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Getting People to Speak up in Virtual Meetings

Have you ever led a conference call where no one speaks up or asks a question? Is anybody out there?

This article will touch on why people don't speak up and then give you six practical strategies for how you can get others to participate.

Why don't people speak up?

Most people do not like to be the center of attention. Speaking up on a conference call is like speaking in public; it's easy to feel like everyone is staring at you, and it's embarrassing. Other reasons include not wanting to interrupt others, being afraid to ask a "dumb" question, genuinely not having a question, or not wanting the meeting to drag on. What is the solution?

Here are six practical strategies to get people to speak up.

1. Replace the word any with what. On conference calls, most people say, "Any questions." The problem is "any questions" is not a question; it is more of a statement. The other issue is "any questions" signals your brain; the meeting is over, WOOHOO! "Any questions" is autopilot language. What is autopilot language? Auto pilot language is where our brain shuts down and we do not think or engage.

For example, when we arrive home from work, a typical exchange with our significant other can sound like this:

Me: How was your day?

SO: FINE. How was your day?


It's like two zombies on autopilot. We need to mix it up by using more creative language such as:

- What was the best part of your day?

- What is something interesting that happened today?

- What was annoying about today?

- What frustrated you today?

- What happened today?

Using creative language works on kids, significant others, roommates, almost everyone we fall into habitual language patterns with. What is the beauty of this strategy? First, by asking a unique question, you get the other person's ears to perk up. Why? Because they hear different language and this breaks the autopilot zombie pattern. Second, the new language plants a seed in their brain that makes them feel as though you care about what they are going to say. Therefore, we need to change our autopilot statement "any questions" to something that starts with what. Some examples include:

- What questions do you have?

- What can I go into more detail on?

- What questions are going through your mind?

- What would you like to explore further?

- What are your reactions?

By using a "what" question, you have turned the statement "any questions" into a question, and this increases your probability of generating a response. Experiment and find the what questions that suit your style.

2. Call people by name. On a conference or virtual call, it makes a huge difference when you call someone by name. For example, "Sanjay, what are your thoughts? Next Sandra, what are your reactions?" By calling someone by name it almost guarantees they will speak up and people don't have to worry about speaking over one another. The caveat is you must warn people you will be calling on them, or you will come across like a jerk. For example, at the beginning of a call, I will say, "I want to give you all a heads up that I will be calling on you by name not to embarrass you but because I want to get everyone's input. Also, I'll be calling on you because it can be confusing as to who should speak, so this will help us run the call smoothly. If you have nothing to add when I call on you, say nothing to add Steve." Let people know you will call on them and permit them not to answer if they don't have anything to add or ask.

3. Plant someone to speak up first. When there are 20 or 30 people on a call, no one wants to be the first person to ask a question. It is terrifying. However, if you are the fourth or fifth person, it is a lot easier to speak up. Therefore, reach out to friends or colleagues ahead of the call and ask them to immediately ask a question when you open it up for questions. Once one or two people ask questions, then the flood gates open because it is so much easier to speak up.

4. Embrace silence. Most people cannot handle silence. I suggest saying something like this. "What are your questions and reactions? I am going to stay quiet to give you time to gather your thoughts and questions. Take your time, and I'm looking forward to hearing from you." The next part is the hardest part, stay SILENT. To fight the urge to speak up, I recommend using your phone's stopwatch function and let it run for 30-45 seconds. Someone is likely to beak the silence.

5. Give them an easy response option. For example, say, "what questions do you have, and if there are no questions, then please say no questions." People now have an easy option; they can respond with "no questions." The only downside here is it can be scary to be the one person who asks a question when everyone says "no questions." Therefore, make sure to acknowledge and thank the person who asked a question so everyone knows you appreciate questions. This strategy works exceptionally well if you are accepting inquiries via chat box. After asking for questions, instead of a chat box filled with crickets you will have a feedback loop where people respond with "no questions." As a call leader, you need to ask your participants to provide you with a feedback loop.

6. Use virtual technology. Use chat, use polls, and other conference call technology features. For example, with a large number of people on a call, it is much easier for people to speak up using chat rather than speaking over the phone.

As leaders, we must create an environment of psychological safety where others feel comfortable speaking up. The best call leaders experiment and do everything possible to enable others to speak up. Explore and find the strategies that work best for you!

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