If you facilitate classes or meetings, eventually you encounter a group unwilling to engage. My first unsettled silence came from a team of librarians. While you could imagine they were preserving their hushed voices, what about their most endearing trait: a curious and helpful manner? Not a glimmer. This group wouldn't ask or answer questions. They wouldn’t offer a single example and they seemed determined not to try anything new.
Although at the time I wondered about underground instructions to stonewall or if I'd forgotten to brush my teeth, I suspected (and rightly so) that something would change if I persevered. Out poured a thread of techniques dropped into my head by participation pixies, no doubt realizing I was about to fall over from exhaustion. I think I'd already tried tap dancing. Literally.
It was a lone librarian who stood up that turned the tide in that group. It wasn't one thing, rather an ever-present commitment to help the group find their way, which transformed our time and reestablished my hope.
When asked recently how to coax participants to participate, I summoned memories from the librarians and several other long loud silences I've heard since. I suggested the facilitator focus on both the material to be covered, as well as the group dynamics, openly asking everyone to share responsibility for success.
Then I offered these tips.
Introduce how learning happens
Remind everyone they benefit personally from participating. If you're uncomfortable with a direct approach, sneak in the information by saying you recently read a useful article on how to learn more.
Learning is a three-step practice: first you take something in, next you make it your own by processing it, and then you reflect. If you skip any step you're unlikely to truly learn. Listening, even if you take notes, only serves as step one.
You do the second step, processing (making it your own) most effectively when you interact. You hear our own voice, challenge your ideas with questions, or simply hear someone else's review. Internalizing often requires externalizing. The third step, reflection (considering what this means to you), is universally more effective with multiple perspectives.
If you usually begin discussions asking a general question such as, "What questions do you have?" take another path. Questions like this overwhelm people who don't have confidence in what they know and thereby can't pinpoint what they don't know or what they should ask. If you suspect a topic eluded people, ask them to share one thing they understood and ask one question they envision someone else would ask if they were facilitating the discussion. If you think they did grasp the materials, turn the tables: "If you have no questions, let me give you the one I hear most often. What's your guess?"
Use big open questions
When you ask open-ended questions with many right answers you encourage people to speak up. Something about big questions reminds us of a time when we had the courage to ask parents and teachers "Why" about everything. You convey tacitly, "This is a safe place where people can ask anything. I may not have an answer, but I'm willing to find it with you." Focus some questions on topics where people have insider information others would benefit from and they begin to see how they can help one another along. If you only ask questions with a single correct answer some will fear they'll get it wrong.
Unless you find total silence, you'll likely respond to a few words. Saying things like, "Right" or "Yes" can lead people who didn't speak up to wonder if they had answered would you have said, "Wrong" or "No." A question from a participant usually warrants, "Great question," said in an encouraging voice. Greet answers which move discussion along with enthusiastic kudos. Welcome partially correct answers with, "You're on the right track" or "That's close and…" Bolster people who are stuck with a "That's okay, who can help us out?" Create an environment where people know you value their participation and won't judge them as smart or dumb. I don't suggest creating a contrived environment where you encourage shallow responses just to hear another voice; rather genuinely show that you appreciate learning from others.
Make cold calls
A popular college classroom technique is to call on someone who hasn't volunteered to answer the question. Although this approach increases anxiety, you get diverse responses and show people you're serious about hearing from everyone. Preface your tactic by saying, "If people don't respond to questions, I'll simply call on you." Then summon different people, gracefully helping those who answer awkwardly or way off base. One variation is to ask several people a question, then give them five minutes to frame a response while you talk about something else. If you're certain someone could answer but hasn't, another variation is to ask the group who they think knows the answer. Election from one's peers often feels less frightening than being called out by a facilitator.
Although behaviorism is my least favorite approach to learning, anti-behaviorist Alfie Kohn reminded me one time it has a place is when you're not looking for long-term change. In other words, if you offer a healthy snack or an inexpensive desktop trinket to people who speak up, you won't help them participate in the next class (in fact, without a token they may actually contribute less), but it will encourage them now.
Create small teams
Some people prefer talking with only one or two others. Split the group into pairs or triads for a short time with a topic to dialog. When team time ends have everyone report on something new they learned or have them just savor their interaction and move on. Once people can talk with another person they might be willing to talk in the larger group too. If not, continue to use small group conversation throughout your time.
Various cultures (both organizational and regional) look down on speaking up. If you don't have an ongoing relationship with the group, ask whoever brought you in if there are politics or traditions in the room you should know about. Perhaps the discomfort people feel with someone else in the room overwhelms any urge to participate. This can happen when the group represents various authority or influence levels. Those with seniority may feel awkward alongside junior staff, and the frontline folks may be wary speaking with, or in front of, their chiefs.
Make environmental adjustments
Do you expect people to rev up before the coffee kicks in, or after a meal? Don't. Groups seem most chatty late morning, late afternoon and later in the evening. If you're facilitating a session which runs half-day or full-day, organize your topics and agenda so that early on you establish a strong information base and then as the day wears on people can contribute with comments and clarifications. If questions and answers feel too work-like, get people talking with a game or an icebreaker that builds trust. Encourage people to move around, have side conversations, and get comfortable in the setting.
Prevail with charm
"Don't be shy, p-l-e-a-s-e say something. Come on. Anyone?" delivered with passion calls attention to the situation and encourages people to overcome trepidation out of interest to not let you down. Repeating, "Don't be shy" will likely get you at least a few comebacks. If even that doesn't get the conversation rolling ask for small movement. "Nod your head to let me know you're with me," as you demonstrate by bobbing your head. The group will likely follow suit although probably a bit self-consciously. Encouraging, pushing, and cajoling may need to be continued for a while.
After using one or many of these techniques (sometimes in succession) the group usually yields, then chimes in. I recall a few times, including that with the librarians, when the pendulum swung completely and by the end of our time the group buzzed. At first the almost chaotic atmosphere felt uncomfortable too, but it served as dramatic contrast to the listlessness or defiance we began with.
And when nothing works? Remind everyone you're there as a facilitator of the knowledge in the room, not a lecturer or the sage on the stage, and you'll sit in silence until someone else contributes. Imagine the peace and quite which might ensue.