These days we luckily hear and read more about inclusivity. Inclusivity in the language we use, in the way we treat people, in the workplace, in meetings.

Especially in meetings, in my experience, some folks may tend to speak less than others. Some of the reasons that come to mind are:

  • They may be a member of a marginalized group, and may be afraid to speak up because of prior experience. By the definition they’ve been treated as insignificant and powerless;
  • They may be a member of an underrepresented group, and may be afraid to voice a contrary opinion if they are up against a majority;
  • They may have an introverted personality;
  • Their title (less experience) or their role (to an adjacent department or field) may discourage them from actively participating. While you can check out our meeting guidelines, for further reading, I would like to focus on the last item in the list.

To the folks who tend to speak more in meetings: we should do our best to make sure everyone has a chance to express their opinion. I come from a culture where everyone is silent in a group of people causes discomfort and awkwardness. I am aware that I get impatient waiting in silence while I say “Does anyone have any thoughts or want to add anything?” and after a few seconds, we end up filling up the silence with a conversation with a restricted number of actors, and some quiet spectators.

This is not ideal, to say the least! We should try to avoid accidental power dynamics, where the conversation ends up among the ones who have more context than others, or have more decisional power over the resolution of an issue or strategy to tackle the next task at hand.

If someone in the team has less experience or context on a subject, we should absolutely encourage them to share their input, as it will bring a different point of view, a new perspective on the subject, and hopefully they would be asking clarifying questions to force the folks with more knowledge to explain what we are doing and why, what has been attempted thus far, the current resolution plan… out loud.

There are strategies to improve the participation from everyone in a group meeting:

Starting the meeting with a quick ice breaker game, where everyone gets to say something, will increase the chances that everyone will speak throughout the rest of the meeting, improving teamwork and collaboration. It could be as simple as “two truths and a lie”, or “what’s your least favorite household chore?” While talking about the purpose of the meeting, and the proposed solutions, even when it is a very technical question, try to zoom out, and ask for everyone’s input.

Scenario: we are trying to come up with the most effective way to store certain data about the orders for our pizza delivery service. The question is around Postgres tables, joins, SQL queries, and possibly analysis tools. Ask everyone, for example: “If you order a pizza online, how do you expect to see your order details?” Any answer will do, including “I have never ordered a pizza online.” Providing input and actively participating in meetings is a great way to:

  • increase shared knowledge;
  • discuss alternatives;
  • write meaningful documentation. We may realize that some assumptions were wrong, we may compare solutions, and come up with new approaches.