The Case for Silent Meetings

Silence is sometimes the best answer - Dalai Lama

So I’m a massive fan of having silent time in meetings so participants can have time to think and process. I’m also a fan about getting the participants to write things down before sharing them with others. Today I read an article about a new book, ‘The Surprising Science of Meetings’ written by Steven G Rogelberg. The book talks about the science behind it. This sparked me on a journey to learn more about silent meetings.

About 5 years ago there was an explosion of silent meetings after an interview of Jeff Bezos from Amazon. He shared that their meetings started with silence. Allowing participants to read and comment on a narrative memo for up to half an hour. Reporting a more focused discussion. Recently there has been a resurgence in the silent meeting discussion. Pierre-Yves Ricau from Square shared their VP, Alyssa Henry’s practice in an article. In his 2017 Annual letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reinforced his commitment to silent meetings.

Why have a silent meeting?

From everything I’ve read here is the list.

  • Preparation – A narrative memo to create the context for discussion is quite hard to write. It requires distilling of ideas, gathering of data and thinking through of counter-arguments.
  • Intention – The silence provided ensures that everyone has read the document distraction free. Reading in the meeting cuts out the bluffing and blustering that goes along in a lot of meetings.
  • Inclusion – Hearing the voices of introverts, minorities, juniors, disillusioned and remote workers.
  • Transparency & Scalability – Everyone can read the document. Sharing questions, answers and comments to a large audience. Opportunity for involvement and contribution of a broader audience.
  • Speed – The document gives you the opportunity to focus on the parts that impact you. There is less repetition with everyone working on the same page.

So what are the types of Silent Meetings?

Reading Time Meeting or the Silent Start

Amazon and Square both use the reading time method. The host of the meeting prepares a narrative memo before the meeting. Then the beginning of the meeting is set aside for reading and making notes. Amazon uses actual printouts whereas Square uses a google document. After the reading time, the discussion starts.

Complete Silence

In 2012, Donnie Maclurcan and Janet Newbury shared that the Post Growth Institute use completely silent meetings. They use Skype Chat to carry out their meetings. Some of the benefits they saw were

  • Time for participants to reflect without the distraction of actively listening
  • Easy to share links and documents
  • Keywords like ACTION ITEM and KEY RESOLUTION make it is easy to follow up after the meeting
  • The minutes write themselves
  • Flexibility in location and time
  • The flow of the meeting maintained even if people need to leave
  • Catching up on what has happened is simple
  • Conversations are more thoughtful as it introduces a moment to reflect before sending

Giving space

In the Lucid Meetings article on silent meetings, Kevin Eikenberry suggests a few ways to encourage silence in a meeting.

  1. Frame silence differently: If there is a quiet moment let it sit for a few seconds
  2. Create space for thinking: Etch it out or plan for it
  3. Don’t judge the silent people: Humbly ask their opinions
  4. Change your pace: Control the energy in the room using silence

Alternative

Based on the document method by Square. BigTeam offers a platform for anonymous feedback and isn’t bound in time or place. They make some good arguments for a shared document with anonymous feedback capabilities. Using the document as a pre-meeting tool or as a meeting replacement.

More Voices Contributing and Greater Diversity
Not restricted to be in attendance at the meeting. Feedback and questions from a larger representation are possible.

The immediate feedback is anonymous
Politics can affect opinions, ideas and feedback in person and online. Providing anonymity allows the best ideas to shine.

Avoid awkwardness and lack of softer voices
Anonymity allows contribution from all voices.

Feedback is stored and centralised
The centralised storage of the feedback and ideas increases the transparency. It also allows for a one-stop shop for the latest information.

My thoughts

From everything I’ve read the integration of silence into a meeting is all for the good. We have very little silence in our lives anyway it might be worth it just for that. Silences can be confronting but if you are all reading the same document at the same time it wouldn’t be so bad.

In an ideal world, I would love for organisers to provide high-quality information and documents before calling a meeting. For participants to read and understand those documents before the meeting. But in the famous words of Darryl Kerrigan ‘Tell ’em they’re dreamin’!

I’m not sure if I could go the completely quiet online chat meeting. I can see it working for remote teams in different time zones and working conditions. There is also the advantage of a completely recorded meeting. Though with current video meeting technology, you can get that with the advantage of seeing people’s faces and reactions.

Having taken that into account. Maybe we should embrace the silence in a meeting. Giving time for people to sit and mull over ideas and concepts that are coming their way. Also forcing organisers to come to the meeting with a well thought through agenda and/or document. Maybe there would be more communication with a little more silence.

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