Most office meetings have at least one thing in common: A lot of people speak, but we often leave feeling like little was resolved. Communication is key in the workplace, but when a group of people with various perspectives and levels of extraversion gets together, being mindful of how we speak — and listen — can benefit us all.
According to a new Harvard Business Review article, business meetings can actually benefit from more quiet. The authors, two organizational scientists from University of North Carolina, Charlotte, note that people tend to build on each other’s ideas in conversation — reinforcing one another through actions or words — rather than presenting their own ideas. This happens because people are biased toward agreement in a meeting, making them much less likely to pitch an off-the-wall idea. As a result, particularly vocal meetings can actually hinder creativity and communication.
Additionally, certain people are more prone to speaking up in meetings than others. Extroverts, for example, will naturally be the ones to talk most. “In a conventional talking meeting, usually only one person can speak at a time and members of the group must take turns expressing ideas,” explains Steven Rogelberg Ph.D. a professor of organizational science, management, and psychology at UNC Charlotte, who co-wrote the HBR article with Ph.D. candidate Liana Kreamer. This dynamic can lead to a phenomenon called production blocking, when one extroverted person’s ideas prevent the thought processes and ideas of others. In the end, many participants are left without giving their input.
With this in mind, how can we use silence to better communicate and boost your success at work? Rogelberg and Kreamer, the authors of the HBR article, suggest this four-step process to having a “silent meeting,” which can help amplify voices and increase creativity during a brainstorm.
1. Silently brainstorm
If your team is trying to come up with new ideas or solutions, a silent brainstorm — in which each person jots down ideas first — is the way to go. There are several benefits to generating ideas this way. First, the sense of anonymity increases the likelihood that employees will take risks in pitching imaginative ideas. Second, every single person in the room participates, never facing the stressors of “production blocking” — introverts, this is your time to shine.
2. Use clusters
Once the team is finished brainstorming, sort ideas into “clusters,” or piles of related topics. Some ideas may overlap or be nearly identical, so clustering increases efficiency while still maintaining the ability to let all voices be heard.
If, even after clustering, there are too many ideas to discuss, have your team participate in a silent vote. Ideas with the most support will be discussed in the meeting. Allowing for the entire team — rather than a few talkative individuals — to decide what to discuss empowers the group as a whole.
4. Silently give feedback
If voting isn’t your thing, consider this next step to silent brainstorming: Post each idea or cluster onto the walls and let people annotate each other’s thoughts. The comments should be direct feedback, whether that’s providing an opinion or further suggestions building off of that idea. This usually lasts for 15-20 minutes. By the end of this exercise, everyone will be on the same page, exploring the same ideas, silently.
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