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How to Increase Participation in Meetings – Tips from the Experts

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 29, 2023

Last week, I was working on an article about how to increase participation in meetings and requested feedback from various experts. My piece took a different turn: I ended up focusing on the idea of equal versus fair participation (you can check it out here).

However, I didn't want to waste all the valuable contributions from various global experts, so I put all their recommendations together and categorized them into five groups. Check them out!

1. Give everyone a turn to speak

Everyone agrees that defining clear norms of engagement ahead of a meeting is vital to setting the right tone and level set expectations.

However, many facilitators forget about protecting those rules. Employee Recognition Speaker Christopher Littlefield said it best, "If someone on the team shoots down sharing or makes wrong comments – call out that behavior fast."

When it comes to meeting facilitation, a lack of tools is not the problem. As leadership and Team Performance Coach Emily Bond shared, "The problem is not a scarcity of tools, but a scarcity of awareness and designing for the outcome."

She recommends: "Every team will be different, so I start with understanding what helps and hinders each team member's participation and then design meeting norms for the desired outcome."

Matt Kelly, Partner & Strategy Designer at DoTank, suggests asking people to draw their idea and then present their artwork to the table: "Reassure them stick figures are cool and it isn't about being fine art."

Visual language brings a different energy to the conversation, like using canvases. As Kelly explains, "People are very well accustomed to an open group conversation. Throwing a small wrench changes the structure of the conversation and can have a big impact. "

Rotating who facilitates the meeting can spark better participation by experimenting with different styles and approaches.

Diana Elenkova, Managing Director at Zühlke, recommends using the Wheel Decide tool to randomly select who will lead a meeting to prevent rotations from feeling like special treatment. Similarly, giving each team member 15 minutes to get everyone sharing knowledge – one per week.

This helps build a habit: for the "quiet" to speak and the "loud" to listen.

There's a difference between equal and fair participation – we should give everyone the chance to contribute without forcing them to speak up.

"This is a very frequent and conscious effort from my side. I find it very tricky because people who are less comfortable speaking up may feel pushed if the intervention is too much," Simone Caracante Moras, Marketing Director at Volkswagen Brazil, said. "With people I know better, I mention past contributions to help build the necessary confidence."

2. Set Time Limits

Emily Bond suggests using poker chips to represent talking time.

For example, you can distribute each team member five poker chips (one worth 120 seconds, two worth 90 seconds, and the last two just 30 seconds). Each member can contribute up to five times. On each occasion, they use one chip depending on how much time they want to spend. This approach doesn't just limit time; it helps people to spend their talking when it's worth it.

Littlefield likes to set ground rules for sharing: One-minute share, one-breath comments, and inviting someone else for input before sharing your own perspective.

Monitoring how participants spend their time can provide valuable insights about team patterns to improve even participation.

Ivan Golenkov, Delivery Practice Lead at Digital Asset, recommends using live pulse feedback to improve collaboration: "Data helps with people talking with each other as opposed to at each other."

Another way to manage people's time is to limit their feedback to one word, one sentence, or one paragraph – depending on how deep you want them to go.

Quick reminder: Setting time limits is not a rigid approach – to police participants – but a way to ensure enough time for others. Use it wisely.

Drawing drives empathy and participation – courtesy DoTank

3. Combine Async and Sync Activities

Digital platforms are not only great for bringing groups together but also for tapping into collective wisdom before and after a session.

CEO advisor and coach Mahan Tavakoli recommends using digital collaboration platforms to allow participants to contribute before the session. Even anonymously, at first, to get people talking.

Christopher Littlefield suggests sending questions or pre-reading materials before the meeting so people come prepared – even with questions or ideas.

Letizia Migliola, co-founder of Italian Evidentia, recommends mixing individual contributions, "together alone," and group conversations. You can maximize the six collaboration modes by combining real-time and asynchronous collaboration.

Consider thinking and learning styles and provide people with options that best adjust to their strengths and preferences.

Change management expert Douglas Flory shared: "Consider that some people are visual, some are auditory, and other styles of contributing/learning. Use the chat for engagement, reactions, and prompts." He suggests that hybrid meetings should be facilitated by those joining remotely, not the ones in the room.

4. Use Silence for Reflection

Change Management Consultant Bárbara Pineda suggests using Brainwriting to avoid groupthink, "Encourage everybody to write their ideas before sharing with others."

She recommends giving short times for every moment, considering rhythm and pace, and holding the silence properly. Also, to separate interactions by type of thinking (Focus or Flare): A moment for divergent thinking, a moment for convergent thinking.

Emphasize there are no wrong or right ideas. The goal is to produce quantity over perfection. There's a moment to flare (idea generation) and another to focus (idea evaluation and selection).

As Pineda added, "Give short times for every moment; consider rhythm and pace."

Brandon Springle, Organizational Development and Success Director at Shaw Industries, added: "Allow reflection time in meetings for critical questions. Provide everyone space to share sentiment via aloud or through the chat box. The leader can ask if they would like to add anything else and thank all contributors for their engagement."

Follow-up questions help harvest people's ideas during a silent brainstorm and ensure we are not missing valuable contributions.

Flory suggests asking: "I want to make sure that we all had a chance to contribute. Is there anyone who would like to share but has not had the chance yet?" or "Can you tell me more about that?"

5. Build psychological safety progressively

The smaller the group, the safer people feel.

Littlefield recommends asking a question, putting people in small groups, and then asking them to report back. "People are more comfortable in small groups," the speaker noted.

The 1-2-4-All technique is perfect for building psychological safety progressively. It's one of my favorites and many of the experts agree. First, people think on their own. Then, they discuss it inpairs. Third, all duos are merged into teams of four to find alignment. Lastly, each team of four shares their ideas with the larger group.

As Agile activist Albert Valiente López reflected: "It helps guide the discussion by rounds to give space to each point of view."

Agile coach Pierre-Cyril Denant suggests small table group discussions or breakout rooms in remote. Also, to create a parking lot so all ideas are captured – even if they're not relevant to the topic at hand.

Role-playing helps create a safe environment by experimenting with views different from theirs and empathizing with other stakeholders.

Matt Kelly recommends giving people specific roles or "jobs to do: "It could be 'the scribe,' 'the reporter,' 'the data analyst,' etc. Or it could be an audience role: 'You three are the executive board' and need to give feedback on a pitch."

Scrum master Roberto Ferraro recommends the Six Thinking Hats to encourage people to see things through different perspectives. His #1 tip: "The manager or leader of the team should speak last 😊"

Scales and metaphors are less intimidating and get people talking. For example, rather than asking people how they feel or how their week is going, ask, "What was the weather like for your work this past week?"

TradeWinds Vice-President Ricardo Flores said: "Nurturing an environment where all voices matter ensures richer, more inclusive outcomes."

Migiolia recommends using different metaphors to let people introduce themselves, such as choosing a Star Wars character they identify with. This brings humor and empathy to the team conversation.

Remember: Facilitating a meeting is about dealing with people. Don't let facilitation techniques get in the way. As Pineda reminds us: "Keep it natural, make it fun."

What do you think?



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