Silence Is Not Always Golden: Speaking Up In Meetings

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In yesterday’s Corner Office feature of the New York Times Sunday Business section, the chief executive of a pharmacy benefit management company offered “rules of the road for engagement” in meetings.  I want to highlight one of them—silence will be taken as consent.  If you disagree with something said or done in a meeting, in other words, you can’t come back later and express your disagreement.  “Come to the meeting, let your feelings be heard, and a decision will be made.”  This is an easier rule to apply if everyone in the meeting is a peer, but it may be harder if there is a significant power differential among the participants.  I want to encourage the use of this rule in our meetings, which will mean supporting some staff members who are reluctant to disagree publicly with faculty members.  It also will mean supporting junior faculty members who are reluctant to express a view that is not shared by senior faculty colleagues.

 It should be clear from the budget roundtables that we need to shift some elements of the School’s culture, and I believe that this is one of them.  We need to hear everyone’s ideas in public so that others can support, challenge, and improve them.  It is impossible for that to happen if ideas and opinions are shared only with me after the meeting.  I recognize that there may be occasional exceptions, but adhering to this rule of engagement to the greatest extent possible will improve the quality of our decisions.  It also will make us more efficient if we can hear all views at the same time and move forward with a decision.  This will be increasingly important as we need to make time-sensitive decisions about budget and revenue that cannot wait for perfect information, and that cannot wait for vetting in multiple rounds of meetings.  If everyone feels that our meetings are a safe place to express their views, including disagreements, then it will be reasonable to assume that silence equals consent.  It also will be easier to move forward.  What needs to happen for our meetings to be viewed by everyone as a safe place to express their views?

6 thoughts on “Silence Is Not Always Golden: Speaking Up In Meetings

  1. I agree with what is written above. We all have the ability to share our ideas and should not feel that we cannot share those ideas. Some will agree and others will not, but that is the open communication process. The issues should not be between faculty and staff or even if there is a significant power differential. What matters is that we are all working together for the common good which is the School of Government. This will involve changing the way some of us think, and many resist change, but we need to look towards all of our futures and insure the stability of our School and our paychecks.

  2. This is an easier rule to apply if everyone in the meeting is a peer, but it may be harder if there is a significant power differential among the participants.

    Unfortunately, this is far too true for a variety of reasons. Power does not only come from title but from association as well as perceived feelings of superiority.

    I, also agree, that it would take a change in our culture to encurage everyone to speak up and share their opinion. It may also take some intensive work internally. Before every member of the “crew” at the SOG feels as valued and appreciated as every other member, this will always be a problem in group discussions.

    Do I have an answer? Of course not, or I would definitely be making big bucks on the consultant circuit. However, I do believe that as individuals, we can start the shift in culture by stepping out of our comfort zone and striking up a conversation with some one hat we don’t talk to normally and actually listen to whatever they feel comfortable sharing.

    The more informal conversations we have across the “power divide” the easier it willl be to come together in larger gatherings and feel comfortable sharing your thoughts – no matter how crazy/strange/naive/uneducated/brillant/enlightening/fascinating some one else may find them.

    “Relationship building” is the key to so many of the normal issues that hinder true communication.

    So meet so-so in the coffee room and extend your conversation beyond “Good Morning how are you?” You may even end up with a new friend. Wow, a friend where you work……what a frightening concept!

  3. In college I took a course that was centered on a particularly divisive issue (or series of issues), the Middle East & the West. During the first class, the professor asked us to come up with a list of groudrules that we would all follow during discussions on different topics. I don’t recall all of the rules we decided upon, but I do remember that the rules guided the discussions for the entire semester and the entire class (as diverse as it was) followed the rules out of respect for our fellow classmates. The rules fostered a positive environment which in turn allowed for interesting and wonderful discussions to occur. While a college classroom is much different than a meeting amongst coworkers, I think if we were to come up with a list of rules to abide by, the power differential may not seem to be as much of a barrier to those that are afraid to speak up. I will suggest that the list not be too long or restrictive as that may prevent meaningful discussions to occur. A good balance would be necessary to make this work

  4. I am in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed above, and I don’t want my comments to be misunderstood as indicating anything to the contrary. But power differential isn’t the only barrier to speaking out in meetings. Some of us really have to take ideas to a quiet place and mess around with them before we have a thoughtful response, and that’s especially true if what we think we think is likely to elicit a strong reaction from others. I think we differ, also, in how articulate we are able to be spontaneously as opposed to having an opportunity to put our thoughts in order. Speaking for myself, I sometimes know what I think, but not why I think it until I ponder it a bit. I try to speak out in meetings, because I do believe there is value in “stirring the pot” even if that doesn’t always cast me in an especially favorable light–sometimes the only thing I have to contribute is my confusion. This forum works especially well for me, however, because I can always backspace! 🙂

  5. I agree that silence is taken as consent, until, sometimes, when you try to implement something, and find that there is passive resistance all around. So while we may even say, “I didn’t hear any objections”, the silent majority can have a lot of power by their actions. I don’t know what to suggest other than always encouraging, asking, prodding, pleading to get peoples’ thoughts, and making every encounter as un-threatening as possible.

  6. I agree that we all have a responsibility to speak up, no matter what our positions are. Our silence sets us up for passive/aggressive reaction (which is easy but not useful), and it negates any positive influence we could generate by actively using our different perspectives.

    Like Dona, I need time to internally process what I see/hear/consider. I am willing to blurt out what I’m thinking in the immediate moment, if others can cut me some slack for expressing a less-than-fully-developed opinion. It is a burden of being an introvert; we have to process things internally first.

    In personal conversations, to get at any hidden issues, you can ask “what else do you want me to know, that you don’t want to tell me?”

    Perhaps we can develop similar code language for “what else do you want us consider that you are reluctant to mention?”

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