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June 2016
Communication at Work

Thoughts on AristotlePatti Lind

Earlier this year, Google released their results of a yearlong study on group dynamics called Project Aristotle. The researchers studied 100 groups and determined that the better teams shared two qualities in common: balanced dialogue and social sensitivity. Because of these qualities, team members felt comfortable speaking up and confident that their contributions would be valued. This is exactly what I have been trying to focus on for the past thirty years.

The challenge is that we live in a vocal culture that can lack social sensitivity. Those with the persistence to keep asserting their views frequently talk their listeners into silence and compliance. Interrupting is the quickest way to get heard. Active talkers will jump right back in after being interrupted while those who are uncomfortable with interruptions are more likely to stop talking. Many people are simply unwilling to put their voices forward at all when being heard requires persistent assertion, over-talking and interrupting.

So, what can you do if you feel like you have lost your voice within your team? Ideally, you could advocate for communication agreements, a team member acting as the meeting facilitator and discussion techniques that promote all members of a group being heard (e.g. small group discussions, writing ideas down on postit notes, etc.). But putting those practices into place can be a steep uphill climb if you are not the leader. Instead, here are some simple ideas that you can do right now if you work with an unruly group:
  • The easiest thing is to raise your hand. Keep holding your hand up and eventually it will be noticed.
  • When given the chance to speak, say "There is a lot of interrupting going on; I want to be able to say my complete thought."
  • If you still get interrupted, put your hand up again to finish your sentence and then say "I wasn't able to finish my point previously."
  • Sometimes it is easier to advocate for others more than for our self.
    • "She got cut off; I'd like to hear what she had to say."
    • "There are so many people talking that I can't follow the conversation."
  • If you are answering a question and others chime in for you, put your hand up again and say "I'd like to answer that question." or " I'd like to add some additional comments.".
  • If someone discounts your idea when you are only 3 or 4 words into your sentence, politely hold your ground.
    • "Hold on a minute. I'd like to tell you my full idea and the reasoning behind it."
    • "Wow, that was a quick "no". I'd like to make another run at my idea so you can hear it completely."
  • Speak to someone privately
  • To a helpful colleague:
    • "I'm not sure whether you are aware of this or not, but I keep getting cut off in meetings. Could you help support me finishing my sentences?"
    • To someone who interrupts you: " I'm not sure whether you realize this or not, but oftentimes I am asked a question and you answer for me. I'd prefer to answer questions myself."
It has been my experience that active talkers go in and out of being socially aware. What helps them the most is for others to raise their awareness. The simple suggestions listed above are actually quite powerful and can be all that it takes for a group to balance out their dynamics. They just need to hear your voice.
Lead a discussion on how your team can engage all the voices of your team and balance the contributions proportionately. Explain to the team that even if the talkative people reduce their frequency of talking, if other voices don't come forward there will be no actual change. All voices are needed for there to be balance. Keep in mind that the simplest solution for engaging all voices is to have portions of your meetings when people talk about ideas in groups of 2 or 3. Simply ask each dyad to share their key thought and you will have engaged 100% of your team and heard directly from 50% of them.

If you would like to know more about Google's Project Aristotle, below is the link to an article in the New York Times about the project.
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team — by Charles Duhigg

My book, Communication At Work, is available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and eBook formats, and may be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell Bookstore and Inkwater Press.
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