Silence is not consensus!


Engage a group, break silence and get feedback.

I've been on a week long course with some of the best minds I've met. The distance learning course I'm taking part in bought together a great selection of people from all walks of life and gave me invaluable experience in how different personalities and cultures work.

Have you ever been talking to a group of people and asked a question, to which you get no engagement? Even if you need a 'Yes' confirming that they all understand, it rarely materialises. Over the last week it has become more evident to me that this is common during group exercises or meetings where there may be a wide variety of personalities and individuals.

I have decided to find out why and provide some tips on mitigating this and moving away from the general conception that 'Silence is Consensus!'

The starting point is to clarify what does not constitute silence. I'm sure we have all been meetings where there is tension, disagreements and in some cases where no consensus is met. In these cases it is common for one party back down, withdraw any opinions and thus become silent. THIS IS NOT CONSENSUS; the withdrawal of an opinion could be for many reasons, whether it be feeling uncomfortable with conflict or the assumption that disagreement may never end until one party gives in.

We can look at this from a wide variety of perspectives but let’s look at active engagement and turning responses into, what I would like to call 'positive confirmation' i.e. individuals saying 'yes' or 'no'.

It is down to you, as the leader, to facilitate this. Remove the idea that 'they had the chance to speak up and didn't'.
It is down to you to facilitate the involvement of all members, understand their body language and recognise the introverts/critical thinkers.

You should be constantly asking yourself these questions. Is everyone engaged? If not, how can I bring them in? How can you get better participation?

The most important part for me in active engagement is making sure that I engage with the introverted members of the group at appropriate times. The key point here is to remember that introverts are more likely to need time to listen, process and evaluate what you or other people have said. Therefore, involve them if you feel their body language is changing or when you are getting to the end of a subject or issue.

With some people who perceive a challenge of an opinion as confrontational, it may be necessary to conduct in a level of humbleness or humility. Try to deviate from your normal meeting model, it may work better than you think.
I have used something along these lines if I feel that by asking people to confirm their agreement I'm not getting the response I would like.

"Having now told you about my idea, I've decided that actually it doesn't sound too good after all and I think there are areas that could do with improvements, can you come up with some suggestions?" - You aren't admitting defeat, instead stating that by combining the minds of all those in the team a better result can be met.

Don't forget to thank everyone for their contribution, stay impartial and then request the involvement of the remainder of the group if they are not forthcoming.

Now let's consider your personality as a leader, your dominant meeting style and the power struggle between a leader, a manager, the facilitator and the participant of the meeting. You may be all these at different points and it’s important you recognise that where appropriate.

You may find the power play of the meeting is such that you are presenting ideas in a way they have already be approved, imagine the occasions when you have been on the receiving end of such a meeting, and think about what you thought and how you would have conducted it differently.

Are you giving out mixed messages when trying to act as all the roles above, do you need to delegate other members of the team to be the facilitator or leader? The choice is ultimately yours but if you don’t feel you are getting the results you require, or when a project starts it starts to meet opposition when you thought there wasn't any, it may be time for a change of tact.

Positive confirmation is preferred at all times, and by assuming consensus results may not be as good as expected. That said, every situation is different and only you will know the circumstances surrounding your work place.

All the best