As any manager knows, every meeting is likely to attract a range of personalities. The two personalities posing the most risk to a successful meeting? The over-sharer and the stone-silent type.
“Both are common,” said John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, a risk management, insurance brokerage and human capital advisory company based in London. And, he said, managers fear these types may derail meetings.
Persuading the over-sharers to back off and the silent ones to participate will lead to a better, more balanced, more productive meeting.
First, Get the Back Story
Those who don’t speak at meetings may be true introverts, said Patti Fletcher, vice president of brand marketing for Workhuman, a social recognition and continuous performance management platform based in Dublin and Framingham, Mass. So they may need to be drawn out, gently. Some people who sit silently may feel ignored or marginalized, Bremen said, and need some private reassurance that their contributions are worthy.
The chatterboxes actually may not be aware of how much they talk, Fletcher said. Or, they may be nervous; so wound up that their nonstop talk comes from anxiety.
Tamping Down Over-Sharers
Go back to school. “The single most effective tactic I’ve found in running meetings is to ask people to raise their hands,” Bremen said. “It’s the single best antidote to over-sharing.” He said he’s seen the approach work at every level of meeting.
It not only tamps down the over-sharers but also encourages those who are usually silent to speak up. “Hand raising puts everybody on a level playing field,” Bremen said. And it establishes the manager as the person in charge.
What if people scoff at this idea, saying it’s for children? “I was a participant at such a meeting, where the over-sharer tried to shame the board chairman [who put the raised hands rule into place],” Bremen said. The board chairman stood his ground. As a result, everyone in the group had a chance to talk, the conversation was deeper than usual and people who had previously not talked shared their opinions. “The hand raising rule became commonplace,” Bremen said.
Consider a pre-meeting. Invite over-sharers to a brief one-on-one pre-meeting. If they have a chance to give you some ideas then, they may monopolize less at the group meeting—especially if you mention their ideas at the group meeting. You can also take the pre-meeting opportunity to remind them that not everyone is as verbal as they are, so remember to step back and let others talk. You can also assign them just one or two points to research and discuss at the meeting.
Don’t be so polite. “It’s OK to interrupt an interrupter,” Fletcher said, especially if he or she is derailing the meeting. You can do so diplomatically: “Henry, I really want to hear what you have to say, but I need Karen to finish her thoughts first.”
Set up secret signals. If an over-sharer continues despite these measures, it’s time for another pre-meeting and the ”secret signal” approach, said Stuart R. Levine, chairman and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates, a strategic consulting firm that focuses on leadership development, planning and governance based in Miami. His suggested script: “I know you have incredible passion, but we have an obligation to everyone around the table. I want you to watch me during the meeting. I will give a signal.” This can be whatever the two agree on—a slight raise of the hand, scratching the head, anything that will be seen as a sign to stop talking.
If that signal gets missed, Levine goes to a more direct approach: “Thanks for that. Let’s give someone else a chance now.” Still no silence? Levine then tries to be both direct and funny. “I look at the person, laugh and say, ‘You’re killing me.’ ” If someone isn’t comfortable saying that, he suggests using a phrase that works for them—maybe “Hey, time out.” The point is to communicate that you’ve had enough, but you’re not trying to embarrass them.
Coaxing the Silent Workers
Tip them off. A few days before the meeting, alert them that you’d like their input at the meeting on one specific topic. That will give the workers time to research, perhaps come back to you with preliminary ideas and not feel put on the spot at the meeting. Offer encouragement, Levine said, and explain why you alerted them in advance: “I want you to be prepared, and I want you to succeed.”
Draw them out gently at the meeting. Take advantage of any lull in conversation to draw out the silent workers. It can be as simple as calling them by name and saying, “You look like you are thinking hard. What’s on your mind?”
Accept that people contribute in different ways. If it doesn’t work to ask introverts before the meeting to share more during the meeting, then a manager might have to accept that people contribute in different ways. Ask the workers how they’re most comfortable contributing.
An introvert too reserved to talk at length at a meeting might be more comfortable, for instance, using a PowerPoint presentation to communicate her ideas.
Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.