The Quiet People

Posted by jlubans on April 13, 2015

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Caption: Actor Dick York, the “Shy Guy”, overcoming shyness (1947).

A poignant piece on shyness in the Paris Review set me to thinking about the quiet people in any group, in any meeting, in any organization. Shyness can range from agonizing discomfort in a social setting to a passing reluctance to engage with a stranger at a dinner party. I do not dismiss it as simply something to get over; I can testify to it on a personal level.
But, I am especially interested in how to bring in those not speaking up at meetings.
Now, I understand that for some meetings are a waste of time. The process of sharing ideas and opinions is of little interest; their immediate desire is to get back to doing “real work”, not this sitting around and chitchatting.
It may make a little difference if there’s meat in the agenda, a real issue – not the sort of fyi pablum usually served up – but, even then “real work” beckons them back; it’s where they find satisfaction and provide value to the organization.
If someone wants to be doing instead of meeting AND actually does real work, (not “busy work”) then let him. Skip the meeting, elicit his ideas in one on one conversation.
Quiet people are another matter. A quiet person may be bursting with ideas but is reluctant, hesitant, indeed, shy to express ideas. Often, the quiet person is an independent thinker – and there’s safety in being quiet.
The challenge is for the group leader and active participants to engage the quiet person so that his or her unarticulated ideas can be heard and added to the mix. I am assuming the group does not have a dominant, self-centered boss, someone who resents any challenge from a lesser being. When that happens, that’s a profoundly serious organizational problem. Ignored, the effects will take years of recovery.
In more normal circumstances – where there’s some security for those who offer contrarian views - then hearing from everyone matters. I’ve written of collective intelligence – the so-called “C” factor which contributes to group success at problem solving – why else would a group meet if there were not a problem to solve? Probably a good question to ask at the top of any habitual gathering is: “Why are we meeting?” That question will probably result in silence and a bit of squirming, but might lead to fewer meetings and greater personal productivity.
But, to get back to C. One of its three components is the “number of engaged participants”; the fewer engaged, the less success in problem solving, the more engaged, the greater success, at least in laboratory studies. So there’s some evidence that it’s unwise to leave out the quiet people; far wiser to invite them in. There are all kinds of suggestions on the Internet about how to do this - how to pry open the reluctant participant – but first and foremost the organization has to recognize and value dissenting views. If a person is an organizational survivor – as many are – she may be that way because she has learned personally or by observation that independent thinkers are punished. To survive in the organization – to keep her job – she has learned to keep her mouth shut and head down. Sure, there’s the mask – the happy talk – but when the discussion is for real, the survivor stays quiet and peers around only to see which way the wind is blowing. Then he may go along with the prevailing view even if it is contrary to what he thinks. Survivors have learned that the price of speaking up is too high. So, even if you are the new open minded and emotionally insightful and secure boss, you will still have to convince survivors that you really mean it when you ask for diverse discussion. When the boss asks for “shameless honesty” during a hard conversation or meeting, will her staff know their jobs are not on the line?
One suggestion I make to my students when in groups is to include everyone in the discussion. But, I make clear it is not enough to just encourage that; the more active students have to solicit input from their quieter counterparts. To do so, means the engaged participant may have to step back and allow airtime and air space for the quiet person. This can be difficult if you are a “let’s get it done” type. Or, if you are not very good at reading group behaviors you may not see any problem. In any case, you (an engaged participant) may want to think about what you are doing to encourage group engagement. My previous blog on fear and loathing included the suggestion that the boss occasionally lets the executive team meet without her. The dynamics should change and may promote greater engagement. Of course, if the organization is closed to and does not value varied viewpoints the boss’ absence will only lead to participants’ guessing what the absent boss would do, not what they would really do.
Obviously, there is an implied social finesse that needs to be acquired or to be refined. Confronting a quiet person with “You’re awfully quiet! What do you have to say?” is not the same as reading that person’s expression that she is thinking deeply about the topic and may indeed have an interesting viewpoint. That’s applying the emotional intelligence part of “C” to help the individual and the group come up with good ideas.
Another strategy is to assess group progress with an anonymous vote. Even if discussion does not increase, you will have a reading of how far apart viewpoints may be. Depending on the gap, you may need to double your efforts in eliciting opposing views. The quiet people will note what you are doing, by the way, and that may bring along a few to speak up.
Finally, there’s the “check in” at the start of each meeting with a go around of what is of most consequence at the moment in a person’s life or job (e.g. “What is a high, and a low, from your week? Where do you need help?”) should reduce reluctance to speak up. The check in makes everyone a bit more human, raising the comfort level of all, the engaged, the shy and the quiet.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Clackamas Community College Library, Oregon City, Oregon, USA

© John Lubans 2015

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