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To Get People Talking, Try Asking the Right Questions

It’s happened to all of us: You pose a carefully-worded question, pause and wait for someone to respond. Anyone. Please? And then you hear nothing, other than an awkward, prolonged silence. You start to panic and make assumptions like: “They must be multitasking! Maybe they’re all on mute. I guess no one cares about this topic. These people obviously didn’t do the prework.” And so on.

In reality, if our entreaties are met by silence, it’s because we simply haven’t figured out how to invite people into the conversation the right way. Of course, there’s no single right way that works for all kinds of people, all of the time. Here are a few guidelines to help you coax willing participation, most of the time, from even the most reticent virtual meeting participants. (These tips also work well when you’re meeting face to face.)

  • Make it safe. Clear the way for everyone’s participation by stating and enforcing ground rules that call for balanced participation. (Some I especially like to use: Share the air. All perspectives are valid and valued. Balance advocacy with inquiry.) In particular, make sure you’re ready to rein in participants who tend to dominate or criticize, since both behaviors can make it uncomfortable or impossible for others to contribute freely. Demonstrate that you’re genuinely interested in hearing all voices by giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate, not just the big talkers.
  • Make it clear. Questions that may make sense to us may be confusing or ambiguous to others. For example, consider how tough it could be to answer “What are your views?” versus “What’s the one aspect of this change you’re most excited about and one aspect you’re most concerned about?” If your question is met by silence, own responsibility for the possible confusion, then pause and rephrase it: “Judging from the silence, I think that the way I worded that question may have been unclear.” Pause. “Let me phrase it another way….” Chances are, someone will chime in.
  • Make it count. Explain how participants’ responses and ideas will be used, and why they matter. For example: “Your perspectives are especially important, since you’re closest to those who are most affected by our upcoming organizational changes. Without your input, we risk making costly mistakes.” Also let people know what happens with their ideas after this meeting, so they have a sense that their opinions will be carried forward to make a difference. (“We’ll be summarizing your ideas for the senior leadership team, calling out what you see as critical success factors.”)
  • Make it interesting. Ask questions that energize and excite people. Compare “What steps should we take to achieve our goals?” to “A genie has suddenly appeared and promised to grant you three wishes. What are your three wishes, and why?” Yes, this means you need to script questions in advance. Prepare more questions than you think you need, in case one or two fall flat. Open-ended questions usually have the potential to be more engaging than close-ended questions. Avoid “filler” questions whose only purpose is to get people talking, unless it’s part of a social check-in at the start or end of the meeting.
  • Make it inviting. Some people, especially introverts or those who are new to a given group, may need more encouragement to contribute than others. Craft questions that will make it especially inviting for even the quietest people to participate. For example, instead of commenting how quiet Anna has been, try latching onto something that’s unique about her experience that she will likely want to share, given the chance. Example: “Anna, can you compare and contrast your experiences when working in China with Jim’s? I remember how tough things were there for a while until you got the hang of it.” Most people are eager to share their views, with the right encouragement.
  • Make it easy. Some people prefer to put their ideas in writing, and some make verbal contributions more easily. Alternate ways people can contribute. For example, design some questions to be answered out loud around the virtual table and some to be answered via a chat box, poll, or electronic flipchart. Likewise, think about which questions you can ask in advance of the meeting in an online conference area or survey of some sort, especially if you’re tight on time or the topics are likely to be contentious. Give thought as to whether responses should be anonymous, if your tool permits it. Anonymity often has a wonderful way of encouraging conversation.
  • Make it quick. Virtual meeting agendas are often jam-packed, with relatively little time for in-depth conversation. If more than four or five people participate, it’s rare that everyone will have a chance to provide a lengthy response. Construct questions that can be answered relatively quickly by everyone in the time allotted. (Quick responses can be at least as insightful as longer responses. Plus, overly long responses often cause others to tune out.) Questions that ask people to fill in the blank, offer “just one idea,” or summarizing a single piece of advice tends to work well. By offering a choice between typing in responses or responding verbally, you can usually gather more in-depth responses in less time.
  • Make it hard to tune out. By varying how you ask questions, the order in which you ask them, and the method by which people can respond, you will stimulate more active participation. Try asking some questions by going around the virtual table in a certain order, and others in a different order. Sprinkle polls and surveys throughout to allow for quick responses. Alternate between verbal and written responses. Encourage people to ask questions of others around the table. Keep things fresh and unexpected to get people hooked and keep them there.

When our questions are met with silence, it’s time to look in the mirror to figure out what we need to change. If people are investing the time to join a meeting, chances are, they really do want to share their views and ideas. It’s up to us as meeting leaders to figure out exactly how and when to pose questions that will make it inviting (and safe) for each person to participate actively.

 

Links

The Power of Great Questions is a key component of my four-part Leading Engaging Virtual Meetings workshop series. Our accompanying reference guide includes loads of tips and examples.

Past Communiques by Nancy Settle-Murphy:

Overcome Time and Distance to Stay Connected, Engaged and Energized

From Bland and Boring to Captivating and Compelling

Tapping the Quiet Power of Introverts in a Virtual World

Other resources:

Making Questions Work: A Guide to How and What to Ask for Facilitators, Consultants, Managers, Coaches, and Educators book by Dorothy Strachan – highly-recommended!

Relearning the Art of Asking Questions – HBR blog – Pohlmann and Thomas, March 27, 2015

The Key to Engaging Students in Learning by YouthLearn – very helpful guidelines to engage anyone through intentional questions