In my last post, I shared my response to an audience member who asked how to reduce the impact of the person on her team who needs to talk everything out. You can read that post here. As I was writing, I realized that the opposite is a problem worth discussing too. How do you handle the person who keeps quiet and doesn’t share his perspective with the team? So, in the interest of thoroughness and impartiality, today I’m talking about the challenges of the silent types.

Remember what’s good about the quiet ones

It can be frustrating when there’s a person on your team who sits quietly in your meetings and seldom interjects. You’re not sure where they stand or what they’re thinking. Before talking about the downside of having a silent type, it’s worth noting their strengths.

  • The people who don’t talk much usually listen well. They are paying attention and taking in everything that’s going on
  • The quiet folks tend to be thoughtful and reflective, particularly on complicated issues. When they do arrive at an opinion, it’s well-considered
  • When the silent types do speak up, their input carries a lot of weight and can be very influential

Why you should worry

There are times when you’re not getting enough from your quiet team member or where their reluctance to chime in can have negative consequences, such as when:

  • The person has concerns that you don’t hear about (or don’t hear until too late)
  • The team only sees the output of the person’s thinking, not the thought process that got her there and therefore struggles to follow and get onboard
  • The person can appear disengaged from, disinterested in, or judgmental of the work of her teammates

How to Manage the Silent Type

The quiet person is not likely to think of himself as a trouble maker. He probably feels like he’s the one who is appropriately measured in his contribution.

As with my advice for the talker, your first conversation should focus on self-awareness. “I want to talk with you about your participation in meetings. I’m concerned that the contributions to our team discussions are imbalanced. I know you’re engaged in the issues and at the same time, worried that you’re not sharing your value with the team. How can we benefit more from your contribution?”

Give concrete examples to help the person see where his silence was a negative for the team. For example, if you had a 60-minute conversation about an issue and he only raised a concern as you were walking out of the meeting room, you can talk about the impact of his timing. “I think your point about the risks was a really good one. Unfortunately, when you raised it after we’d left the room, we didn’t get the chance to talk it through as a team.”

Listen carefully to the person’s response and dig a little deeper with one or more of these questions?

  • How do you think about your participation in our meetings? What do you see as your role? Where do you think you contribute most?
  • How do you prepare for these meetings? What might you do before the meeting to be ready to share your thoughts earlier?
  • How could I help draw you into the conversation more often or sooner?
  • What could you do to monitor your contributions and balance them with the rest of the team?

Tips to Try

Ideally, greater self-awareness and a little encouragement will inspire more active input from your quiet team member. If you need a little more than that, try these tips:

  1. Interestingly, both talkers and non-talkers benefit from good pre-reads. That’s because they help them collect their thoughts outside the meeting room. Include questions you’d like your quiet type to weigh in on during the meetings so he can prepare.
  2. On the way into the meeting, encourage the person to participate, “I’d like to hear your perspective on these issues today.”
  3. Solicit input when you don’t receive it. “Maurizio, how are you thinking about this decision?”
  4. If the quiet person lobs a grenade right at the end of the discussion, be clear that the timing could be better. “We’re out of time now. That’s the kind of question we need earlier in the discussion.”
  5. On the way out of the meeting, share feedback on how he did. Make a specific request about how he might continue to improve in the next meeting.

As one of the people in the world who talks too much, I’m always wondering what’s going on in the minds of the quiet types. In my experience, most of them are taking everything in, analyzing it, and concocting really astute plans. All that is great if you can get them to share it with the team. Make sure your quiet types are being heard. Don’t accept introversion as an excuse for not contributing.

Further Reading

How Do You Interpret Silence?

Extravert vs. Egomaniac: Are you too much for your team?

Are you a good listener?

11 Responses to How to handle the quiet person on your team

  1. Thanks, Liane, for turning the spotlight on a problem that’s often overlooked. I think your advice is good, especially in that it helps create an environment in which the quiet person feels empowered to speak.

    There’s much in here that echoes Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution (www.quietrev.com) – are you familiar with it?

    • Liane Davey

      Hi Larry, thanks for joining in the discussion. Yes, I’ve seen Cain’s TED tall and think it generated an important conversation. I fear it had the unintended consequence of giving some people a label they think justifies non-participation. It’s a shared responsibility of the team leader (who needs to make room for the quieter voices) and the quiet people (who need to contribute when they are given the opportunity).

    • 3coze

      Hi Marty, thanks so much for your ongoing contributions to the ChangeYourTeam community. I’m always working to combine a little insight with some practical tools. I’m glad I got it right this time. Liane

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  5. Jonathon

    As an introvert, I can confidently state that I would flee from a team where any of these tips were used. In general meetings are something akin to torture for someone like myself, at best they’re a waste of time, usually they are energy draining endurance exercises.

    It’s been my experience that most people, especially in “creative” teams, are highly ego-driven and eager to prove themselves superior, to the point of being borderline bullies. Many is the time that I’ve attempted to express myself in open forums only to be met with dismissal and derision, and as such I’ve learned simply not to attempt to participate in such situations.

    I’m much more comfortable raising my concerns in direct communication, either one-on-one or via email. That way if I say something that could potentially look foolish the audience is limited. What you’re pushing in this article is simply another example of how modern workplaces try to force openness on everyone, regardless of their individual comfort levels or communication, all in the name of “inclusiveness.”

    • 3coze

      Thanks for contributing your perspective to the conversation. It’s too bad that the meetings you have to attend are a waste of time. Unfortunately, that’s something I hear frequently.
      In my experience, if you’re seeing ego-driven behaviour, it’s usually because the person isn’t feeling heard or validated and therefore behaves more and more aggressively to feel valued. I’ve shared some techniques for validating people in other posts.
      What I’m pushing for everyone (regardless of their individual comfort levels) is the need to add value, to contribute, and to collaborate. I’d be interested to know the strategies you use to add value outside of meetings. I’d also love to hear what other people do that make you feel confident to participate–in hopes of spreading some strategies that help to draw out people who are less comfortable in meetings.
      Thanks again for chiming in.

      • Jonathon

        I know that some people in business consider meetings to be an open forum where ideas can be openly and honestly discussed, but in my experience that is rarely if ever the case. Instead, meetings are a circle of ridicule and judgement. The old quote that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open ones mouth and remove all doubt is never more true in a large gathering where multiple people are all trying to over talk and outshine each other. Because that’s what meetings really are, a place for the peacocks to strut around and for everyone else to stress about not saying something stupid, only to be induced to speak and then likely mocked for their “contribution.”

        This is why I only feel confident expressing my ideas in small groups with a specific focus on a matter which I’m well versed. In my organization we waste hours in endless “scrum ceremonies” where we discuss a litany of projects, most of which I’ll never be involved in, and have little understanding or context of. When I take on individual projects however then I do have investment and gain the necessary understanding. Frequently I find myself uncertain how to participate, and will pull in one or two others (other developers, QAs, product owners, ect.) In those situations the conversation is actually productive because we’re not just discussing abstract things that I might be working on, but subjects of real importance and about which I have something meaningful to contribute. And should I say something stupid or ignorant, the audience is much more limited, therefor making it an all around safer situation.

        Saying something like “everyone should speak in meetings” is as nieve as saying as “everyone should learn to code.” No, not everyone should, only those with the interest and knowledge to make real contributions should. This is not a one size fits all world, and if you really want to make your work environments more welcoming and inclusive you need to account for the fact that not everyone is comfortable leaving themselves open to ridicule because they feel pressured into speaking hen they have nothing to say.

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