Today is your weekly staff meeting. And since you just read a blog about the importance of dialogue, you notice that your team members are just sitting around the table, not speaking up. But even though your employees are quiet, you can bet they have thoughts--lots of thoughts:

  • Some thoughts are negative: "Why do we waste an hour every week on this?"
  • Some are irrelevant: "I wonder how he gets his hair to stay like that."
  • But other thoughts--the most valuable ones--are the thoughts that could transform your business.

How can you encourage employees to share their thoughts in a way that will stimulate innovation and problem solving to help your organization succeed? Here are 5 effective techniques:

1. Make dialogue an objective for your team or group. If you're serious about creating an environment in which employees are encouraged to speak up, then openly declare that, and make it clear that dialogue is a priority. At first, team members may wonder what you mean (and how serious you are). So start by asking for team members' ideas about how your organization can change from focusing on one-way presentations to talking with each other to solve problems.

2. Foster a spirit of openness. This one's difficult because it's a little squishy, but here's what author Bruce L. Katcher (30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers) advises: "Ask for opinions and then listen carefully." If you listen more than you speak, says Katcher, it will increase the probability that your team members will bring new ideas. 

3. Share your personal perspectives and stories. Wait, didn't I just advocate listening more--which implies talking less? Pay attention because this is a subtle difference. When I talk to employees about what they need from leaders, they never say, "More financial PowerPoint slides, please!" But employees would like to hear leaders' personal perspectives. And stories of how you've dealt with challenges, solved problems and learned new things help open the floor to encourage employees to share their stories.

4. Encourage suggestions--and then make a point to recognize every suggestion and celebrate the ones that are implemented. Katcher gives a thumbs down to suggestion boxes because he says they actually discourage contributing ideas. But he writes that positive reinforcement works well. "When employees make suggestions, go out of your way to acknowledge the remarks." Continually thank employees for their ideas, and make sure to tell employees their suggestions were heard, appreciated and, whenever possible, acted upon.

5. Break out of the meeting box. Defy your team members' expectations of how the typical team meeting will unfold. In their book The Power Of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath recommend creating a "strategic surprise" that jars employees' thinking a bit and encourages them to act differently. For example:

  • Ask a question instead of presenting information. Brainstorm to solve a problem.
  • Take the meeting out of the meeting room. Give team members an assignment --find new ideas/products that we can apply to what we do--and take a field trip to a coffee shop, a mall a gym or a supermarket.
  • Make a poster. Gather old magazines, poster paper, glue sticks and markers. Break out team members into groups of two or three, and ask them to make a poster on a key topic--our objectives, a priority or an initiative.

As Daniel Yankelovich writes, Dialogue creates a dynamic in which colleagues "find it easy and natural to cooperate with one another" so they know "how to create the common ground on which successful cooperation depends."