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It’s easy for a few people to dominate a conversation, especially when that conversation is taking place on a virtual platform. A couple of meetings last week left me wondering how we can make the breakouts better – for everyone.
When we broke into Zoom groups at a networking meeting, mine included a bunch of men, all lawyers of one sort or another, who did a lot of talking amongst themselves. And four, maybe five women, who barely got a word in edgewise.
We had plenty of time for a conversation. It was just hard to find a way to join in, even for me, and you know I’m not exactly a shrinking violet.
Maybe that’s just how that particular group operates?
But no. Days later, I was in a different meeting, a whole different group.
The speaker put us in breakout rooms for a five-minute discussion. The two guys started talking … and kept talking as the clock ticked. One woman managed to get in a quick comment before the boys grabbed the conversational ball back.
I finally jumped in and asked the three women who’d been silent what they had to add. There was a minute left for all three of them! The last one barely opened her mouth before [POOF] the breakout session evaporated, and we reappeared in the main meeting.
My heart sank when it was time for a second breakout … and the same people appeared on my screen.
It was slightly more balanced the second time around. And I was slightly more assertive about interrupting the Me-me-me-I-I-I Guy and making sure we had at least a little bit of time to hear from everyone.
What is up with these guys?
If you have five minutes for a conversation and seven or eight people in the group, isn’t it obvious that one person shouldn’t monopolize the mic while the clock ticks away? Do they not have any interest in hearing what anyone else has to say?
I’m going to guess my experience is sounding familiar to you. Tons of research shows how often men interrupt women, talk over them, or shut them out of conversations. It even happens to powerful women like Supreme Court Justices, which prompted my thoughts a while back about how to handle it.
If men are used to monopolizing meetings in real life, it’s even easier to shut people out in these virtual breakout rooms.
Here are some ways to address it.
1. When you run a meeting, set clear expectations. Or be even firmer and call them ground rules.
Before sending participants off to their breakout rooms, tell them directly how much time they’ll have and suggest that they make sure everyone has a chance to participate.
2. Name a facilitator for each breakout group. Appoint someone to watch the clock and make sure everyone puts in their two-cents’ worth. Frame it as ensuring that we all get the benefit of everybody’s experience and expertise.
3. Be a Ghost Host. That’s what I was doing when I jumped into the middle of the man-chat and redirected the conversation toward the people being ignored. You might imagine it’s natural for me to step into a facilitator role, even if it’s a self-appointed one. Truth is, any of us can do that and many of us should.
I embraced the Ghost Host concept when I heard Susan Fignar speak about business etiquette at a lunch meeting twenty years ago. The conversation at each table would be more productive—and more enjoyable, she said, if someone at that table acted as the host, steering the conversation just enough that it included everyone.
4. If you’re comfortable jumping in, amplify the voices of women who aren’t. Open the door for a quiet person’s participation by asking her a question or inviting her comment. Reinforce her point if it seems to be ignored. And if she’s interrupted, steer the conversation back to her.
A word to the women who hold back. (And this goes for men too!)
It’s hard to blame people in the midst of a conversation for ignoring those black squares on the screen with a name in the lower left corner. That’s exactly what was going on with a few of the women who were being left out of my breakout session.
Visual cues are part of the interaction. As we speak—and listen—we’re watching each other smile, nod, or maybe even roll our eyes.🙄 One way I know you have something to say is by the look on your face, and that prompts me to toss the conversational ball your way.
If I don’t see the look on your face, I don’t know if you’re engaged, or even if you’re there. For all I know, you walked away and left your laptop while you grab a snack from the kitchen.
So, remember this, next time you’re in a virtual meeting:
If you don’t want to be overlooked, you must be willing to be seen.
Turn on your camera!
You’ve had plenty of experience with virtual meetings by now. And maybe you’ve discovered the secret to making sure those breakout conversations are well-balanced. Fill us in with a comment here.
Thank you, Catherine! When sending people to breakouts, I like to say, “ if you’re a person who usually stays quiet, please take the chance to step up. And if you are naturally an easy talker, please take the opportunity to step back for others.” It makes people aware of their tendencies— to identify their type— and sets the expectation.
That’s a fabulous way to put it, Paula! Thanks.
Wow Catherine-what a great topic. This is so relevant to me. Thank you for this wisdom about recognizing all in a discussion, inviting all to engage and suggesting to turn on the camera.
The thing about suggesting that people turn on their cameras, Lisa, is that it doesn’t always work. I led a workshop for a group of women about creating a more powerful presence, and a good half of them resisted my suggestion that the session would be more productive for all of us if we could see each other. Who knows what they were hiding from?
It’s easy to complain about being shut out by people who hold forth. And we contribute to that imbalance when we hold back.
What an excellent message, Catherine! In my decades in management and management consulting, I’ve had to deliberately call on a few of the women on my teams too often to contribute. I tried gentle prodding, direct challenge, and at one point, I had to have a private conversation with an all-star on my team, a woman who was quiet in live and teleconference meetings, though very direct in one-on-one conversations with me and with others. I actually got angry with her once, saying, “I don’t understand why you are so quiet in meetings, both in-person and virtual! You are short circuiting our progress when I am absolutely certain that you have substantial value to add!” I never got to the root cause, but through much prodding and positive reinforcement, she gradually became an outstanding thought leader to the entire team in group settings. She then proceeded to teach me interpersonal skills that I lacked. I know she earned great respect from everyone else on the team and when I left that position, I suggested to my boss that she succeed me in my Director’s role. She did and she led that department in just a short time to achieve much greater progress than I had in the prior 4 years of my tenure. I’m so proud of her to this day, and that was almost 20 years ago!
Earlier in my career, I stumbled onto Paula’s technique at the beginning of meetings, though my method was too abrupt in retrospect, “I expect each of you to help solve the problem at hand IN THIS FORUM or “I will not tolerate silence from any member of this group,” and put every silent participant on the spot regardless of gender. It surely wasn’t as effective in retrospect as Paula’s more poised approach, but it at least quieted the guys down somewhat and leveled he playing field of contributors.
In respect to virtual meetings, I directly ask everyone to use their cameras for the very reasons you cite. Some repeatedly disobeyed and the price they paid is they were never contributors to the stated purpose of the meeting, either to help move us forward, or provide input in overcoming an obstacle. I would rarely call on a person with only a photo in their “Zoom box”. After several one-on-one private conversations with those individuals, usually men by the way, I actually had to counsel them into leaving my group and taking another role under another manager or organization. Perhaps questionable tactics, but my mantra with my team members was always, “Either get ‘all in’ or get out. I will not tolerate passivity.”
Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
You were a tough taskmaster, Rich! I’m with you, though, in wanting to create full (and fairly equal) participation in meetings. I just don’t get the people who keep their cameras off. Yes, it can be a hassle to make myself presentable for a Zoom meeting. The rewards are worth it though.