Your next meeting should be silent
Here’s how to change the conversation
Meetings can be completely sidelined in the first 30 seconds. There’s one in every group: the guy who opens his mouth first. (and it’s likely a guy…sorry, guys)
What’s the big deal? Someone has to break the ice, right?
The deal is this: The first speaker sets the tone for the rest of the conversation, anchoring the entire conversation.
After the first speaker sets the tone, the second speaker builds a thread from that first turn, whether they agree with the first speaker or oppose them. Before you know it, the rest of the conversation is a response to that first comment.
I call this conversational cascade “first speaker syndrome.”
Having someone speak first feels like a necessary evil, especially if we’re going to fill up an hour’s worth of conversation in a meeting. But what does first speaker syndrome actually do?
The Impact of First Speaker Syndrome
→ People respond instead of think.
When someone shares their first thoughts and opinions on a particular idea, we frame what we say next based on a response to what the first person said. We agree or we don’t. We offer a “Yes and…” or a “No, but…”
And even if we suggest a new thought altogether, that first comment has still influenced our thinking and everyone else’s. There’s no longer any opportunity to have our first thoughts on the issue, unaffected by the first speaker.
→ We run with tangents.
One person’s opinion can easily (and quickly) send us off into a tangent or in a certain direction. What about all the other good ideas that are suddenly pushed off the table to explore the first person’s tangent? First Speaker Syndrome doesn’t always let us explore the best ideas, just the ones that were brought up first.
→ Some people don’t speak at all.
I’m personally on a mission to protect the introverts from the extroverts and the extroverts from themselves. It’s true…Extroverts don’t often even realize the impact of their habit of thinking out loud. ( I hope…)
Speaking up in a meeting can be hard. Extroverts have had more practice. Introverts are often more reserved, calculating their thoughts while the discussion rages on. The problem is: there’s no diversity of thought if we’re always listening to the people who are always talking.
→ Our Fast Thoughts Stop Us From Listening
We think too fast. Researchers have clocked inner speech at a pace of 4,000 words per minute — which is about 10 times faster than verbal speech. That kind of inner speed means that most of us can’t possibly be listening to everything someone else is saying…we’re already thinking about what we could say next.
This problem isn’t just a once-a-year issue. It happens in meetings every day.
At work alone, some estimates figure that the average worker spends about five hours in meetings each week. For managers, that number rises to 12 hours. In the public sector, it’s 14 hours. Most of these hours are reported to be “ineffective” at delivering solid outcomes. That’s a huge financial loss in productivity. That loss could be as much as 37 billion (with a B!) according to one study. And that’s just official meetings.
I think we can agree, traditional meetings like these don’t actually provide space for productive conversations. So, what can be done? How can we design our conversations to be more effective?
I wrote a book about conversations and how we can (and already do) design them — even our internal conversations. Some people feel like “conversations” is a squishy word and that “design” excludes people. I say: design belongs to everyone now. And I believe that we are all designers of our conversations.
What you’re reading is based on ideas and concepts from that book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter. Read on or click that link to get free chapters of the book.
We need time to think about what we think
What if there was a better way to meet? What if we didn’t talk at all? What if the meeting was actually…silent?
A silent meeting isn’t getting everyone in a conference room to stare at each other in awkward silence for an hour. It looks more like reading, writing, thinking, and processing ideas and solutions internally before sharing them with a group. We’re slowing down our inner dialogue and thinking our own thoughts and opinions before anyone has the chance to tell us what they think.
If we’re not thinking in meetings and we’re in meetings all the time…when DO we think?
Silent meetings most often start with everyone reading a shared document silently (surprise surprise), making notes of their thoughts as they go. The meeting is facilitated by someone who leads the group through a series of questions and eventually helps moderate a conversation between the group, working towards whatever level of consensus is needed… (This conversation can be silent too.)
This silence, paradoxically, allows us all the same amount of time to speak our mind….except we’re doing it in our heads first, and on a shared canvas second. Everyone’s voice can be heard equally in this way.
The impact of leading meetings in this way speaks for itself (pun intended and apologized for). A silent meeting concludes with a diverse list of thoughts, ideas, and solutions for the topic at hand, without anyone dominating or feeling excluded.
Participants are more likely to feel like their expertise is utilized and their time was productively spent.
In a traditional meeting, the end results look more like an exasperated speaker, and attendees who have been checking their watch waiting to get back to the pile of work at their desk. Some participants may have not spoken or voiced an opinion at all while others, the “talkers” may have hijacked most of the conversation.
It might seem like a big leap to go from traditional, loud meetings to a 60 minute silent meeting. And if you’re doing it for the first time, it’s sure to make the attendees feel a bit uncomfortable. There’s no rule that you have to be silent the entire meeting. If you and your team want to give it a spin…
Try this Silent Meeting Agenda
→ A silent table read for the first 15 minutes on Google Docs
→ Allow each person has time to gather and record their own thoughts. (5 minutes)
→ Capture those reflections in a shared document, and allow everyone to read those over. (another 5 minutes) (Mural is a great option to make this process more interactive, even if you’re in person)
→ Only then allow people to have an out-loud conversation as normal. (your last 20 or so minutes)
Try a silent meeting if you want meetings that don’t suck. (And provide real results.)
Learn more about how to run better meetings, host better conversations and new patterns for communicating, check out my book. Learn more and pre-order Good Talk: How To Design Conversations That Matter.