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‘How Do I Get People to Talk in Meetings?’

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Dear Boss,

I’m a new manager at a small nonprofit I’ve worked at for about two years. My role recently expanded to include managing a small team of two full-time staff and an intern, who perform duties that were unfamiliar to me before. Overall, the transition has gone well and I have good individual relationships with each person. However, I am really struggling with our new every-other-week team meetings. I feel like I’m the only person talking, and staff facial expressions and body language make me feel like they hate being there. It’s stressful for me and in some ways I find it quite rude.

I think I’m following good meeting etiquette — I keep the meetings short, always have a printed agenda, ask for feedback about everything, and one of the staff takes notes. But when I ask for feedback, suggestions, or other business, they just stare at me. These staff/interns are all fairly reserved and young (oldest is 23) and I worry that because I’m outspoken and their boss, they take everything I suggest as law, when I want discussion and feedback.

It’s worth noting that prior to the org restructure, this team was largely unsupervised and underdeveloped. They never had one-on-one supervisions, team meetings, learning goals, or reporting requirements, all of which we now have — so a lot of things may feel new and unfamiliar. Even now, due to the nature of their roles, they still work fairly independently on a daily basis. I feel like they don’t understand the general point of having team meetings and are not used to continuous improvement processes, etc.

I’m not sure how to get them comfortable and engaged. Icebreakers feel cheesy in meetings that are often just three people. What can I do?

Well, first, are you sure you need these meetings?

Regular team meetings are one of those things that managers often do because they think they’re supposed to, even if they’re not really accomplishing all that much. It’s not that team meetings can’t be useful or necessary — they definitely can be both — but there are plenty of times people carry on with them even though they’re not.

So first I’d take a rigorous look at what your goals for these meetings are, and whether a group meeting is the best way to accomplish them. Are you delivering information that can’t be delivered more efficiently through email or another medium? (Meetings that are one-way info delivery often aren’t a good use of time, unless you’re expecting a lot of questions.) Are you sharing updates? Seeking discussion and input on your team’s work? Brainstorming solutions to problems? Or are you just meeting because it feels like something you’re supposed to do?

If the purpose is primarily for you to share information with your staff members or for them to share updates on their work with each other, it might not matter that there’s not a whole lot of discussion going on beyond that. If that’s the case, though, you might get less weird body language and blank stares if you own that. If people know the meetings are intended to be a quick rundown of new info they just need to be aware of, and that they don’t have to struggle to come up with something else to add, everyone might feel better about attending and less like they’re being put on the spot.

But if the purpose really is to get input and generate discussion, then you’ve got to approach it differently. In that case, I’d do four things:

* First, name the problem: be explicit with people about what you’d like them to do differently and why, and ask what they think about that. For example, you could say, “We have these meetings so that we can discuss new ideas, problem-solve, and generally brainstorm how we can do our work better. You each have a perspective on your work that I don’t have, which is why I want your input. But these meetings generally end up with only me talking, and there’s not much point to meeting in that case. I’m interested in hearing from each of you how these meetings are and aren’t working for you, what you see as the obstacles to participating more, and whether there’s something you’d find more useful than what we’re doing now.”

If you get blank stares, say this: “I’d like to hear from everyone, but I’ll start” (which is only fair, if you’re asking people who don’t like talking in meetings to talk in meetings). Then offer up a bit about what you think is going on. From your letter, it sounds like it could go something like this: “I’m concerned that because you’re all at the early stages of your career, you might feel that you don’t have anything to contribute to these discussions. If that’s how anyone is feeling, I want you to know that I don’t think that at all. From my one-on-one discussions with each of you, I know that you each have good ideas and smart insights about our work. For example, Jane, we were able to use your great idea about X last month, and Jonah, you solved our ongoing problem with Y.” And then you pass the baton — as in, “I’d like to hear from each of you about your own thoughts on this. Jane, how about you next?”

You’re going to be putting people on the spot here, but that’s okay. It’s a normal expectation of most jobs that people will contribute in meetings. You’re allowed to call on people to participate. (And it might be particularly helpful to do so on a team that has established a norm about not speaking up on their own.)

* Second, at future meetings, try giving people advance notice of the topics you’re going to be discussing and asking them to come prepared with ideas to contribute. A lot of people do better in meetings if they have time to reflect and prepare beforehand. Plus, by saying “please come prepared with thoughts on X and Y,” you’ll be conveying your expectation that they’ll participate in the discussion — a more casual “does anyone have any thoughts on this?” doesn’t do that.

In fact, you might start this with the suggestion above: let people know ahead of time that you want them to come to your next meeting prepared to share thoughts on how to improve these meetings.

* Third, I’m assuming that you are having more back-and-forth with people in your one-on-one meetings. But if you’re not, you might need to back up and start there — using these same tactics for your one-on-one meetings before you start applying them to the group meetings. Because your staff are young and newish to the work world, you may need to get them comfortable with sharing thoughts with you before they start sharing them with the group. You shouldn’t spend a year on that — but a couple of months of doing this one-on-one first may lay a stronger groundwork for doing it with the group.

* Fourth — and crucially — make sure you’ve created an environment where people will feel comfortable contributing. Sometimes employees don’t speak up because they’ve seen their own or others’ ideas criticized and dismissed, or they’ve otherwise absorbed the message that they’re seen as cogs in a wheel rather than people whose perspective matters. If you might have inadvertently sent signals that are suppressing discussion now, or if a previous manager on the team did, it’s worth addressing that head-on (although it can’t just be lip service or people will pick up on that).

But again, before you do any of this, get really clear in your own mind about what you want to accomplish with these meetings, which will help you structure these conversations more effectively and better articulate for your staff where you’re coming from with all of this. Don’t fall into the “we meet because that’s what teams do” trap. If you do, the uncomfortable silences and blank stares are likely to continue.

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Ask a Boss: ‘How Do I Get People to Talk in Meetings?’