Culture & Competency

Encourage the Quieter People to Speak: Do or Don't?

David linked to my blog post about balancing contributions during face-to-face meetings, and commented on his web site about encouraging quieter people to speak up:

One thing, I think never works, whether it’s a facilitator or technology, is trying to explicitly draw the quieter people into the conversation. In my experience if they feel they are being coaxed, encouraged or otherwise manipulated, they withdraw even more. I think the best approach is simply to create an ultra-safe environment, sit back and wait. If they are ever going to, they will emerge in their own time.

My Comments
1. I know what’s David’s saying, and have some thoughts about it.

2. I think there is a clear difference between coaxing, encouraging, and manipulating the quieter people to participate. All of these are not equal – and I think the rules under the different intents are different.

3. In my workshops or seminars, I often ask specific quiet people if they have something to say – not usually early in our time together, but frequently later in the day. As in, “Jane, you haven’t said much today. How is this session going for you?” I think it’s worked out okay – I definitely haven’t had as strong a negative reaction as David seems to imply above. I really want to hear what they have to say – and I can only get that if I ask.

4. What’s your experience with intentionally asking the “quiet” people to share their thoughts during a workshop / seminar / meeting?

Categories: Culture & Competency

10 replies »

  1. Depending on why they are quiet, I think invitations might do exactly the opposite of what would be desired and tend to drive them even further into the background.
    There is something paradoxical about how to clear a mental and social space for people who otherwise feel intimidated or shy. Putting them on the spot by directing attention to them and inviting them overtly seems to me would make them even less willing or able to contribute.
    It’s like asking the shy person to dance in front of an agog crowd as opposed to quietly asking them when they feel confident and unobserved.

  2. Michael, a big thanks for turning this into a discussion. One quick comment as I don’t have much time now.
    In your example above, personally I would never ever say “Jane, you haven’t said much today. How is this session going for you?” unless I knew her well and knew that she was normally a talkative person. But even then I would probably skip the “you haven’t said much today” bit unless maybe they were normally very gregarious and I would then do it to gate a laugh 🙂
    The “you haven’t said much today” will be seen as an implicit criticism by many people. I know when it is done to me by a facilitator I do not know – maybe one I am even a little wary of – I just politely give a brief answer but I don’t engage and I am a naturally talkative person.
    Now, if I was in a session, and I did not know Jane but I had observed that in early conversations she happily and easily engaged with people. I might say to her “Jane, How is this session going for you?”
    But if I had noted that she seemed quiet and reserved I would not even say that. What I might do though is look her way at times and smile but I would not put her on the spot in anyway at all unless I felt she would be entirely comfortable with it.
    One of the principles of my Knowledge Cafes for example is that “I never, ever try to make people do anything they don’t want to do.
    I tell people that if they want to come along to a Cafe and just listen and never utter a word then that is perfectly acceptable. It rarely happens that people don’t engage though. When they realize that the Cafe is not going to turn into a debate and they are not going have their views forcibly challenged (gently is OK) then they start to relax and open up.
    I just do me best to create a relaxed, safe environment.
    Reflecting on it there are lots of little things I do that maybe I should document – one thing – if I see someone is naturally quite, reserved or shy, I will engage them in conversation over coffee. I won’t raise the topic of their quietness but one to one I may ask if they are enjoying the session.
    Often in such a private conversation they will confide in me in some way and explain their quietness. Once, for example, someone apologized to me for not engaging more as he explained he was a little deaf and was having trouble following the conversations.
    That’s all for now … I will try to get back later with some more thoughts 🙂
    best wishes David

  3. David … great coaching above. Thanks for sharing. Actually, now that you use that phrase in the text above, I’m reflecting on my practice. I too, at times, will go up to a “quiet person” during a break and use that line, “Jane, how is today going for you?” It’s one-to-one, and not centre stage.
    But I don’t always do that. Sometimes I will ask publicly … especially if everyone else has been talking throughout the day.
    Interesting … thanks. You’ve helped me understand a bit deeper.

  4. Interesting discussion. I’ve given a lot of thought to this and I am often facilitating a discussion amongst people I know very well. I have evolved my practice over time because I do want to hear everyone’s views and I often find that quiet people just have a higher threshold before they want to share their thoughts. They may have very insightful things to say simply because they are quiet and more inclined to observe rather than speak. So now, my practice (influenced by David’s teaching about knowledge cafes) is to say towards the end of the time allotted for the conversation something like “I’m interesting in hearing from everyone so I’d like to make an opportunity for those who haven’t spoken much to speak if they wish.” and then I tend to make eye contact with those who haven’t said much and they either speak or shake their heads. Interestingly over time those quiet people are much more inclined to speak now without needing an explicit invitation. It is as if they just needed to know that their opinions were of interest to others.

  5. Moira, I like this … its very gentle and does not put any one person on the spot. When you frequently run Cafes for the same group of people and they get to know you and when they know that you wont push hard or embarrass them in anyway … they open up … its about building the relationship and that takes a little time 🙂

  6. What about people who lack voice or the ability to see where or how to express themselves. I don’t come across many social media sites that are accessible to everyone. You want to enable quiet people? Address the issue of accessibility and you’ll be well on your way.

  7. I think David is being a little disingenuous here, because in his Knowledge Cafés there are a number of little mechanisms that nudge people into having to speak. For example those introductory exercises where he asks people to find someone we’ve never met before and get to know them; and to do that again; and again. But I don’t think people object to playing the game.
    Another small means of manipulating the situation is whenever you get people to break up into discussion groups of six or seven people. This works in two directions, because on the one hand it makes it less of a challenge to speak your mind when there aren’t a hundred people listening to you; paradoxically you do look odd if you sit in a group of six people saying nothing, and someone’s going to ask you what you think… But I think that the manipulation can be justified because you may uncover thereby perspectives and experiences which would otherwise have remained buried.
    I tend to be a noisy so-and-so and I don’t mind speaking up at meetings, but I recognise that plenty of other people don’t feel so comfortable. There are specific kinds of workshops that I run where I go around the table and each person is obliged to say something of what they think. I’m also aware that a meeting can run in such a way that five out of fifteen dominate, and each of the silent ones thinks they are the only person who disagrees with the direction the meeting is headed. In such cases, for the sake of democracy rather than demagogery, you have to place each person in a situation where they can speak their own mind.

  8. I think there are things that one can do to encourage quiet people to engage in the conversation that don’t involve calling on them or putting them on the spot. One of these is to go around and ask everyone to speak in the beginning of a session (if the group is large, best to do this in small groups) and give people the option of passing. I find that quiet people often want to say something but don’t know how to get their foot in the door to let their voice in. The first time one speaks in any conversation is the most difficult. The second is easier; and so on. If I start with an open-ended question that can be answered easily, and do a round robin, it makes it easier for everyone to get their voice in the room. And once your voice has been heard, it is more likely to be heard again.