When I’m preparing to facilitate a session, I always conduct individual interviews with the members of the team I’ll be working with. The last question I ask is, “what advice would you give me?” The most common response is, “get the quiet people to participate.” This is good advice. Research shows that teams with balanced participation do better on a variety of performance outcomes. But how do you encourage the quiet folks to engage? Here are a few thoughts.
Let them prepare
Rule #1 when it comes to getting value from the quiet people on your team is to let them prepare. While the extroverts are happy to share an idea as it’s forming, many introverts prefer to work the idea in their heads until it’s of a quality they’re happy with. The issue arises when we put an issue on the table in a meeting so that they aren’t ready to share their ideas until after the meeting has finished.
Instead, prepare a good primer document to allow quiet folks to be prepared in advance. Include both the relevant content and also the questions that you’ll ask in the meeting. That way, they can think things through and be ready when your questions are asked.
Give them something to own
Many quiet people are quiet because they don’t think they have anything valuable to add. One way to dispel that falsehood is to give the person something to own. You can assign a particular stakeholder group, “I’d like you to speak on behalf of our enterprise customers today. As everyone gets going on what we want to do, I need you to interject with what our biggest customers would think.” [Thanks to Larry Kunz for his insight that even that language might be daunting. Larry recommends, “I’ll be pausing to ask you…”]
Alternatively, you can assign a specific agenda item or a role that you’d like the quiet person to play. This will give them something unique to contribute to the conversation. Be sure to share this responsibility in advance; springing it on a quiet person wouldn’t allow them to give it their best.
Settle the noisy, fast people
Sometimes the less assertive people just struggle to get a word in edgewise. Rather than placing all the burden on the quiet people to speak up, try encouraging the noisy people to simmer down a little. If there are people on the team who tend to dominate the discussion, give them a heads up that you’d like them to contribute a little less to make room for others. Inform the noisy folks that you’re going to be actively managing participation and that you might ask them to hold their points until after others have spoken.
Invite them in
Even if you’ve provided a good primer, assigned them a role, and toned down the talkative people, you still might find your quiet types staring at you over dead air. That’s when you need to signal that it’s time to participate. Ask a gentle question to invite the person into the conversation. Don’t make it accusatory, such as, “John, you’re quiet! What are you thinking?” Instead, try something like, “John, I know you’ve been thinking about how our enterprise customers would react to this. How is our conversation thus far sounding through that lens?”
Allow small-group discussion
If preparation still isn’t yielding the level of participation you’re hoping for from your quiet team members, shake up your meeting routine to include a couple of spots for discussion in pairs or small groups. Although it’s still possible for one person to stay silent, it’s much less likely in dyads than in a larger group. As long as the quiet person is participating actively in the dyad, it’s ok if she isn’t the one to share the ideas back with the group. At least you know you’ve extracted some of the value that is usually lost.
Ask the meaning of their silence
Another technique that I’ve found particularly helpful, especially in contentious discussions, is to ask how to interpret a quiet person’s silence. Although the person might not be saying anything, you’re probably making assumptions about what he’s thinking. Those assumptions can range from, “he’s not saying anything, that means he’s in agreement,” all the way to, “he’s not saying anything, I think he’s angry about this.”
Unfortunately, you have no idea what a person is thinking if you don’t ask. Try, “this is a really important and difficult conversation. Terri, I need to know where you’re at on this one.” I find that this usually evokes a thoughtful and valuable perspective. You might also add, “I’m so glad you said that. That’s the stuff we need to hear from you.”
Provide feedback on their value
I have seen cases where none of these techniques creates a level of participation that even comes close to balanced. When that happens, it’s important to provide feedback about the value you’re getting (or not getting) from the quiet team member. Be clear about your expectations and open to how you can help facilitate a greater contribution to the team.
Susan Cain did a great service with her TED talk and book about Quiet people. It’s important to understand the different ways that people think and contribute. These techniques will help you draw out the quieter people on your team. After that, it’s their responsibility to step up. Not contributing is not an option.