5 Best Practices for Silent Meetings

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If you’re tired of sitting in meetings that end up lasting hours and getting nowhere, it might be time to consider holding silent meetings.

Silent meetings might seem…a little counter-intuitive. We get it.

However, in this post, we’re going walk you through what silent meetings are, how they work, and some of the benefits that come when you eliminate the noise of competing voices and instead opt for a more inclusive, low-pressure meeting framework.

What are silent meetings?

First: What are silent meetings, anyway?

Silent meetings are a non-traditional meeting format wherein most of the time for the meeting is spent digesting information and thinking before any actual conversation begins. Think of it as a “table read” of sorts.

However, silent meetings can work in various forms. In fact, some teams do fully silent meetings where no one speaks out loud, but instead shares comments within a communication hub (like Slack) or a digital document (like a Google Doc.)

Loud vs Silent Meetings

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The optimal setup for your silent meeting will depend on what challenges you’re facing, what’s most conducive and user-friendly for attendees, and how your team members work best.

Who thinks silent meetings are a good idea?

The practice of holding silent meetings aren’t just for the woo-woo crowd–they’re actually used by some of the top companies and most powerful leadership teams.

For example, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos uses silent meetings for senior executive team meetings. During these gatherings, everyone reads a shared memo and makes notes for 30 minutes before any discussion begins. This approach works to save time by forcing attendees to read, reflect, and summarize their thoughts before diving in for a more productive, worthwhile conversation.

“Just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting, as if they’ve read the memo,” says Bezos. “Because we’re busy. And so, you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read–and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for. And then everyone has actually read the memo, they’re not just pretending to have read the memo.”

Square’s VP Product Manager Alyssa Henry also uses silent meetings–although hers are 100% chatter-free. Team members silently work within a shared Google Doc on their laptops, which allows for more voices to be heard as there’s no competition for volume or posturing within a digital space.

Benefits of silent meetings

The silent meeting approach has its perks and benefits, including:

Creating an equal playing field. With silent meetings, everyone gets the chance to speak, whereas in traditional meetings, the loudest and most assertive group members can hijack the conversation. This format removes some of the intimidation factor and accommodates more introverted attendees who have a hard time sharing their insight in a group setting.

Giving attendees a chance to digest information. When the group is allotted time to read and digest information during the meeting, it forces participants to think about the topic at hand in real time.

Fostering more deliberate and thought-out feedback. Let’s face it: Not everyone reads the pre-meeting info. However, silent meetings with time for information consumption helps to keep people from “bluffing” their way through the meeting, which can eliminate some of the off the cuff conversation that comes when people haven’t taken the time to get up to speed on what’s being discussed.

Minimizing repetition. When everyone takes the time to get on the same page during the actual meeting, you’ll spend less time repeating common knowledge information and can dive right into problem-solving mode.

5 best practices for a successful silent meeting

In order to get the most out of your silent meeting, be sure to follow a few best practices.

1. Explain how your silent meeting will work and choose a leader.

Be sure to document how the process will go: Will you read a document together before? Will the meeting be entirely silent with feedback shared in a group document? Spell this out for your team members so they know what to expect.

You’ll also want to define what’s expected of attendees. How should people share their thoughts? What’s productive (and what’s not?) Ground rules will help attendees know how to make the meeting most effective.

Finally, pick a facilitator who will lead the meeting. A point person will help keep things on track, even if there’s not an out loud conversation happening.

2. Explain why you’re trying silent meetings.

Share why you’re trying the silent meeting format and talk about the benefits. Giving everyone context on why there’s value in the approach will help increase buy-in.

If you want to leverage some concrete examples and success stories, share the social proof that comes with major brands like Amazon and Square using this approach.

3. Pick a silent meeting format that suits your team.

Be realistic about the format that will be most conducive for your team. Is it using a software tool like Skype or Google Docs so your remote team members can be included? Is it having everyone gather in-person? Ask for their feedback on what they think is best.

From there, don’t forget to iterate on the format to see what’s most effective for your group. Test out different ways to conduct these meetings and see which is most effective.

4. Make sure everyone is participating.

When feedback is shared within a tool during a silent meeting, you have documentation around who spoke up (and who sat on the sidelines.) Reach out to those who are quiet and see how the silent meeting format can be tweaked so they feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Participation is essential from everyone involved, so use the data you have to nudge quiet team members in the direction of sharing.

5. Synthesize and share the silent meeting’s takeaways.

Just as you would with a normal meeting, have the facilitator synthesize the meeting’s key takeaways and results–and share that with the group. Doing so distills the meeting’s outcomes and reminds everyone of what you accomplished and what’s next to do.

Give silent meetings a try

When you started reading this, you might’ve thought: “Silent meetings? Really? What’s the point of that?” However, hopefully now you’ve changed that point of view and your mental wheels are turning about how this meeting approach might be good to experiment with.

While this format won’t work for all teams, it’s worth testing out for the perks it offers around information consumption, creating an equal playing field for idea-sharing, and producing more effective, productive brainstorming sessions.

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