Whether in a group meeting or a one-on-one conversation, it can be very frustrating when you do your best to create a space for dialogue and you get nothing but blank stares.
And when we get frustrated, we move of out dialogue. We say to ourselves, “I asked. I opened the door to conversation, and they said nothing. I have done my part.” They are in silence and we encourage it by doing the same.
So, what do we do? Here are four ideas to get started.
1. Focus on what you really want.
Is your goal to gather more inputs from your employees? Answer their questions? Fill up time in a company meeting? Tick a box? Start by stepping back and identifying what it is that you really want. If your goal is to solicit their concerns so you can address them, a company meeting is not the only way to do that. “Getting people to speak up with their concerns” is a different goal than “getting people to speak up with their concerns in our company meetings” and it will lead you to different solutions.
2. Ask why.
There is a gap between what you are expecting (employees speaking up) and what you are getting (employees staying silent). We face gaps between expectations and reality on a daily basis. And, like most of us, we are quick to jump in with a solution. People aren’t speaking up? Let’s give them gift cards to encourage them. But when we jump in with a solution to close a gap, we move in a rather predictable way. We wouldn’t tolerate this approach (prescribing before diagnosing) from healthcare providers; and we shouldn’t tolerate it in ourselves either.
Before you rush to a solution to get people to speak up, understand why they aren’t speaking up. I believe people have an innate need to be heard. We want to share, contribute and connect. When people aren’t doing so, there is a reason. And we need to dig in. Do they feel uncomfortable in a large group meeting? Have they seen previous employees get teased for speaking up? Have leaders dodged tough questions in the past? Take time to ask why.
3. Share your good intent.
Most times, people will speak up when they feel safe to do so. One of the best ways to create psychological safety is to share your good intent. Why are you asking for their input? What will you do with it? Why is it important?
You might say…
One caveat: giving a leader this script won’t do a darn bit of good. Sharing my good intent is not going to create safety for employees in your organisation. Your leaders need to share their OWN good intent, not what mine would be if I were in their spot. And they have to mean it.
4. Finally, wait.
Silence can be uncomfortable. It can be hard to wait for a response. But I learned that if I did, especially early on in a session, eventually someone would say something. I could wait the group out. I needed to show them that I really did want to hear them, and that I was willing to wait for them. Some people need a little time to think; others may just want to see if it really matters if they speak up. Either way, you may need to wait past the point of being comfortable if you really want to hear what someone has to say.
Sometimes it seems like so many people are shouting their meaning at us (on social media, cable news, etc.). We become accustomed to being flooded with people’s opinions and are losing the skills to encourage and elicit those opinions when not readily shared. I applaud leaders for trying, and I think we can all do better at creating the conditions in which we can hear others.