You can’t read your meeting participants’ minds, but you can sure see their body language.
They aren’t speaking up, but it’s clear they have opinions.
When you ask, “Should we move forward with this idea?” a few say okay, most say nothing, many put on their best poker faces.
It’s time for a little honesty in your meetings. It’s time for you to help participants come clean with their real opinions.
Whether you are leading or just want to help out, here are three ways to draw out what meeting participants are thinking but not saying.
Ask each person for an opinion
It may be that people are holding back because that is the easiest thing to do. You can prevent this by asking each person for an opinion. If the group is not too large, simply go around the table and ask each person if he/she supports the idea and why or why not.
When the group is large, you may have to be more selective, calling on a few people. The danger, of course, is some people will act like you just poked them in the eye with a sharp stick.
To mitigate the risks of being viewed as a bully, I usually call on people whose body language tells me they do have an opinion. I might start off, “Jenny, it looks to me like you have an opinion on this.”
Sorry Jenny, you should not play poker. You’ve already spoke up, even if you didn’t say anything. She’ll likely know that she gave herself away, and not get too mad at you.
Your challenge is to not always call only on Jenny and her expressive friends. Otherwise, you’ll just encourage people to get better at checking their body language.
Sometimes I’ll ask a poker face participant, but will open with a different statement. “Ed, I can’t tell what you think about this. What are your reactions to the proposal?”
Force a contrary opinion
If you use the first suggestion and many of the first people you call on voice support for the idea, it makes it more difficult for the following speakers to share their opposition. They might be afraid to be naysayers. In this case, you’ll need to push hard for other possibilities.
Try this. “I don’t hear any opposition in the group, but am almost certain if we move forward with our recommendation, we will get some push back. We’ll be in a much better position if we anticipate those arguments. Let’s identify 2-3 plausible reasons someone might reject our recommendation.”
One of my favorite phases to use when there is a little too much like-mindedness (which I lifted from another consultant) is, “That’s a terrific answer. What’s another right answer.” Again, my goal is to draw out the diversity of opinions that I’m certain exist within the room.
Break them with silence
When I was a young facilitator, my teacher gave me two pieces of related advice:
- Don’t answer your own questions.
- Wait at least 10 seconds before you say anything else after you’ve asked a question.
To pull off this strategy, you need to ask the right kind of question. It’s got to be open-ended. Here are some examples:
- “What will happen if we forward this recommendation?”
- “What are the potential weaknesses in the proposal?”
- “If we do this, how will it affect your ability to do your job?”
Ask the question and then close your mouth. 10 seconds is a long time. The discomfort everyone feels will lead to someone breaking the silence. When they do, acknowledge the response, and then pivot to “What else?”
More silence. Another 10 seconds. Let the opinions flow.
Crank up the meeting honesty
Honesty in group discussions is critical to success. It’s also difficult to achieve. Silence usually doesn’t mean agreement or lack of opinion.
More often than not it means, “I’m afraid to speak up.” It’s your job to invite them and help them feel safe expressing their opinions.
What have you tried in your meetings to make them more real?