How to Encourage Participation and Balance in Meetings

I previously wrote a list of tips for avoiding the "should've been an email" meeting. One of those tips deserves some expansion because it's a much bigger deal than we give it credit – how to set a balanced tone during meetings.  

Most people agree it wouldn't be appropriate for one team member to do all the work for their entire department while the others sat back and watched, so why is this dynamic acceptable when giving feedback in meetings? We've all seen those meetings where one or two members constantly overpower the conversation while others consistently sit and observe quietly. Studies have shown there are more grave ramifications, budget concerns, and even faulty products/processes created when groupthink starts to occur due to people not speaking up.

There are a number of reasons why some feel comfortable speaking up in meetings and others do not. Take a look at your facilitation style and your meeting environment and gauge where you fall on the spectrum on the following issues. Improving these will drastically increase the balance of those that talk and those that listen in your meetings.

  1. A safe meeting space: A recent study found that creating psychological safety within an organization actually produces better organizational outcomes. Google released a study on the most effective teams and found that psychological safety is a founding trait that effective teams utilize above other things. This means having a culture where people feel safe to speak up knowing  they won't be made to feel stupid or incompetent. This means creating a space where all ideas are welcome and one doesn't feel everything they do or say is under a microscope. The first step in getting all team members to speak up is to examine your organizational culture. Are your meetings a place where people feel free to speak up or is there fear of being made fun of, being cut-off, or being dismissed? Take a hard look at your own facilitation techniques to make sure you're creating a space where people are encouraged and excited to share their thoughts and ideas. Trust is the foundation to any of this work.

  2. Introversion/extroversion: Understand that not all people process information the same way. Identifying which on your team are introverts and which are extroverts and facilitating uplifting discussions around these differences on your staff will not only help them grow personally but will you help you facilitate a space that is inclusive of each type. Ultimately, this will create a better organization when drawing on everyone's strengths and hearing their ideas.

Extroverts will tend to talk as they process their thoughts. They will most likely speak up quicker and talk through their ideas with the group. If not careful, they can dominate the conversation (I'm an extrovert; guilty as charged, I've done this before without realizing it). Set a precedence where everyone is expected to share and ask some to shorten comments to make room for others. Ask the extremely talkative members to play a different role during the meeting at times to balance their interaction, such as capturing notes on the whiteboard, which switches their mindset and curbs their comments.

Introverts will sometimes only speak up when called on. They tend to need more time to process internally before they're ready to share with the group. Sending a detailed agenda ahead of time with thoughts on what they will be expected to share will help introverts process ahead of time and come with ideas ready to share with the group. Affirming them in private for specific comments might be appreciated as well.

  1. Have conversations outside of the meeting space: Connect one-on-one with that individual that, no matter how hard you try, doesn't speak up. Ask them their ideas when you're alone and then affirm that idea, "I would love for you to share that with the group next time if you're comfortable." You may discover the reason for their hesitancy during this interaction and be able to correct your organizational culture or other relevant issues. Or you can connect with that meeting dominator saying, "You have such great ideas to share, however we're trying to make sure everyone has a chance to speak up during the meeting. Want to schedule a one-on-one to talk through this later so others have a chance to share?"

  1. End of meeting check-in: Consider creating a meeting structure where everyone is expected to share. If the group is small enough, leave time at the end to go around the circle and ask every member to share their thoughts or take-always for 30 uninterrupted seconds. This gets each member in the habit of speaking to the group and sets the precedence that every member in that meeting is essential and needs to be heard.

Finding creative ways to engage the entire group during a meeting is a way to right this imbalance. Hearing from everyone in the room will help produce more stimulating and engaged meetings and ultimately could produce more innovative and thoughtful solutions.

About the Author

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Jessica Beans is a researcher and facilitator specializing in group dynamics, leadership, and change management. She holds an undergraduate degree in public relations and graphic design and a masters degree in organizational leadership with an emphasis in change management and strategic innovation.

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