How do you hear the voice of the person who never speaks?

I’m sure you’ve been in meetings that occur regularly, say every week or every month, and you know that there will be some attendees in the meeting whose voice you’ll hear the most. They’ll be steering the conversation and sharing opinions, which strongly affect the direction in which the business will go.

And I’m sure that in these very same meetings there are some very capable individuals who sit quietly and don’t come forward readily with their thoughts and who don’t object vociferously to the latest suggestions.

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The obvious issue with this scenario is that if you’re only ever hearing from certain characters then you’re only ever going to hear a limited number of viewpoints, and perhaps only make the decisions they want, and maybe that’s not the right thing to do.

The challenge of course is how to address this. Do you dampen down the enthusiasm and knowledge of those whose voice is heard the most, or do you increase the ability for the quieter team members to feel like they can contribute?

The answer, as with many of these things, is a combination of things.

Giving equal time for talking helps balance out the amount of contribution that all attendees can make, and can be as strict as two minutes contribution from everyone or more relaxed, by the meeting chair being conscious of who has and who hasn’t spoken and asking for contributions from all parties when the discussion has reached a point where one viewpoint has been expressed enough.

However sometimes it’s not about having the time to speak, it’s more about having the confidence to speak, feeling like their opinion is valuable enough to share, or a feeling of concern about what might happen if their opinion isn’t in keeping with popular opinion. This is a bigger issue to resolve.

I attended a recent panel event where representatives from Workplace by Facebook , Apple’s new acquisition Shazam, and challenger bank Monzo, discussed being productive at work in a world of technology. The discussion moved onto meeting etiquette (such as introducing a phone basket for attendees to drop in their mobile on their way in to the meeting) and then into making the meetings themselves productive, and one common practice was to ensure that information to be discussed during the meeting was circulated before the meeting.

By giving people opportunity to read the subject matter before they arrive, you’re empowering those who need time to process the information the time they need to form an opinion that they’re happy to share. They aren’t put on the spot and asked for an immediate response, and can prepare what they think, giving them the confidence to speak up.

The extension of this pre-meeting planning in some businesses is to enable pre-meeting electronic chat, where clarifications are sought via a separate mechanism (Workplace by Facebook obviously use their own tool to facilitate their group chat, but it could be email, Slack or any other tech solution), and it sometimes leads to agreement being met before the meeting and the meeting actually being cancelled. This external discussion takes away the tendency of some to talk a lot and empowers others to quietly contribute without having to force themselves forward.

When it comes to the matter of whether individuals have the confidence to share opinions, then to some degree this comes from an organisation’s culture and whether this is a culture that values openness and honesty and encourages feedback.

An organisation that is structured around openness is one that encourages and thrives on feedback. At Monzo Bank they don’t restrict access to business documentation and have an open Google Drive for employees and no restricted permissions. They also have a public product roadmap and regular business wide meetings with the CEO answering questions from the floor on any topic.

This ‘all hands’ or ‘town hall’ meeting was also in place at both Shazam and Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg answers questions in front of the entire business (many who are watching streamed video online from their global offices). This approach shows to their teams that the business is open and honest, and being able to share is a good thing, which empowers their teams to have opinions and make decisions, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be admonished.

Despite all of these approaches, there are still some individuals who need some greater level of support in breaking down the fear of speaking out. A colleague of mine is supporting the London software engineer community in which he works by providing training to overcome the ‘fear of public speaking’, and helping individuals who feel held back or frustrated by their inability to influence others through their fear of speaking out.

It’s important to be aware of what might be holding back the quiet voices in your business, as a business being driven forward only by strong voices might be missing out on so much insight and value.

Helping people kick start their product management career at * Product person at Watchfinder

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