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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Alissa King

How to not dominate a meeting

Today I had what might have been my messiest, least organized Zoom meeting in a long time.

I am a big fan of preparing for conversations and meetings, and I feel especially strongly about this in a remote context. A long, unwieldy conversation that yields no action items just wastes everyone's time. This is worse when you're sitting behind a screen, ready to immediately move on to more focused tasks.

My meeting wasn't altogether bad. There were reasons I needed to have the conversation, but I hung up feeling nervous that I had alienated and confused the person with whom I had been meeting (though we did end with a nice to do list!)

But this got me thinking. There are two major issues that can derail a meeting, and both are worse in the virtual context. The first is a meeting that follows no clear agenda. The second, of course, is the meeting that is dominated by one or a handful of contributors.

This second problem is exacerbated in virtual meetings since participants who are the most likely to be overshadowed and ignored in a meeting don't even have access to body language that might allow them to interject. If they have trouble getting their voices heard in an in-person meeting, then the chance for being heard in a remote meeting is even lower.

And we all know exactly which voices are most likely to be ignored, overlooked, and overshadowed.

In order to address this issue, I'd like to offer a short primer on how not to dominate a meeting:

  1. If you're leading a meeting, create a clear agenda (and, when necessary, pre-circulate the agenda to meeting participants). This allows meeting participants to think in advance about how they would like to contribute. If you're planning a one-on-one meeting, make sure that they person you're calling knows what the subject of the meeting is. People who tend to be overshadowed in a meeting often find that in order to get the attention of others, they need to come to a meeting over-prepared, with well-crafted thoughts and ideas. Ensuring a clear agenda gives them time to do this preparatory work.

  2. Think about whether or not you have a double standard. Do you tend to agree with or listen to or respect speakers for the way they present their ideas instead of the quality of their comments? If so, you may be implicitly biased toward louder, more senior, or more dominating individuals at a meeting. Instead, try to take into account the content of people's comments, not their tone or their method of presentation. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway!) that louder folks are often men, white people, more highly educated individuals - not necessarily those who have the most important contributions in a particular meeting.

  3. Before speaking up, pause a beat and think: why am I about to make this comment? What value does it add? Does it do anything to further the conversation? Am I just bragging? Am I just taking up space? If the comment adds value, then, by all means, get in line to make a comment. If not, it might be worth remaining quiet in order to make space for someone else to make a more valuable contribution.

  4. If you're about to comment, take a quick look at the screen. Is anyone else making gestures (an open mouth, hand motions, leaning into the screen urgently) that indicate that they'd like to speak? If the person exhibiting this body language hasn't had as much time as you to speak, then let them take the floor first. If you accidentally speak at the same time, defer to them--i.e. "No, you go ahead."

  5. Ask yourself how much of your contributions to meetings is a form of self-congratulation, an effort to earn praise, or a chance to simply "show off" your personal life. Sometimes this kind of work in a conversation is necessary. We all need to share some of our work successes, and there are times when small-talk pleasantries isn't bad. But not all meetings are for this, and most meetings shouldn't be dominated by this kind of information. If you find that you are relying on work meetings to talk about your personal life, you might want to take some time to find fulfilling outlets for personal conversation outside of work.

  6. If you're leading a meeting, make sure to create space for all participants to contribute. When I used to teach, I would sometimes break my classes into groups or pairs and ask these small groups to report back to the class. For a team brainstorm session, this is a great way to get feedback from even shyer meeting attendees. You can also tell typically quiet participants, especially women and people of color, in advance that you would like to hear their input on a particular agenda item. When you come to that item, ask them to start the conversation.

  7. Aim to learn as much in a meeting as you instruct. No matter what position you're in, approach meetings as a time to learn and refine your goals. If you view yourself as a learner, then you'll find that it is easier to listen to others instead of over-occupy the air time with your own thoughts.

  8. Speak at the same volume as others. If you think everyone else in the meeting is really quiet, this is probably a good indicator that you're using your volume to dominate all other participants.

  9. Use good virtual etiquette to support and affirm what others have said. If you agree with a comment, a simple thumbs-up, silent clap, or short "Wonderful idea" is a good but not interruptive way to voice support.

  10. If you don't agree with something someone has said, allow them to finish their full thought before voicing your disagreement. And do so nicely, with respect. Duh.

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