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ARTICLE: It’s OK to be quiet in meetings

source: Financial Times, Kenneth Andersson
source: Financial Times, Kenneth Andersson

The New York Times announced in April that Joe Kahn, a very wealthy wine connoisseur who speaks Mandarin and lives in a Manhattan apartment building once said to have housed Marlon Brando, would be its next executive editor. Kahn is known in news meetings to comment only sparingly. Working on a daily newspaper with remorseless deadlines certainly makes it difficult for would-be wafflers to indulge their instincts in meetings—because there simply isn’t enough time. The author of a recent Financial Times article believes that very little is precisely what should be said by a lot more meeting participants.

Research shows that in a typical six-person meeting, more than 60% of the talking is done by just two people. The experience can be painfully tedious for those forced to sit and watch. On the other hand, the sight of a successful but quiet person in a meeting is often deemed worthy of comment—and thankfully, Joe Kahn is not alone.

Shortly after Joe Biden was elected President, one of his top political advisers, Mike Donilon, was described as Biden’s “conscience, alter ego and shared brain”. In meetings, Donilon stayed mostly silent until the very end of a discussion, at which point Biden often embraced whatever point he had made. Dick Cheney, renowned for his ability to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself, was often called the most powerful Vice President in US history when he served under George W. Bush—he rarely spoke in meetings and showed little reaction to comments by others. Sir Simon Stevens, former chief executive of NHS England, was known as a formidable operator who had the gift of being able to stay silent in meetings unless he had something important to say. There is good reason to talk a lot in meetings for those who lack the title of VP or CEO—it can make them look more important. The correlation between speaking time and authority is so well linked that some researchers call it the “babble hypothesis” of leadership, an effect that appears to occur regardless of intelligence or personality. A consultant who helps organizations hold more productive meetings points out there are costs to letting long talkers dominate a meeting. Fostering innovation, for example, requires diversity of thought. But if meetings are dominated by a noisy minority, there may be a fantastically diverse workforce with no diversity of thought. Which lends weight to an appealing idea: silent meetings. Instead of brainstorming verbally, participants write down ideas that are put up on a board in a way that does not identify whose idea is whose, and then discussed. The process can strengthen introverts and neutralize the outspoken. It may not work for all meetings, but in most cases, when it comes to lengthy meetings—it may be wise to remain silent and risk being thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Read the full article on Financial Times (subscription required)


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