In researching what makes successful teams, Google’s “Project Aristotle” found psychological safety was key. A group norm that supports psychological safety is “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” Meaning, everyone has more or less equal air-time by the end of the day. “If only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”
As the leader or manager of your team, how can you facilitate this conversational equality?
First take a moment and evaluate your team’s collective conversational aptitude. Overall is there currently equal air-time amongst team members? If not, who speaks up most often? Who doesn’t? Then take a moment to think about why this might be the case…
Is it simply a matter of introverts as compared to extroverts?
Is it a matter of confidence?
Is there someone who struggles to sit through the slightest pause and has to jump in?
Is there competitive vying for air space?
Does someone consistently interrupt others (or a particular team member)?
Is someone consistently repetitive? Or who over describes?
Do you tend to listen more closely to a particular individual on your team?
If there’s a lot of dead air space – does it feel safe to contribute thoughts?
Does anyone tend to steamroll, ramble, blame, stall, or attack?
Does anyone consistently take the team off topic or go from tactical to theoretical?
Perhaps those who are repetitive don’t feel heard. Perhaps those who are most vociferous are trying to prove their value to the team. Your over describers likely want you to really know how hard they are working. While all of these are assumptions, consider why your current team’s conversational acumen is in its current state. Have you addressed steamrollers? Have you pushed to expand comfort zones of those who are more cautious with contributing? Have you appreciated the hard work of your over describers?
Second, briefly touch base one-on-one with each team member. Let them know you’re looking to create a loosely held balance of air-time and want to hear from everyone. For those who contribute more, ask them to sit back some and seek their co-workers’ thoughts. Let them know ahead of time that in the course of a discussion you may pass the “baton” onto their colleague. For those who contribute less, let them know you’d like to hear from them more and that on occasion you’ll ask them to share their thoughts.
Third, facilitate the conversation to support this equal air-time exchange. Here’s a few facilitator tips:
Ask a question, give everyone a few minutes to consider their thoughts, and then do a round robin – going from person to person to get their input. Keep in mind, overall introverts won’t “take” the floor, but will share their thoughts when “given” the floor.
Reinforce for those who do not speak up often how much you appreciate their perspective.
Use body language. Face the person the team is listening to. Hold up your hand to stop someone. “Wave” someone toward you if you want to hear their thoughts.
If one of your talkers starts running the conversation, stop them, validate them, summarize their point and pass the baton “Good point Joe, I really hear you think this is a good idea. Mary, I’m curious what you think.”
If someone starts being repetitive, let them know you’ve heard their point and summarize it. If your over describers start going into too much detail, let them know you know how hard they’re working to come up with a solution.
Depending on what you’re looking to accomplish, flipcharts and white boards are incredibly helpful for team members to see contributions captured in black and white.
Use a “Parking Lot” to quickly capture (but not consider) those derailing “shiny blinky” topics that may be important but are not the focus of this conversation. This helps everyone stay focused on the purpose at hand.
If someone who struggles with confidence brings an idea to the table, have everyone “plus one” the idea first – speaking to why it would work, before speaking to why it wouldn’t.
Ultimately you’re training your team on how to share air-time and feel safe to contribute. After a few months, once the conversational acumen of your team has improved, you can reduce your facilitation. Then as with all healthy habits, make sure to sustain it.
Communication is foundational when it comes to workplace culture — learn why in Culture Works!