Most groups include a few dominating voices, some folks who talk a bit, and a larger group of quiet people that rarely speak up. As a result, the decisions these teams make in meetings tend to reflect what the loudest people want. Any insights the quiet folks might share never come out.

Why does this happen?  It could be one of many things. Power dynamics, personality styles, different ways of processing information, ingrained habits-teams might have one or all of these going on in any given meeting. 

That's why meeting-savvy leaders regularly break out this counterintuitive meeting technique: total silence. 

You can use silence to overcome these common meeting challenges:

  • Dominating voices and groupthink: the silence gives everyone time to form their own ideas before hearing from others.
  • Inattention: a moment of silence alerts everyone that something's going on and they need to tune in.
  • Reticence: a silent pause after asking a question lets people know that you actually expect an answer.
  • Processing Speed Differences: a moment of silence gives everyone time to consider new information before they have to respond to it.  

 Here are three meeting techniques teams use that make use of silence.

Silent Brainstorming 

Teams use brainstorming to quickly create a whole bunch of new ideas.

In traditional brainstorming, the leader asks a question and then everyone calls out answers. This forces the group to consider just one idea at a time and naturally favors the louder, faster thinkers. Each idea is influenced by the ideas that have been shared before, reducing novelty. Finally, the number of ideas created using this approach is typically low; there's just not enough time for everyone to speak every idea they might have.

Silent brainstorming results in far more ideas in less time. Here's how it works.

Ask everyone to write their ideas individually in silence before sharing them with the group. They can write on sticky notes, a note pad, or an electronic document; this technique works just fine for both remote and in-person meetings. Then, ask everyone to share one idea they've written at a time, going around the room until all the ideas are out there. 

In a recent workshop, we experimented with using a traditional brainstorming and then a silent brainstorming technique for ten minutes each. The traditional brainstorm resulted in 14 ideas. The silent technique produced 87 ideas (and a lot more energy) in the same amount of time. 

Silent Check-Ins 

Science has shown the benefits of silent reflection many times over. Meditation is said to help with focus, stress reduction, pain tolerance, learning, anger management, and more. 

It's no wonder, then, that more and more business teams have adopted some form of silent contemplation into their meetings. Teams from Sonoma Valley vineyards to elite military task forces start their regular team meetings with one or more minutes of silence. 

Some teams use scripted meditation techniques. Others simply put down their technology and sit together quietly. During those silent minutes, they let go of whatever they were working on before and focus in on the purpose for their gathering. 

Ringing the Bell

In his book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux shares a practice that teams at Heiligenfeld, a group of medical clinics and rehabilitation centers in Germany, use to open their meetings. 

Teams at Heiligenfeld know that meetings often bring out our need our desires to be right and impress others. It's part of what it means to be human in a group, provoking even the most enlightened leaders to react out of fear or ego rather than the greater good.  

That's why every meeting room at Heiligenfeld includes a bell. At the start of the meeting, one team member volunteers to be the person who will ring the bell. Any time that person feels that the conversation is getting out of hand-rather than staying focused on getting the to best result for the group-they ring the bell. 

Once they hear the bell, everyone remains silent until the sound stops. During the silence, each person considers why the bell rang and what they should do to get the conversation back on track. 

These are just a few examples. Whenever you design moments of silence into your meeting, you create the space for more people to participate in more productive ways.

If your team struggles with uneven participation and problems with dominance in meetings, consider using more silence. You'll be surprised to discover just how transformative those shared moments of quiet can be.

Published on: Jan 20, 2020
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