Use Silence to Generate Better Discussions

One of your most important jobs as a leader is to make sure that everyone in your team has the opportunity to contribute—but too often, meetings and brainstorming sessions are dominated by the same voices. To encourage more people to join the conversation, one of our favorite techniques is alternating rounds of silent, independent writing with open discussion. It’s so simple it seems obvious, and yet, every time we’ve done this at a client offsite, participants have thanked us for introducing this type of facilitation. 

Alternating between writing and discussion rounds has three key benefits:

  • It avoids groupthink. Everyone has a chance to write down their thoughts before they’re influenced by others. It’s entirely possible that during the sharing round, you’ll discover that most people’s thoughts have naturally concentrated around a few key points, but writing it down first keeps people honest.  
  • It levels the playing field. Meetings are biased towards extroverts, senior leaders, quick talkers—people who are good at performing in front of others. If you don’t create space for introverts, more junior members of the team, and people who just need a little time to think before sharing, you’ll miss out on great ideas. 
  • It helps people feel heard. People crave acknowledgment. They want others to listen to their opinions and feel that their expertise is valued. Even if their contribution isn’t ultimately selected, participants feel more at peace since they’ve had their say.  

To facilitate rounds at your next meeting, hand out Post-It notes and markers to participants and try the following:

  1. Explain the goal of the meeting. What is the desired outcome of this activity? What problems are you trying to solve?
  2. Explain the process: Write first, then talk. Tell the team that you’ll be asking them a series of questions for discussion. First, they’ll individually write down their thoughts about the question in silence. Then there will be a round in which they share their ideas with the team. The purpose of these rounds is to change the dynamic so that everyone has a chance to be heard.
  3. Ask the first question. Ask them to write down their answers in silence, and to hold on to their post-it notes until the end of the round. (The “silent” part might require a few gentle reminders, as people are used to talking in meetings.) Give them two or three minutes to write; complex questions may need a few minutes longer.
  4. Ask individuals to share. Starting at one end of the table, have each person read one of their Post-It notes and hand it to the facilitator. The facilitator should then ask anyone who has a similar answer to also pass their Post-It notes to the facilitator, who will then group the related notes where everyone can see them. Move on to the next person until you have shared all the Post-Its.
  5. Check in to make sure everyone is clear on the process. Answer any questions and praise people for participating in the process—especially those who are usually quiet in meetings! Then continue with your remaining questions.

If you need a handy reminder during meetings, we’ve put together a cheat sheet that you can print out. We’ve even included a few sample questions to get the conversation (and the silent writing!) started. 

 
 

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