The Sound of Silence

One of the most underrated techniques in running a workshop is just shutting up.
 
Does this sound strange to you? You have pulled a workshop together to encourage people to share views and opinions and I am saying there needs to be less talking?
 
What matters is who is talking.
 
Sometimes, when a tech team works with a group of clients or stakeholders to understand their needs, the team won’t shut up long enough to let the stakeholders get a word in edgeways. But it can happen in any workshop, a single facilitator can just as easily take most of the air time.
 

Why won’t people shut up?

“Expert-itus”

This is when a technical expert feels they need to keep demonstrating how competent they are by telling the client or stakeholders exactly how they do their job and reach their conclusions.
 

Misunderstanding silence

If a stakeholder is asked a question and does not immediately answer it is easy to assume that they didn’t understand, and launch into a repeated explanation. They might just be considering how to respond.
 

Fear of silence

Many people are very uncomfortable with silence. They learn, as they grow up, that conversation is about passing information between people and silence means the conversation has somehow failed. They say anything to fill the space.
 

What problems can it cause?

 

Confusion & underdeveloped thoughts

A conversation that is driven mostly by a tech team can leave clients or stakeholders behind. If they then find themselves confused later in the meeting it is hard to pipe up and say “hang on, can we go back to what we were talking about half an hour ago please?”
 
Not taking the opportunity to develop thoughts properly, can lead to requirements being missed at an early stage.
 

Steamrollering and lack of buy-in

Where a tech team does most of the talking the stakeholder frequently just ‘goes with the flow’. They agree to all suggestions discussed in the workshop but after they leave may feel they were steamrollered into making decisions. When they have had time to think through the implications they may find that the proposed solution is not quite what they want, and need to change things.
 
To get proper buy-in people have to feel fully involved in decision making.
 

What can you do?

Be aware

Just being aware this is a possible issue is the first step. Watch the flow of conversation in the room. Are some people talking significantly more that than others, can some people not get a word in edgeways? Are people getting enough time to think?
 

Two ears, one mouth.

This adage dates back to Ancient Greece, but is as true at it has ever been. You learn more by listening than talking.
 

Shut Up

Give the client or stakeholder time to consider what they have heard and come up with a reply. When dealing with new ideas or unfamiliar topics it can take people a little time to formulate their thoughts. Give them the space to do so. If one of your stakeholders hasn’t contributed yet, ask them for their opinion.
 

Watch body language

Before launching into speaking again look at the other people in the room. What do their body positions and facial expressions tell you? Are they thinking? Confused? Bored? Making Notes? Sketching ideas? Playing on their phone? Respond appropriately.
 
Ask them questions to help them explore the topic further. “What are your thoughts on that?”, “How would you deal with such a scenario?”, “What else should we consider?”
 

Summary

Make sure that your clients have enough time in a workshop to consider what they are being asked. Beware of people, especially the tech team, just talking to fill the space. A proper balance between talking and listening will make sure that decisions made in the workshop are fully bought into by everyone.
 

What do you think?

Has this struck a chord with you? I’m interested in your views.

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