Thanks to Susan Cain's book Quiet and the rise of introvert-dominated professions like software engineering, it's getting easier to find tips on getting introverts involved in meetings. These tips assume the introverts will have an opportunity to participate in the first place, however. Many teams struggle with just the opposite problem. A single team member blessed with an overabundant gift of gab can easily crush that opportunity.
At a workshop for small business owners, the CEO of a growing company asked,
"Elise, how do you keep meetings on track where there are non-stop-talkers in the room? It feels rude to constantly remind them they are using everyone's time - yet without that the meeting would only accomplish 50 percent of the goals."
Regardless of whether it's rude or not, it obviously isn't working when you have to remind someone more than once. When one person keeps dominating a meeting, it indicates that while the leader may believe the meeting would run smoothly without all this extra talk, that's not obvious to the person who feels the need to keep speaking.
The best way to deal with this problem is to prevent it in the first place. Groups that suffer from unbalanced participation in meetings should experiment with ways to structure the discussion that make it obvious that everyone will take turns talking.
Here are two simple ways high-performing teams change the meeting structure to put the gabbers and the introverts on equal footing.
1. Use a timed check-in to start the meeting.
The leadership team at begins team meetings with a check-in. Each person takes one minute to share what's top-of-mind for them at work, and one minute to share what's top-of-mind personally.Atlassian, the Australian software company,
Establishing an expectation that everyone will get equal airtime right up front is just one of the many benefits of this practice. It also helps each person clear--getting their biggest preoccupations off their chest so they can focus on the meeting--and it bonds team members as they learn more about each other.
2. Read detailed reports in silence like Amazon.
When teams at Amazon have a proposal to consider or reports to review, they put the details in writing and spend time reading these reports silently during their meetings.
When people present reports to the group using PowerPoint, everyone expects to sit quietly while one person does all the talking. By eliminating the presentations, teams at Amazon also establish a new norm, eliminating any expectation that it's ok for one person to dominate the discussion.
These are just two examples. If you haven't experienced anything like this before, it can be tempting to dismiss practices like these as overly constrained or contrived.
In my research into meetings at high-performing organizations, however, I found that they use specialized techniques like these all the time. When a team finds a structured approach that works, repetition and practice make sure it gets baked into "the way" they meet. For high-performance organizations, using specially designed meeting techniques is not awkward. It's a part of their culture.
Bonus: not only do techniques like these constrain the talkers; they also get the deep introverts engaged. With some preparation, you can design meetings that support the discussion you need to have and make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate.