I’d just finished leading a workshop. The assembled group stared up at me. “So,” I said, “does anyone have any questions?”
Silence ensued. It lingered in the air until the workshop organizer took pity on me and raised his hand.
In the debrief after, I apologized that I hadn’t engaged his group. He assured me that people were interested, but he noted that his somewhat reserved crew would have responded better to a specific discussion question, or if I’d called specifically on one of the people I’d been talking with over breakfast. That would have gotten the conversation going. It would have prevented the silence that sucked the energy out of the room.
It’s true. In meetings since, I’ve observed that the presenter often ends with the “does anyone have any questions?” line. It seems natural. You want to open the floor for discussion, and you don’t always know what topics will intrigue the group. But there are three problems with this standard line of attack.
First, if the participants don’t know each other well, or if people are intimidated by someone in the room, you might wind up with the same silence I faced. This silence can be a real energy killer, even if the meeting has gone well so far.
Second, some people are more willing to speak up in groups than others. This may be because of shyness, or cultural factors, but whatever the reason, there’s an imperfect overlap between being willing to speak up in meetings and having interesting points to make. Indeed, people who make a point of asking questions sometimes have other agendas (such as drawing attention to themselves) besides wanting to know something.
And finally, being completely open-ended makes it easy to lose control of the discussion. In the worst-case scenario, people can hijack a situation to discuss topics that aren’t germane to other people in the room. A good facilitator needs to avoid this, and stopping it before it starts is easier than seizing control back.
Fortunately, there are better options, just like the workshop organizer told me. One is to start the discussion with a specific question–ideally one you truly need feedback on. People will jump in with other topics if they want, but this way you’ve set the direction.
Second, don’t be afraid to cold-call on people. Has someone been looking skeptical during parts of your talk? Has she been nodding? Go ahead and ask her what she thinks. Not only are you more likely to get input from people who don’t speak up in meetings, cold-calling has a spillover benefit. People will start to pay more attention. There will be a lot less under-the-table email checking. When everyone’s engaged, you wind up with a better meeting overall, discussion portion included.
For a funny take on more things you shouldn’t say in meetings, check on this video: