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The case for more silence in meetings

June 17, 2019
Borderless Leadership

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There are approximately 55 million meetings a day in the United States. Although they often have many different purposes and goals, these meetings are typically conducted in the same way, time and time again. Namely, individuals gather together, virtually or face-to-face, to talk about a topic.

We often don’t realize it, but talk is actually a choice; simply one of many different meeting styles or communication methods a leader can select. While talking meetings have much merit — when planned well they can be efficient and offer a level of comfort in speaking in person — they can also be subject to a host of problems: one person dominating, others checking out and multitasking, side conversations, straying off course, and pressures to conform to the boss’s ideas.

The good news is that alternative approaches do exist and, depending on your task at hand, can work incredibly well. One such approach embraces silence. This technique may seem odd, but current research supports the benefits of holding a “silent meeting” as one way of better leveraging the ideas, perspectives, and insights of organizational talent. Leaders should add it to their toolbox in order to select the right meeting style for the job at hand. At the very least, trying new approaches will serve to keep meetings fresh, engaging, and interesting.

Why Silence Works
Let’s first turn to a classic 1985 experiment conducted by professors Garold Stasser and William Titus on the topic of information sharing. The duo created a scenario in which each attendee, prior to a meeting, was given information that pertained to the meeting task. Some information was common across all attendees, and some was unique to a particular person. If the unique information was pooled together, attendees would produce the optimal decision. However, without this unique information – when attendees relied on mutual knowledge only — their decisions would fall short.

To illustrate, let’s assume a three-person meeting (Gordon, Sasha, and Sandy) is being held to address a vexing customer problem. Gordon knows three pieces of relevant information, A, B, and C. Sasha knows A, B, and D. Sandy knows A, C, and E. Which pieces of information get discussed? The research shows that information A, B, and C are the most likely to emerge and be discussed, but D and E likely lay dormant and hidden despite being critical. The hidden, unshared knowledge results in compromised meeting performance and overall lower quality ideas and solutions. In fact, the superior decision was derived less than 20% of the time given this bias to only focus on shared information.

So why does this happen? When we present common knowledge, others reinforce it via social approval. Nods, supportive glances, and smiles are common reactions received when we present information that others share. Unique knowledge, on the other hand, can challenge conventional ideas, which can rock the boat leading to social disapproval. Attendees often hold back in meetings, waiting to hear what others say and what their boss might say out of fear of being perceived as difficult, out of touch, or off the mark. Silence can be a solution to this problem, allowing space for unique knowledge and novel ideas to emerge.

Let me illustrate one way this might play out consistent with the extensive research on the topic. Imagine a handful of people sitting around a table, mutually devising solutions to a problem via open discussion. In the next room, a handful of others gathered around a table independently generating solutions to the same dilemma while sitting in silence (e.g., recording ideas on index cards). After 30 minutes, the quantity and quality of the proposed solutions for both groups are evaluated. The participants who engaged in vocal discussion during the brainstorming session produced significantly fewer ideas. The ideas generated were also lower quality and less creative ideas than the silent group of participants. Further, additional research finds that these negative effects around talking in comparison to silence multiply as the meeting increases in size.

There are two explanations as to why the non-talking meeting condition resulted in greater quantity and higher quality solutions. For starters, the attendees in this group did not fear social humiliation or negative peer evaluation. As their ideas were written down as opposed to spoken out loud to the collective, they were able to brainstorm without the pressure of creating socially acceptable ideas. These positive effects are magnified when meeting attendees’ do this anonymously.

Second, silent meetings circumvent the negative effects of something called “production blocking.” In a conventional talking meeting, usually only one person can speak at a time. This creates a speaking cycle, where members of the group must take turns expressing ideas. Finding a window of opportunity can be challenging, with shy and introverted attendees prone to just bite their tongue rather than share ideas. Furthermore, an attendee may choose to table their contribution due to feeling that their idea is no longer relevant by the time they find the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Silence in meetings provides opportunity for all attendees to simultaneously express opinions and ideas.

How to Create Silent Meetings
For starters, silence is particularly well-suited for agenda items that require any type of brainstorming or ideation. The meeting leader should request quiet during the brainstorming to maintain the integrity of the process. Attendees’ ideas are independently generated. Unlike most meetings where individual contributions are readily apparent, there is often a level of anonymity in these approaches and it’s not necessary to include names or identifiers on what each person writes.

After the responses are gathered, leaders have a few choices with regard to what to do with the information collected. The leader/s could begin by sorting the responses into “piles” of conceptually similar ideas (i.e., clustering). Typically, a cluster can vary in size from anywhere from 1 to 20 ideas. This clustering process can take place at the meeting itself, or perhaps most efficiently, just before the next meeting. The leader/s then present the clusters to the group to map out which ones to discuss and in what order.

A second approach that leaders could try is implementing a voting process to eliminate unpopular clusters altogether. The leader may present the clusters to the group by posting them to the wall, a bulletin board, a Google doc, in an app, etc. Each meeting attendee can then vote for their preferred cluster(s). Votes for each of the clusters are tallied up, and those receiving the most support are explored via group discussion. This voting technique reduces the quantity of ideas, ultimately saving attendees’ time, in an inclusive and democratic fashion.

A third approach goes one step further with silence. Each idea or cluster is presented on poster paper and taped to the walls or desks (or again done in an app), typically spread out throughout the room to provide some level of privacy. Meeting attendees circle around the room with pens adding comments or expanding upon ideas. These comments or suggestions may vary, ranging from “not sure this is feasible,” to “here is an additional twist…” to “I love this idea.” Authors of the original idea or others can, but don’t have to, respond to feedback and critiques, as attendees continue to move about the room and engage in written communication. Basically, a discussion is occurring through writing, as comments accumulate and a text stream emerges. The process comes to an end when no substantial commentary is added to the postings (often 15-20 minutes). Overall, this technique is intriguing to participants, unique, interactive, inclusionary, engaging, and time effective.

Besides paper-and-pencil, non-talking techniques can easily be facilitated via existing and readily available apps on phones and computers. These apps can record attendee input easily and can also extend discussions beyond the meeting itself. Some helpful features include real-time anonymous voting, the rank ordering and categorizing of idea options, anonymous commenting, and the ability to download meeting content.

Finally, all of these silence-based approaches can even take place, asynchronously, before the physical meeting. The leader can collect the information a few days prior to the meeting and share what emerged at the meeting itself.

As meeting leaders, we must do what we can to capitalize on the critical, unique, and important ideas of our employees in an effective and efficient way. Ultimately, we are stewards of others’ time. So, seek feedback, and continuously check in with meeting attendees to learn, adapt, and grow. While we typically default to traditional approaches to meetings, silence-based approaches present additional options that research shows can yield better results. Leveraging independent brainstorming, the cluster technique, anonymous voting, and written communication will expand leaders’ toolboxes — ultimately making them more effective. While silence certainly shouldn’t replace talk entirely, there are times it may be useful. Silence can even be golden when it comes to promoting meeting success.

By Steven G. Rogelberg and Liana Kreamer

Source: HBR

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