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Valuing Every Voice

Have you ever seen a story like this?

The Acme Software company was in crisis. A deliverable to a strategic client was critically behind, and no one saw a path to getting it back on schedule. Senior leadership and the project team came together to brainstorm options.

The team debated vigorously for two hours and was no closer to a solution. As the loudest voices in the room ran out of steam, there was a long enough pause for the quiet developer in the corner to speak. His brilliant and compelling idea left the room speechless.

Unfortunately, many of us have seen stories like this where the quiet voice in the room never even gets a chance to speak. Today I offer one technique to ensure every voice is heard.

Know Your Style

The DiSC model

I use the Everything DiSC® assessment with my coachees to help them understand their interpersonal style and those of others. It’s an excellent tool we regularly revisit to identify strategies to improve working relationships.

On the top half of the circle, we have people who are more fast-paced and outspoken, including the Dominance and Influence styles. These individuals have a bias for action and are often quick to jump in with their thoughts and ideas. They can dominate the conversation.

People on the bottom half of the circle are more cautious and reflective. These are represented by the Conscientiousness and Steadiness styles. People with these styles often want time to process information before they speak. In an unstructured meeting, they may have difficulty getting a word in.

I remember vividly my first conversation with a leader after her team moved into my organization. She told me, “I need you to understand that there will be times you will ask me a question, and I’ll need time to think through my response before I answer. I need you to be ok with that.” Her self-awareness and willingness to share up front helped me meet her where she was in our future interactions.

Not all leaders have that self-awareness.

Amplifying the quiet voices can be as simple as going around the room (or Zoom) and asking to hear from each individual, and actively managing the conversation to redirect away from someone dominating the discussion. When you have a more significant topic, such as a strategic planning discussion, here is a more involved technique you can employ.

Structured Brainstorming

The Acme Software company was in crisis. A deliverable to a strategic client was critically behind, and no one saw a path to getting it back on schedule. Senior leadership and the project team came together to brainstorm options. They enlisted a facilitator to support the process.

The facilitator let everyone know in advance that the purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm solutions to get the project back on track. No pre-work was required, but participants were encouraged to think through potential solutions before the meeting. By doing so, she gave the reflective individuals time and space to think through their ideas in advance without creating unwanted homework for those who prefer to brainstorm in the moment.

At the start of the meeting, she reminded the team of the ground rules of brainstorming. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, and no idea should be criticized in the moment. After generating ideas, there would be a separate step to evaluate options and select the best ones.

She gave each participant a stack of post-it notes. For the first five minutes of the meeting, there was no discussion. Each participant was asked to write out every idea they could think of. One idea per post-it note. This step was done in silence.

Next, the team shared their ideas. They went around the room, and each participant shared a single idea and placed it on the whiteboard. If others had the same idea, they added their post-it note next to it. At the end of the round, once everyone had shared an idea, they started again, continuing to share unique ideas until every idea had been shared. When someone was out of ideas, they passed. If someone thought of a new idea, they wrote it on another post-it note.

The strength of this strategy was that everyone participated, and everyone’s voice was heard.

Multi-Voting

The facilitator then worked with the group to consolidate and organize the common ideas. The team agreed on which ones were duplicates and could be combined and identified the themes and patterns. No ideas were ruled out at this stage. They were just organized and consolidated. Participants were invited to discuss ideas to clarify their understanding of each one.

To ensure that the loudest voices in the room didn’t dominate the decision-making process, the facilitator gave each participant five stickers once the consolidation and discussion were completed. They were invited to place their five stickers on the ideas they felt were the best. They could allocate their votes however they wished, from voting once for five different ideas to putting all five votes on a single idea they were passionate about.

When the multi-voting was completed, three ideas emerged as candidates. The group could now work through those three ideas and select the best ones, knowing everyone had a chance to contribute.

In an hour, the team generated an extensive list of ideas. They had narrowed this list down to three. Everyone on the team felt satisfied with their contribution and happy their voice was heard.

Putting It Into Practice

Think about the meetings you attend where a small number of participants dominate the conversation. Consider changing the meeting format to ensure every voice is heard:

  • Share the meeting purpose and agenda in advance so participants have time to prepare.
  • Consider going around the room (or around the zoom) and asking to hear from each participant.
  • Appoint a facilitator with the explicit task of managing the conversation and ensuring everyone contributes.
  • If someone has not contributed, tell them you would love their input and invite their thoughts.
  • If someone dominates the conversation, give them feedback offline and encourage them to create space for others to contribute.
  • For high-stakes meetings, consider using this Structured Brainstorming technique.

Schedule time with Josh.

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