How to Speak Up in MeetingsPublished August 8, 2018
Week after week, Mari sits in team meetings. She wants to say something, but can’t quite figure out how. She’s worried that she’ll step on someone else’s turf, slow down the process or come across as defensive. Plus, it’s hard to get a word in with George and Julie dominating conversation. By the time she musters up courage to say something, it feels like the conversation has moved on, so she doesn’t.
Saying what you mean—in ways that others can hear—can be hard, and especially in a group. Often there are plenty of voices already in the mix. We can’t quite figure out what we want to say, aren’t sure how others are going to react, and then of course, the time allotted for the meeting is up and we’ve all got to move onto the next item on our tightly packed calendars.
The absence of certain voices in the conversation means we miss important information.
Yet the absence of certain voices in the conversation means we miss important information, limit a group’s creativity and make decisions without key input. A 2010 study by researchers from MIT and Carnegie Mellon noticed that a kind of “general intelligence” exists for teams—some are simply smarter than others, and get better outcomes. They wondered why.
So they constructed teams of 2-5 people, who worked together to complete short tasks involving logical analysis, brainstorming, planning and moral reasoning. The teams that did better didn’t do better because the individuals on them were smarter, or more motivated or more extroverted. The teams that did better had more equal participation, and more ability to read others’ complex emotional states. 1
The ability to speak up matters. It is critical for collaboration and your team’s success. And it’s critical for your own career, job satisfaction and peace of mind.
So what helps?
There are three ways you can intentionally begin to join the conversation.
1) Share an observation and follow it with a question.
“I’ve had three clients mention to me that they wish we offered more follow-up. Have others heard this from their clients? I wonder whether we should start thinking about what we might offer?”
2) Define your role.
Worried that you’ll come across as disrespectful or disagreeable? Naming the role that you’re adopting helps others know what you’re doing. “I’m going to play devil’s advocate.” Or “I’m going to push you here.” Actively adopting a temporary role helps separate the move you’re making in the moment from the relationship as a whole.
3) Share the dilemma.
It can be easy to think, “If I say something, I’ll hold up the meeting.” Or, “It seems like the conversation has moved on.” And because of these reasons, we don’t speak up.
Instead, articulate those concerns so that the rest of the group knows where you’re coming from, what you’re wrestling with, and have a more complete picture of the dynamics in the group, on the call, and impacting the project. “I don’t want to hold up the process. At the same time, I’m worried that if we don’t consider the impact of this initiative on end users that it will come back to bite us in the future.” When we articulate our concerns, the dilemma becomes part of the meeting rather than a reason to abstain from it.
Now some people just won’t speak up in meetings unless asked, and even then, find it tricky. So if more equal participation is important, then we want to also be thinking about how to invite others into the conversation.
Here are three ways we can intentionally invite others to participate in our meetings.
We want to also be thinking about how to invite others into the conversation.
1) Ask them ahead of time.
Particularly for individuals who are junior or not as quick on their feet, having advanced notice about the role they will play during the meeting can make it easier to participate. Before the meeting, ask them, “Can you talk the group through the options you’ve identified?” This gives them a specific role to own and avoids them being caught off guard in the moment.
2) Invite them into the conversation.
If you notice that someone has been uncharacteristically quiet or noticeably silent, asking, “What would you add?” invites them into the conversation and assumes that they have something valuable to add. Or bring others into the conversation this way: “I’m noticing that the volunteers in the room are surprisingly quiet. What’s running through your minds?” Those running the meeting may be so focused on figuring out the next action item that they are missing key dynamics in the conversation.
It’s hard to speak up and be heard when it doesn’t seem like anyone is listening. Even if you initially disagree with what someone else is sharing, pause to make sure you are hearing them accurately before responding. “So it sounds like you are worried about whether we’ll make the timeline. Is that right?” Or “I can’t tell if you are worried about the current project, or are raising something more long term. Can you say more about that?” Check your understanding, before adding your own thoughts to the mix, or moving on in the conversation.
Meetings are a team sport. To get the most out of your time together, join the conversation, and make sure others do too.
1 Chicago: Woolley, Anita Williams, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone. “Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups.” science 330, no. 6004 (2010): 686-688.
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About the Author(s)
Elaine Lin Hering is a Partner with Triad Consulting Group, where she works with clients to diagnose challenges, design solutions and deliver programs to build management capacity in negotiations, influence and conflict management skills. Prior to joining Triad, Elaine taught negotiation at Monash Law School in Melbourne, Australia and was a senior consultant for Conflict Management Australaisa, helping them expand their practice into the region. Along with Sheila Heen, she is the co-author of the companion group discussion guide Thank God for the Feedback.
Sheila Heen has spent more than two decades teaching Negotiation at Harvard Law School, specializing in our most difficult conversations—where disagreements are strong, emotions run high and relationships become strained. Her firm, Triad Consulting, works with executive teams to strengthen their working relationships, work through tough conversations and make sound decisions together. Heen has applied her expertise across a diverse range of companies and cultures including Pixar, Hugo Boss, the NBA, the Federal Reserve Bank, AT&T, and many family businesses, as well as not-for-profits, the Singapore Supreme Court and the Obama White House. She has written two New York Times bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.