one-by-one. A mindset check-in drives empathy and focus. But it’s also a way to give everyone their moment to speak up — and be listened to.

5. Ensure equal participation in meetings

Make it easier and clear for people to participate. Design the meeting, so everyone gets their fair share.

Conversational turn-taking allows people to take turns to speak up. Everyone gets a chance to share their ideas. Ensure that quiet people go first and leaders (and loud ones) last.

The same applies when facilitating a workshop with a large audience. I always go table by table, making sure everyone gets a chance.

Rotate roles and who goes first. Avoid one person taking over the group. Whoever has the marker has the power. Give everyone their turn to write.

6. Show that you care

Only one-third of people think that their opinions count at work. If you want people to speak up, first you must convince them that their opinions matter.

Saying a simple “thank you” after people share their ideas goes a long way.

Set up clear expectations of what will happen with their ideas. Are you looking to understand what people are thinking? Are you seeking ideas that you want to implement? Or simply being curious?

Kyle Schwartz realized that to be an effective teacher; she had to go beyond the usual data. She had to learn what mattered to her students.

She asked kids to answer a simple question, “I wish my teacher knew…”

The responses helped her learn a lot about her students. One didn’t see his dad much because his father worked two shifts. She discovered that one kid lived in a shelter. And that another loved pets more than anything else.

Most importantly, the prompt created a strong bonding that resulted in more active participation in class. The children felt more engaged because their teacher cared about them.

7. Facilitate conversation through questions

Questions encourage dialogue. So, rather than leaving the Q&A to the end, make sure questions are embedded across the entire meeting.

As a leader, it is not your job to have all the answers. Wise leaders use questions to challenge their team members. And let them figure out the solution.

Most meetings are problem-solving ones.

Start with a question to encourage participation. Use the “How Might We…?” format to frame the challenge. Design the session so that people can focus on answering that question.

Challenge what everyone takes for granted. Questions inspire reflection and feedback. Use the 5 Whys method

to invite people to uncover what’s not working and what’s working.

Even if you have the answer, let others do the talking. Asking questions makes is a vulnerable act. People tend to contribute more when their leader looks vulnerable, not perfect.

Questions show people that you listen. And help them think deeply. Here are some that could spark more exciting conversation.

Can you tell me more?

Why do you think that’s happening?

If I were to leave this company, what is the first thing you want the new leader to do?

What am I missing?

If you had the freedom to change anything, what would you change?

How does the team feel? How does the team want to feel?

What’s moving us backward? Why?

Asking engaging questions requires to let go of being right. It’s about promoting an open dialogue rather than wanting to win every argument.

8. Help me help you

Great leaders are helpful. They take care of the people that take care of the work.

Every employee is different and needs different help. Some need to be challenged; others to be coached; most want to feel supported. Take the time to understand, rather than assume what each one needs.

Unsolicited advice makes employees shut down. Most managers want to save the day instead of paying attention. Before sharing your input, understand what people need.

How can I help you?

The above question is powerful. Not only it shows that you want to help people succeed, but it’s personal too. You are inviting people to express their specific needs.

Offering help requires intellectual humility. Learn to listen. Treat people as they want to be treated. Don’t assume that everyone needs the same.

Asking “How can I help you?” engages participation both at large or one-on-one meetings.

9. Gamify participation and feedback in meetings

We learn more in a day of playing than in a year of talking. When we stop taking everything (and ourselves) too seriously, great things can happen.

Using games makes the experience less intimidating. It puts people into a different mindset and lowers their defense mechanisms.

Reward those who contribute the most. Create a ritual to celebrate when quiet people start to participate more actively. Use an object or ball and pass it on to whoever wants to speak next.

Invite people to a free pizza with the condition that everyone who grabs a slice must ask a question. The Pizza Slice exercise promotes camaraderie but also follows game’s rule number one: nobody wants to lose.

Sometimes, the simplest things can create significant changes in behavior.

10. Use the power of silence

Silence is intimidating, but can also be a source of inspiration.

Instead of trying to force people to talk, leverage the power of silence.

Silent meetings increase focus and reflection. Start the session by letting everyone review a document — and ask questions or make comments — in silence. Only after everyone has finished, the room is open to an aloud exchange.

Silent brainstorms create a similar effect. They allow people to jot down their ideas and thoughts privately. Introverts have great things to say but think better in silence. It’s less intimidating to speak up once they’ve clarified their ideas and written them down.

Silent feedback promotes engagement too. Ask people to capture their input on a piece of paper. For example, what were their highest and lowest moments during a meeting? Everyone shares theirs in the end.

Silent exercises create intimacy and make people feel safe. When I facilitate the Stinky Fish exercise, I let people work on their own first. Then, they work on pairs and last in groups of four before opening up the floor.

Though everyone is free to share as much as they want, they usually disclose a lot. Working progressively builds up trust.

11. Leverage scarcity to motivate people to speak up

I’m an advocate of promoting abundance, rather than scarcity. But, sometimes, shortage can work on our favor.

One trick I use when facilitating workshops is telling people that I’m looking for three great ideas. And ask them to contribute.

“Who wants to go first? Once I get three ideas I like, we are done.” — I say.

This question triggers an interesting response. No one wants to miss the opportunity to come up with one of the three selected ideas.

And almost everyone jumps right into sharing their thoughts.

This also works when you are looking for feedback or wanting people to ask more questions.

12. Model vulnerability

As a facilitator, be the first to act by example. It’s easy to speak from a place of perfectionism. Let go of control if you want people to embrace their vulnerability.

Model behavior by being in the hot seat. If you want people to feel comfortable discussing mistakes, start by embracing your discomfort. If you want people to embrace their vulnerabilities, begin by showing your flaws.

The same goes for leaders–this a deal-breaker for me. I only work for clients that are open to being challenged. For most people, it’s hard — and that’s okay. I’m good at helping people stretch beyond their comfort zone. But they need to be open to it.

When leaders embrace their vulnerability and humanity, they create a positive effect on the rest of the team. People feel safe to experiment and play. Some actually feel sorry for their bosses and want to ‘rescue’ them.

Do you need to break the silence cycle within your team? Do you need help to encourage participation and open dialogue?

Reach out. Let’s discuss how we can help you.

What do you think?



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