Part of creating an effective group conversation is establishing broad participation. Most people have something to add–if you invite them to speak. Each person has a unique set of perspectives, experiences, and interests, but if they don’t share them, you miss out on the value they could add. People get value from attending meetings and listening to the discussions, but they can’t contribute if they don’t speak. Many people will not speak if you leave it completely up to them.
But, if you don’t get everyone included in the conversation, someone might leave feeling he or she had something to add, but no one was interested in hearing it.
One of the most valuable–and most absent–ways to change the pattern of not speaking is by calling on people and inviting them into the conversation. The key word is invite. It creates a perspective of inclusion and gentleness. When you think of inviting someone to speak, your tone of voice will reflect that your intention is to be inviting, not commanding. You’re not putting people on the spot but inviting them into the conversation because you want to hear what they have to say.
Inviting people to speak provides a number of advantages. Doing so:
- Changes the dynamic of the group’s normal process
- Adds new thinking and perspectives
- Improves everyone’s experience of being in the group
- Changes how people listen and pay attention
- Indirectly trains others to speak more or speak less
- Demonstrates that the conversation is being deliberately managed
- Reduces the tendency to multitask
- Increases alignment with group decisions
Those who lead meetings choose not to call on people for a variety of reasons. Some argue it creates an environment that can feel unsafe or that it makes some people so uncomfortable they dread coming to your meetings. While this may be true for an isolated few, it’s not for most.
If you say up front that you plan to manage the conversation by asking people to speak, you will find it easier to do so. Be sure to let people know that if they don’t have anything to add, they can say so—you are simply inviting them to add to the conversation.
I am not talking about random, arbitrary, pull-someone’s-name-out- of-the-hat calling on people. I am talking about thoughtfully and deliberately calling on individuals when the conversation would be enhanced by their contributions.
There are other reasons you might invite certain people into the conversation to add to the topic at hand. Maybe you have people with organizational history who can tell you something you should be aware of so you don’t repeat mistakes made in the past. Maybe some veteran employees tend not to get into the conversation, but they would be good people to check with to see if they have anything to add.
Call on people to enrich the conversation, and only if you authentically want to hear their views on a topic. Never call on people to put them on the spot. For example, if you notice they are multitasking, do not call on them to get their attention. You always want people to feel good about being called upon to share their views.
Your intention in calling on people might be to break up the normal ways they participate. If you don’t call on people, you are likely to see the same pattern in every meeting. Mary speaks first, Susan speaks second, John speaks third, Renee always waits till the end of the topic and then she joins in. Randy and Richard never speak. The patterns repeat time after time, influencing how people participate, whether they participate, and sometimes overly influencing the topic or outcome.
If you are deliberate about changing the pattern from time to time or based on the agenda topic, it will most likely improve the quality of your conversation and the experience of the people attending the meetings.
Excerpted from Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations by Paul Axtell. Copyright 2015 by Paul Axtell. Reprinted with permission of Jackson Creek Press.
—Paul Axtell has more than 35 years of experience as a personal effectiveness consultant and corporate trainer. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversation.