Have you ever led a group discussion that wasn’t a group discussion? Sure, a few people jump into the discussion immediately but many sit quietly, particularly at the beginning. It’s particularly true for a high-stakes meeting with the boss in the room and everyone wants to be perceived in a positive light. For many, it feels like an invisible barrier must be broken to get those first few words into the room. It’s like you have to establish your verbal territory. To break the barrier with the first words takes a remarkable amount of energy.
The voice in your head says, “I have a comment on that. I’ll jump in after she finishes. ….ugh, someone interrupted before I could get my words in. Now they are on a different topic. Do I wait for another chance or take the conversation backward? …Oh…there’s another opening! Nope. Gone.” It can be stressful– particularly the first time. How can we as leaders make it easier for everyone to break the barrier and get their voice in the room?
1. Break the barrier. The first time a person speaks into the room is the hardest. Make it easy for them at the beginning by creating a structured interaction that engages all. Maybe you have a question about the topic, their experience in the subject area, their perspective or their expectations. The point is to get all voices in the room.
2. Paired-share. Find a question with two parts for which you want input. Pair up the participants and have them report out on their discussion. Each person reports on one question so that everyone speaks.
3. Engage the room. Say, “I’d like to hear from everyone on this point. Let’s go around the room to get your thoughts.” Manage their input so that everyone keeps it short. You can also say, “I think it’s important to hear from everyone. Who hasn’t had a chance to speak up?”
4. Ask. Specifically engage those who are hesitant and who have expertise that would benefit others. Say, “Herbert, you have background in this area, what advice can you share that would benefit the group discussion?” (Take care to not embarrass someone. Stick to topics where you know the person has substantive knowledge.)
5. Recognize the effort. Group discussions are dominated by those who interrupt—people who step on the end of sentences or those who dive into the middle. Many of us find this behavior annoying and politely wait for an opening (I’m in this camp. It doesn’t work. We’ll wait forever.) As the leader, be observant. Notice those who try to get a word in, or those who speak up but aren’t heard, or those with their hands raised. As the leader, you can interrupt and say, “Carlos has been trying to say something, let’s give him the floor.” Or, “Shirley just offered a comment but not everyone heard her. Shirley, would you please repeat that?”
These techniques may not ensure 100% participation but they will help get everyone’s voice in the room. That’s key to good decision-making and employee participation. Let me pause now and ask for your comment….