6 ways to make your meetings more inclusive for introverts

As an introvert, I can tell you that some of the more challenging situations you can find yourself in at work are meetings.

I know – you might be thinking, “Really? Meetings?”

Now that I have piqued your interest, let me first remind you that introversion is not the same thing as shyness, and it is not linked to a fear of speaking in front of others (including public speaking). The primary challenge for introverts in a group meeting setting is that almost without exception, the extroverts dominate discussions, with each extrovert often starting to speak before another has finished.

Extroverts tend to think while they are talking, and introverts tend to think before they speak. This often leads to extroverts rambling on in meetings as they talk through their thoughts, only to be interrupted by another extrovert who then talks while thinking, and the cycle repeats. This is exacerbated by the fact that extroverts outnumber introverts around 2:1.

Some of you might think it is simply good manners to not interrupt people while they are talking, and I would agree with you. However, if 30-odd years of experience between higher education and the world of work has taught me anything, it is that, based on people’s behaviour, many people think it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt others – especially in meetings. If you are like me and you wait for someone to finish what they are saying, you will likely find that someone else starts speaking before you because they start speaking before the other person is finished.

Employees should not have to interrupt their co-workers to provide input. I cannot tell you how many times but I have been in meetings where I have waited patiently for a break in the conversation for me to share my ideas only to never have that opportunity come, or have the conversation move on so far past the point I wanted to raise that it would make it awkward for me to share it. “Hey – I have something to add, but it is about what we were talking about 10 minutes ago…”

Let us remember that is a big part of the power of diversity comes from people being able to share different perspectives and ideas. If you make it difficult for a third of your people to share their good ideas, your function is likely suffering as a result, and you are certainly not taking full advantage of the diversity of thought across your team. 

Meetings can be problematic to all types of people when it comes to being able to provide input. One study at a large global bank found that when employees were asked “when you have a contribution to make in a meeting, how often are you able to do so?” – only 35 percent said they felt able to make a contribution all the time. When it comes to introverts specifically, a Qualtrics survey found that 61 percent of introverts believe they have ideas that would benefit the wider organisation, yet 55 percent of them believe their organisation doesn’t care about their opinions. 

Just the other week I was in a series of all-day workshops with over 10 people. At the end of the first day, we went around the table and everyone provided one thing that they liked about the day, and one thing they felt needed to be improved. When it was my turn to share what I thought could be improved, I pointed out that the discussions were dominated by a few people who often talked for long periods of time and interrupted each other, leaving little opportunity for others to speak up. As we left the meeting room, I had a co-worker approach me and ask if I needed interruption training. While I know he was joking (at least to some extent), he was basically saying that I just needed to get comfortable interrupting others in order to make my points. For the record, I responded that no, I don’t need interruption training and that I shouldn’t have to interrupt people to add value to the conversation.

Ironically, there was a guide on the conference table on how to have more inclusive meetings. One of the five best practices listed was, “Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions and ensure that everyone has a say.” However, it goes to show that while guides like this are a great idea and are certainly well intended, unless people follow the guidance, they are useless.

Another challenge for introverts when it comes to meetings is based in neurodiversity. You might be surprised to learn that introverts’ brains are different than those of extroverts, and one of the ways in which this is manifested is that introverts can tend to be “slower” thinkers when compared to their extroverted counterparts. Introverts typically need time to process what they are hearing and experiencing, and they often come up with very interesting insights afterward – but this means that sometimes by the time they generate thoughts to contribute to a conversation or a meeting, the relevant moment may have already passed. Speaking from experience, some of my best ideas actually come to me after a meeting. 

Being an introvert that needs time to process information can also make it difficult when you are called on unexpectedly to provide thoughts or feedback – if an introvert isn’t lucky enough to have an instantaneous insight, and hasn’t had time to process, it can make them look like they either weren’t paying attention or that they simply don’t have any value to add – both of which are inaccurate. However, “perception is reality” as they say. 

Speaking of which, by simply being who they are, introverts often suffer negative perceptions from their managers. Did you know that research across multiple countries has shown that introverts are promoted less frequently and earn less over their lifetime than extroverts? I can’t tell you how many times I have had managers tell me that I need to speak up more in meetings, yet the reasons I don’t speak up more are based in my introversion, and the typical meeting domination of extroverts. At one point in my career I had a 1:1 with my manager and in response to their comments about being disappointed that I didn’t speak up more in meetings I let them know that I’m an introvert, and began to explain that our meetings are not optimised for inclusion. The response I received was, “Don’t use that term.” – they were referring to my use of “introvert.” My fears had been confirmed – the very first time I outed myself as an introvert to a manager didn’t go well. 

Now that I have explained some of the challenges introverts face in meetings at work, I’m going to provide you with a list of practical suggestions to make meetings more inclusive:

  1. In every meeting, have at least one person serve as the meeting moderator, ensuring:
    • Everyone has the chance to speak;
    • Only a few people don’t dominate the time and the conversation;
    • People who haven’t spoken are called upon to see if they have anything to contribute, ideally towards the end of a topic of discussion, ensuring people have had enough time to process.
  2. Don’t call on people and ask questions on content they haven’t been able to fully absorb and process.
  3. Don’t allow people to interrupt and don’t force attendees to have to interrupt people in order to share.
  4. Send out pre-reads so people can absorb the material and have time to think about it so they are better prepared to contribute to a discussion.
  5. Send out a meeting summary afterwards eliciting ideas that may have come to mind after the meeting .
  6. If you are running a meeting where you want people to break into groups and brainstorm ideas, allow time for brainwriting in silence before the group shares and discusses ideas.

A significant portion of the value of diversity comes from people being able to share their diverse perspectives and ideas. If you don’t run your meetings in an inclusive manner, you may be preventing your team and company from benefitting from the diversity of your employees, and you also risk employee dissatisfaction and disengagement.

I have plenty of other practical suggestions for how to work towards making your work environment more inclusive of introverts – I’ll be presenting them in June at the ATC2020 DIGITAL. Do join me as we explore more.

Cover image: Shutterstock

Become an unstoppable force for good at this year’s ATC2020 DIGITAL. Tickets on sale now, see you online!

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