You present a plan, seek input from the group, and crickets— it’s silent. After an awkward pause and some uncomfortable prodding, you say something like, “I’ll take silence as agreement.”
I’ve been there many times. It’s both awkward and frustrating. You’re trying to include others but they don’t participate. What’s wrong with these people?
“Your silence gives consent.” ― Plato
Is this long-standing idiom true? Does silence give consent?
We can quickly prove this idiom is false by looking at office etiquette. You may not agree or approve of the fish in the microwave or loud phone conversations, but you may choose to not confront the matter at the time. Your silence isn’t approval, it’s acceptance. There’s a difference. It’s you choosing not to speak up at the time. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’ve been the silent one in meetings. I didn’t fully agree with the ideas or plans on the table but I didn’t have a better solution either, so I let it ride. My silence wasn’t agreement, it was acceptance. Perhaps it was apathy.
I get it, you’re trying to include others and get necessary feedback so you can move forward. There comes a point where the time and effort prodding and waiting for affirmation is impractical. A decision needs to be made, so you take silence as consent — as permission or agreement.
You may reason that if others don’t want to speak up and contribute then your ideas are good to go. You might have done such a great job explaining and selling that all are on board without questions or concerns. Maybe, but the more likely truth is there are thoughts and concerns hidden behind the silence that could improve your plans. You may be hurting your business by not surfacing those ideas.
To get the most from your team, it’s important to understand why you assume silence is consent, why others are silent, the benefits you’re missing, and how to break this pattern to encourage more participation.
Why You Assume Silence is Consent
Wouldn’t it be great if the reason you assume silence is consent is simply because the idiom is engrained as truth, and you act accordingly? The solution would be easy — recognize it’s not true and stop doing it. Done!
If only it were that simple.
Not all the possible reasons will apply to you. They have applied to me at some point, so I’ll reveal myself a bit through these reasons. Take note of which resonate most with you.
I Don’t Want to Spend the Time and Effort
When I believe the plans are solid, I want to get started. I don’t want to invest the time and effort pulling people out of the silence pit. Slowing down to extract consensus is a buzz kill.
I Don’t Really Want Feedback
Sometimes I don’t believe my audience cares or has much to offer to the conversation. I present and ask for feedback as a courtesy. In this scenario, I’m grateful for the lack of discussion. Opportunity given — check. Move forward!
Occasionally, I don’t want to be challenged. In this situation, it’s not that I believe I’m right, it’s that I’m unsure that I am. I’m afraid of being exposed and not able to respond to the scrutiny. I would do well to remember my 3 tips to help me reduce the impact of Imposter Syndrome.
Why There Is Silence
Not everyone is as engaging and vocal as you. That can be frustrating. The more you understand about why people remain silent when you’re seeking discussion and feedback, the more capable you’ll be at extracting valuable input. I’ll talk about what that value is in the next section. First, let’s explore why people are silent in meetings.
Your audience may not care or see how it matters to them. They are not connected to the mission or problem. Getting involved in something that doesn’t seem relevant to them seems pointless.
Participants believe the decision is already made. They feel their inclusion in the review is a courtesy only, and their input is inconsequential to the decision. Their ideas never get included, so why bother speaking up?
They don’t understand the subject matter and don’t want to reveal their ignorance of the topic.
Some people will believe they are the only ones thinking as they do. They don’t want to be the only contrarian, or to feel stupid for not seeing the wisdom of the plan.
In the past, someone belittled them and their ideas — made them feel stupid. Pride leads to unhealthy conflict. Who wants to go through that? They feel unsafe to speak up.
Can’t Get a Word In
Stronger personalities control the dialigue. It’s hard to get a word in, so they stop trying.
Need More Time
We can spend weeks fleshing out an idea and expect others to engage immediately. People need time to digest information and formulate questions.
The Benefits You’re Missing
There are smart people in your organization. The mark of a great leader is how well you can foster this brain trust. When you take silence as approval, you’re hurting your business by missing out on valuable benefits.
There are hidden nuggets of gold inside the silence. Most people have an opinion about the ideas presented. They are thinking about a concern or another approach. They have questions. All it takes is one alternative viewpoint to lead you toward a better outcome. The trick is uncovering it.
“They [Leaders] seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” — Amazon Leadership Principle
The best leaders don’t seek to prove their ideas as the best course of action. They don’t seek to validate their biases. They seek to disprove them. They look for any way to invalidate their assumptions and reveal a better approach. Why? Great leaders are more interested in discovering the best ideas than driving their own ideas.
High-performing teams are inclusive. Each voice is heard. Each contributes. Individuals are empowered and feel safe to express their ideas. Credit for specific ideas is unnecessary. It’s about the team. With that freedom comes a barrage of ideas from which you can skillfully weave the best solutions.
“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” — Ronald Reagan
How to Encourage Participation
You will need to change your facilitation techniques and toss in a few tricks to get folks more engaged. It’s a process that requires patience. Here’s a few ideas to get you started.
Use a Plant
A nice fern won’t hurt, but I’m not talking about that type of plant. I mean one or two people you’ve pre-arranged to help kick off the conversation. When you hit that wall of silence when seeking questions or feedback, your plants can be the first ones in.
When I convey information, I try to predict the questions people may have and build the response into my presentation. It’s possible no one has questions because I do such an amazing job covering the details. In all likelihood, others need a little push to engage. A plant can be that spark.
Pro Tip: have your plant ask a question that isn’t what you think many others are thinking. You want to encourage others to speak up, not give them a reason not to.
Ask Specific Questions
“Does anyone have questions?” is not quite as engaging as “Which specific suggestion resonates most with you?” or “What is the biggest risk we haven’t yet identified?”
The more specific the question, the more likely you’ll get a response. If needed, don’t be afraid to ask a question to a specific person. Notice body language for clues someone doesn’t agree or has a thought — ask them.
Speaking up may not be a big deal for you, but it’s hard for others. Thank them for their ideas and perspectives. Make them feel welcome and appreciated.
Let’s be honest, you don’t always think every idea put forward is a good one. That doesn’t make you right. If you allow it, these thoughts can lead to belittling ideas. Even if not in a mean-spirited way, quick dismissal feels the same.
Rather than shooting down ideas or trying to counter them, respond with “yes, and.” The response might go something like this — yes, that’s an interesting perspective. And what if [this]? And how would we then [that]? Rather than invalidating their idea, put it on the table and work together on how that supports your other concerns or questions.
When you work through an idea, no matter how off-base it initially seems, you may uncover something important you failed to see.
Follow up with people on how their input was used or not, and why. You’re not obligated to use everyone’s feedback. You should make it habit to respond back with how their feedback was used. It shows you considered it and took it seriously.
Silence is not consent. Keeping quiet is not tacit approval. A lack of protest does not imply agreement. Your eagerness to assume non-engagement means all are onboard is wrong. Worse, it’s hurting your business.
People are quiet in meetings for many reasons. Some of those reasons may be directly attributed to you, your leadership style, and the resulting culture. Regardless of why you take silence as consent, the passed-over silence is leaving better outcomes undiscovered.
You want the best for your business. The best won’t always come from you. If you’re lucky, it usually won’t. Create a culture where the best ideas win, but no one knows or cares whose ideas they are. In fact, the blend is so inclusive it’s hard to know anyway.
The change will take time. People will need to see a change in how you manage meetings. They will need to feel more important and safe to share. As you provide that environment, the results will be worth it. Stronger teams produce better outcomes.
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