There are lots of different types of meetings, workshops, conferences, seminars and presentations. Many of these are set up to inform rather than engage and the flow of information is intended to be one way; presenter/speaker/manager to audience/staff. Aside from opening up the floor for a few questions, the general thrust of such events is to inform, not necessarily to stimulate discussion. If done well you won’t need to keep pinching yourself to stay awake, but they are not what I would call participatory.
For most meetings and group gatherings to function well though, there is a need for participation from the people present. The onus is not just on one person to do all the talking (although there may be one person ‘running’ the meeting) but on everyone present to contribute. These kind of meetings are as more about collecting and sharing information than informing. These might be staff meetings, board meetings, project planning meetings, committee meetings or team meetings for example and they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. I will bet that there are very few people who have never experienced some kind of meeting.
So, when it is important to encourage everyone to join in, to participate and engage, how can this be done? Let’s face it, we are all different, all fulfil different roles whether professionally or personally and all have different strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone enjoys speaking up in front of others. Many people feel self conscious about sharing things, or have had experiences that may make them feel their ideas are wrong. Others seem to thoroughly enjoy taking up rather too much air space, which although may appear to be good participation, it is usually not.
It is often the case that people are just told to speak up, say what they need to, make an effort and join in. But is this necessarily the most effective way?
Obviously the kinds of things that you do, very much depend on the aims of your meeting. But in terms of general ideas to encourage active participation within a group at a meeting, or event or workshop there are a few things that might be worth a try:
- Ask people to write information down. Sometimes if individuals in a meeting are asked to write or even draw their ideas rather than verbalise them they are more productive. For example people could write ideas, answers, questions etc on A5 pieces of card or post it notes. These could be stuck up on a wall, or passed around for discussion. Similarly you could put a couple of large pieces of flip chart paper on the wall or on a table and ask people to put their ideas down on them.
- Try introducing some practical activities/ice breakers/games and visual aids or props. These can often put participants at ease, and can be as simple as asking them to sit next to someone who is wearing the same colour as them, or creating a name card for themselves with a personal design.
- Make sure everyone understands what the meeting is about and what is expected of them. People often get uneasy when they are not sure what is going on or exactly what they are supposed to do.
- Feeding back in a smaller group – ask people to break into smaller groups and nominate a ‘spokesperson’. Information can be discussed in groups of 3 or 4 people which usually feels easier and then someone who doesn’t mind standing up and talking can feedback for everyone to the larger group.
- Look at the positives first to set the scene – if difficult issues need to be discussed, try to focus on the positives first as these might make the participants feel more at ease.
- Ensuring the negatives are constructive – it is unlikely that a meeting workshop will be wholly full of good news and great ideas. But try to encourage people to be constructive. This will allow as many people as possible to feel like they want to speak up. Rather than dismissing comments that might not be what you are looking for or seem a bit daft, acknowledge them but maybe talk about coming back to them at a later date or put it to one side. Sometimes it might also be useful to ask people to use their wild imagination rather than give sensible suggestions – what one person thinks is silly may be someone else’s idea of genius.
- Pay attention to seating and the mix in the group. Sometimes people feel more confident when they are together with people they know, or not beside their immediate superior. If you need to mix people up, maybe don’t do this instantly but allow participants to feel a bit comfortable first.
- Try putting a time limit on input, for example you could try giving everyone 2-5 minutes to talk. This means that those with far too much to say will have to be briefer, while those who need encouragement to talk will know that they don’t have to talk for a long time if they don’t want to.
- Ask open questions (rather than ones that can only have yes/no answers). This is more likely to give rise to more creative answers.
- Give people time to think about their input. If under pressure for an immediate answer they might not be able to come up with something they want to share. You could pose a question and come back to it, or give them some time to chat through it with a colleague before having to say it to the larger group.