Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Why women don't dare to speak in meetings, and what we can do about it - Part 2: Creating an inclusive meeting

me doing a "silent applause", a tool which comes in handy in very large meetings
It's basic psychology, really: when you're not active in meetings, you become sleepy. I learned this as a student and it's something I'm acutely aware of in my work as a teacher. If I talk at my students for 45 minutes, most of them will nod off. If I get them to discuss, they perk up. It's the same in meetings. In a good meeting, everyone feels comfortable participating, there are times of passivity (listening) and activity (speaking) for everyone.

Over the years, I've been able to watch and learn from a couple of really good meeting facilitators who've taught me how to manage group discussions so that everyone feels comfortable participating and gets an equal share of speaking time. Most of the time, in order to achieve this, all you need to do is make a few small adjustments. So, today's post is about what you can do to create an inclusive meeting environment if you're the one running a meeting. If you're thinking now: but I never run meetings, my boss does. Then bear with me, because

The boss doesn't run the meeting
Sound too anarchic? If you try it you'll see that it is really useful to have somebody in a meeting whose role is to manage speaking time, stay aware of group dynamics, and to ensure the meeting stays focused. The boss can do it, of course, but it might be better if they don't. Because bosses tend to ramble. Because they can.

Setting the scene
When I'm running a seminar or a meeting, I first of all make sure that the room is set up properly, ideally so that everyone can sit in a circle. This tends to be the norm for meetings, which is good. If it's not the case in your meeting, try and see if there's anything you can do about the way the room is set up.

Then, once everyone's sat down, I give everyone a big welcoming smile and I look around and make sure I can physically see everyone. I make sure I know everyone's name, and I try to address them by name throughout the meeting.


First of all, I introduce the agenda. Depending on who I'm working with and how contentious the discussion is likely to be, I may also introduce and clarify a number of ground rules before we start. For example:
1. emphasise the importance of listening: no interruptions. This particularly helps women participate, because, statistically, women suffer the most from interruptions, and usually don't speak again after being interrupted.
2. in larger meetings, raising your hand before you speak becomes obligatory. This helps avoid a situation where only the most confident people with the loudest voices are able to participate - and these will tend to be men.
3. Participants are asked to stick to the agenda.
4. if you're in agreement with something that is being said, instead of waiting for your turn to speak you can do a silent applause. A silent applause is when you raise both your palms up and wiggle them. This is a useful technique for very large meetings as it saves a lot of time and helps get a general sense of where people stand.

When you facilitate (or "chair") a meeting, try to be very aware of who speaks for how long and how often. I always take notes on who has raised their hand, and in which order. Bearing in mind that particularly women tend to speak less, you may even want to clock speaking time to ensure you stay objective when allocating speaking time. This way, you can make sure to ask those people who haven't spoken to voice their opinion, and allow somebody who hasn't spoken yet or very little to jump the queue when several people raise their hands to speak.

If no-one dares to speak
One of the challenges a facilitator may need to deal with is silence in meetings. I've got two recommendations for that:
1. It's really really important to wait (count to 5 in your head!) after you've announced an item on the agenda. Use this time to look around the room to solicit participation.
2. If you can't get a discussion going, use what teachers call the "snow-balling" technique. This means setting up small groups, for example "talk to the person sitting next to you", to discuss the issue. Warn everyone that one person of the group will have to report back to the whole group. Snowballing works really well because it builds on women's communication habits. Have you ever noticed how women will not say anything throughout an entire meeting, then the minute the meeting's over they're chatting away vigorously to the person next to them? This is because they feel more comfortable communicating in informal situations. This is why snowballing works so well, particularly for women and people who are afraid of speaking in public.

Throughout the meeting, I try to remember that my main role is to ensure the discussion stays inclusive so everyone feels comfortable participating. This includes making sure that everyone stays on topic and no-one monopolizes speaking time. This means that 1) I'm not allowed to monopolize speaking time either, and 2) I have to interrupt people who are speaking for too long in order to ask them to wrap up so we can move on the the next item on the agenda, or so other people who are waiting to speak get a chance to do so. I'm also in charge of time-keeping more generally, i.e. it's my responsibility to make sure the meeting doesn't overrun. Finally, my role also includes making sure we take regular breaks, particularly in longer meetings.

Quite a lot to juggle there, but practice makes perfect! And the dynamism this technique brings into meetings makes it totally worth it!

No comments:

Post a Comment