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A silent meeting seems like a contradiction in terms. Meetings are normally filled with blah, blah, blah. But it’s one of many techniques consultants Graham Allcott and Hayley Watts tout.

The purpose of a silent meeting is to allow everyone to express their views, without the session being dominated by one or more individuals. It involves asking questions and offering views on a shared document. It can be very helpful for more introverted members of your team as well as, according to research, women and minorities, who get talked over in meetings. It can be handy for a hybrid office, with some people in the meeting room and some on a remote connection, equalizing them.

And yes, it does involve talk. But only after ideas have been expressed and organized for a sensible discussion.

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It’s a reminder that meetings can be productive if we give them some thought. The consultants say two contradictory truths plague us with respect to meetings. The sessions matter because they are precious spaces to share our attention and make changes. Indeed, in an era of fragmented attention, we need good meetings more than ever. But most meetings fail to meet that test and don’t matter, wasting time that we could put to action. “Aim to do less meetings, but to do them well,” they advise in their book How to Fix Meetings.

We hope to escape meetings so we can do “real work” – immerse ourselves in what productivity theorist Cal Newport calls “deep work.” They counter that there are times when we need to go “deep” in a different way: Deep listening. Meetings are a place where ideally we can pay deep attention to the needs of our colleagues, focusing on problems or issues and listening actively. Even in silent meetings.

They urge you to take advantage of the power of a pause in meetings to allow ideas to settle. There are three types of pauses: Practical pauses, whether scheduled or unscheduled, in which people replenish energy levels or hit the washroom; strategic pauses, where disagreement has built and a timeout can diffuse tension as people chat informally; or reflective pauses, when there’s a lot to take in and people need time to digest everything. “Pauses can also help when people aren’t contributing. You just need to hold your nerve to get comfortable with silence. Most people will want to fill the silence and start contributing,” they say.

Other tips:

If you’re not the best facilitator but overseeing a project team or departmental unit, invite somebody else to preside. It’s like offering your car keys to someone so they can drive today but still retaining ownership rights.

  • Start the meeting positively. Avoid beginning with what has (or, more likely, hasn’t) happened since the last meeting, which can be a downer. Find a topic that can lift spirits, such as “what is going well for you at work and in life recently,” or “what aspect of your work are you most excited about this week?”
  • Get every issue on the agenda at the start, providing a tentative agenda and then asking for what’s missing. Don’t have an “Any Other Business” section at the end when suddenly people raise substantive issues that needed consideration when everyone was fresh and more time was available.
  • Add 10 minutes at the end of the agenda for participants to act on what’s been discussed, a chance to talk with someone else in the room or on the video call about what you have been jointly assigned or to send an e-mail to someone outside the session to get information you have promised to find. View it as a chance for so-called “two-minute tasks” that can immediately carry on the work of the meeting.
  • Close by asking what people are taking away from the meeting, allowing everyone a chance to speak and reinforcing what has been accomplished.

Meetings are a fact of work life. Might as well make them effective.

Quick hits

  • Don’t take a job for the money, for your image, or to “show them,” warns executive coach Ed Batista. Also, don’t take a job against your better judgment. People are rarely surprised when a job doesn’t work out; they sensed it wasn’t the right move, but ignored their better judgment.
  • Career adviser Ashley Stahl says in her newsletter that office workers who used to commute 45 minutes to work will now, after the pandemic and working at home, be less likely to commit to a daily trip of over 30 minutes. If you’re concerned about your commute, she urges you to talk to your boss now rather than let the issue simmer.
  • Should you connect with strangers on LinkedIn? Inc. columnist Alison Green says it doesn’t expand your network in a meaningful way but if you’re ever looking for someone who worked at a particular company and can give you the inside scoop, you would have more options.
  • Make sure in hybrid meetings to use the “raise hands” feature for those taking part remotely to contribute input easily, says presentations consultant Dave Paradi. That means keeping your eye out to spot those hands, of course. In Microsoft Teams, when someone has raised their hand, you will see a number on top of the Show Participants icon in the control bar
  • People with the potential to benefit the most from a coach are often the most hesitant because of what coaching involves, observes entrepreneur Seth Godin. Having a coach might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Or they fear acknowledging their challenges but failing to overcome them. Maybe deep inside they don’t want change to happen. “The paradox is that the very things that hold us back are the reasons we need a coach in the first place,” he says.

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