Talking turkey

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: Check your titles at the door.

TRANSLATION: We want to find out who the troublemakers are.

Why do you have two ears but only one mouth? Not, as the cliche would have it, so you'll listen twice as much as you talk. It's so you can experience Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in stereo, of course.

Not that listening more than talking is a bad thing -- far from it. This should be every leader's constant goal. You can hear your own ideas any old time. Sadly, when many managers try to do just that, they find themselves doing all the talking anyway. Here they're trying to involve their staff in decisions, and their staff just sits there. What's wrong with them?

Usually, the problem is that nobody wants to be the first to speak up, probably because they are insecure about sharing ideas others might not accept. Consequently, they worry about feeling foolish in front of the group.

There's nothing you can do about this "trust gap," but don't give up. You can get 'em talking despite their reticence, which will end up building trust in the bargain. Just use the following simple techniques, cadged from the IS Survivor Training Center's Meeting Facilitation Research Institute.

- Get everyone to the table. That means (a) getting a big enough table, and (b) if someone takes a seat along the wall, being as direct and insistent -- but not unpleasant -- as your authority allows to suggest that they join everyone else.

- Turn phasers off. Don't just set them on stun. A Research in Motion BlackBerry set to vibrate won't disrupt the meeting, but by leaving it on, the owner has made it clear that e-mail is more interesting and important than your meeting. (On the other hand, sometimes it is more important: A server crash might take precedence over your weekly staff meeting.)- Don't ask the room for ideas. If everyone is doing their best impression of a bivalve, "What does anyone think?" won't pry their lips open. Instead, ask questions of individuals. "Barb, what do you think we should do?" will probably get Barb talking. If she declines, encourage her: "Just give us your first impression." When Barb is finished, ask another individual. "Ralph, what do you think? Do you like Barb's idea, or do you have an alternative you like better?" And if someone raises a hand, tell them to just talk. You're running a meeting not a schoolroom, after all.

Beyond the obvious benefits of getting a team talking, there's a fringe benefit as well. By orchestrating the conversation, you've done far more to establish your leadership than you'd ever achieve through a monologue.

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