How do you ensure everyone’s voice is heard in a meeting with loud and quiet people?

It is very hard to manage, or even contribute to, a meeting if there are two types of people attending: quiet people who never speak up and loud, confident, people who always have a lot to say.

The types of people I often find who want to talk about this topic during one to one sessions with me wit are:

  • quiet people, who consider themselves unable to contribute because they feel intimidated in meetings that are chaotic with no space for them to bring their ideas;
  • people who manage those meetings, who are aware that not everyone is contributing but feel unsure about what they can do such that they have everyone’s input and can make the most informed decisions.

The quiet people feel unable to contribute because there is no time or “natural space” in the meeting for them to say something. Because of the meeting dynamics, and the way the loud people speak, some quiet people do not speak up because they are worried about being attacked. Sometimes they feel they don’t have the energy to interrupt, or know exactly when to interrupt. On occasion, they simply worry that what they have to say is not as important as what the loud and confident people have to say.

The loud and confident people (in this example) operate by a very different set of parameters: they don’t wait for a space to speak; they interrupt and carve that space for themselves. Research shows that people who are confident when they speak are also perceived by the audience as being competent and having something important to say.

The shortcomings of this sort of chaotic meeting are obvious: only the opinions of the people who are loud and confident are heard and, as the person in charge of that meeting, you won’t be able to reach informed decisions as well as if the quiet people had also been able to contribute.

How can you manage a meeting where people who are loud and confident are in the same room as people who are quiet?

At the beginning of each meeting there should be an assigned chairperson, and they shouldhave a list of very clear objectives that they want to achieve by the end of the meeting.

This person should also set the scene and the rules as to how the meeting will be conducted.

There are three core things that the chairperson of any meeting with more than three attendees should do:

1. They should clarify what they hope to achieve by the end of the meeting and appoint someone to take the minutes.

2. They should make it clear that people should not interrupt each other. If someone wants to make a point while someone else is talking, they should raise their index finger to the chairperson so they can be given the opportunity to speak after the person has finished their point.

3. They should interrupt or otherwise stop people from speaking if they are talking too much or steering the meeting away from the agreed outcomes.

Here is an article exploring how to run effective meetings in more depth.

If you are not the one managing (chairing) the meeting, how can you help the quiet people to be heard?

1. Ask at the beginning of the meeting who the chairperson is; this helps to make it clear who is meant to keep the meeting on track. (You will then know to whom you can politely send this sort of article if they don’t run the meeting in a way that everyone can contribute.)

2. Ask who is taking notes of the key decisions/agreements in the meeting. It might raise awareness that it is necessary to have someone who does this.

3. If colleagues enter into a heated discussion, where some people have been silent since the beginning and the chairperson does nothing to stop this, say: “John, Mary I wonder if you can carry on the debate about X outside this meeting. We haven’t heard from Martin, Pryianka or Patrick what they think of Y initiative. I’d like to hear their take on this too.”

If you feel you don’t have your voice heard in meetings, it is probable that others feel the same. Don’t be afraid to speak up and point out what just happened (e.g. other people have not had a say yet) to help carve out space for quiet people to bring their ideas.

What other suggestions do you have to help quiet people speak in meetings?