How to Get the Quiet Ones to Engage

How can I get the quiet people in my meetings to speak up? Especially since we’ve gone remote, it feels like maybe a third of the participants in a retrospective or other meetings I facilitate are really engaging.

Finish bannerWe hear this sort of thing from ScrumMasters, leaders, and facilitators all the time. It’s really hard to get a whole group engaged, and people with a disposition towards quietness are particularly hard to include well.

It’s tempting to just work with the people who seem to want to participate. “The others can speak up if they want to,” you might think. But the reflective and conscientious facilitator knows something is lost when only some of your meeting participants engage. So, what do you do?

First, consider why people may not be engaging. Here are a few reasons:

  1. They don’t feel safe. Speaking up feels too risky, like it might have negative consequences.
  2. They’re just disengaged. They don’t care about the topic or the question you’ve asked.
  3. They like to get their thoughts together before speaking. Many common facilitation techniques are optimized for thinking out loud, and not everyone likes to work this way.
  4. They’re engaged but don’t feel like they have anything to add. Some people will readily share their opinion, even if someone else has already said essentially the same thing. Others hold back if anything remotely similar has already been said.
  5. Finally, sometimes it’s just what we might call role inertia—”this is what I do in meetings.”

2 Things to Pay Attention to

You may not know the particular reasons a specific person doesn’t engage. But we can address most of them with careful meeting design. We should pay attention to two things: increasing safety and increasing engagement.

Increasing Safety

The need to increase safety can mean a range of things.

A deliberate start. At one end, there’s just the normal level of awkwardness with speaking up for the first time in a meeting. We can address that by deliberately starting with a low-risk question or activity. This ensures that everyone has said something in the first few minutes of a meeting. That might mean a light icebreaker like, “Would you rather be able to run at 100 mph or fly at 5 mph?” or a safe question connecting people to the meeting topic.

Safety checks (and act on results). At the other end, there’s a genuine fear that saying something could have real negative consequences like getting in trouble or causing a conflict. Address this by doing a safety check and acting on the results. In our Humanizing Work Show episode “Should Managers Be In Retrospectives?”, Peter describes using a safety check to discover a team needed their manager to leave their retrospective to be able discuss a tricky topic. In other cases, a safety check reveals you may need to scale back your goals for the meeting to something more achievable.

Increasing Engagement

To increase engagement, use a range of facilitation techniques that leverage what we know about human motivation and that accommodate various interaction styles (e.g. those who like to think before talking, as mentioned above).

Connect to purpose in an authentic way. Tell a story about why this topic is meaningful to you or why it matters for the group.

Be playful. For example, when we’re teaching our approach to product vision, we start by inviting participants to add an icon, emoji, or (work safe) photo to a Miro board that expresses what it felt like to write a vision statement in the past. That creates a safe and playful way to acknowledge people have very mixed feelings about vision statements. After just two minutes, the group is much more engaged in learning a better way to write a vision.

Highlight potential. What could we accomplish if we use this meeting well? What’s possible? Why does it matter?

Make people feel heard. Sometimes, this simply means doing things that scale well like asking a question in the Zoom chat for everyone to answer at once. Other times it can mean asking questions that invite skepticism or alternative perspectives. For example, in our Agile for Teams workshop, we love inviting the group to brainstorm “all the reasons why this won’t work here.” The people who held back, thinking their perspective wasn’t welcome realize they have an important role to play in surfacing and helping to address potential impediments.

Phrase questions carefully. Avoid questions with an obvious right answer. They’re, paradoxically, quite high-risk to answer out loud. Ask questions that clearly require an answer—“What questions do you have?” rather than, “Any questions?”

Deliberately accommodate more preferences. Instead of always doing out-loud brainstorming, sometimes give people a chance to write first and then share. This makes space for the introspective types and slows down the people who like to think out loud, keeping them from monopolizing or anchoring the conversation. You can even make the variety of preferences more visible to the group to build their empathy for each other. For example, we’ve had participants drop sticky notes with their name along continuums like:

  • I like to prepare ——— I like to improvise
  • I get more energy alone ——— I get more energy with others
  • I’m a morning person ——— I’m a night owl
  • I’m the healthy skeptic ——— I’m the optimist
  • I think in words ——— I think in pictures

Those of us who become facilitators are often eager meeting participants, happy to engage and participate, even on difficult topics. So, unless we’re deliberate about it, we can end up designing meetings optimized for people just like us. Next time you plan a meeting, intentionally design your meeting to increase safety and engagement. You may find those quiet people speaking up in a new way.

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