Suggest these ground rules to help strengthen the discussion—and get better outcomes for everyone in your meetings
Thanks to introversion and a soft voice, I’ve been talked over in group settings since I was a kid. For that reason, I often leave meetings feeling unheard and unable to share my expertise. Whether you’re at work or school, losing the chance to share your ideas can make it seem like you don’t care, aren’t keeping up, or aren’t assertive enough. All three assumptions can be detrimental to your goals and the goals of the group.
When I began copywriting a few years ago, a potential client set up a meeting with me and the rest of their marketing team as an introduction. When I got on the call, the client spoke non-stop for 30 minutes about the team and their expectations.
I listened to their needs, taking mental notes, and then attempted to tell them my ideas when I thought they were finished. Each time I started to share, the client and other team members interrupted with various questions (many unrelated to what I said).
When I followed up the next day, the client informed me that they would not be hiring me because I “didn’t seem to have much to say.” After that, I knew I had to figure out how to make group meetings work better for me if I wanted to seem the least bit competent.
The usual advice I get from professionals about this issue centers on what I can do about it as a talked-over person. It’s often something along the lines of, “Can’t you just… be bolder?” For example, this Forbes article suggests that people like me should try to get to the point faster, act more confident, and get feedback from peers. However, according to a 2019 Lean In report, 34% of all men and 50% of all women experience being spoken over or interrupted in the workplace. So, it’s not just an individual issue.
While I do my best to use techniques that help me speak my mind, I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to make a workplace inclusive for introverts, extroverts, and anyone in between. I thought back to the workshops I’d led in college for an old volunteer group.
One way I learned to help conversations go smoothly was to set ground rules for all participants. Ground rules make the flow of a meeting a collective responsibility, and they help put everyone on the same page.
From that moment on, I decided to approach business meetings the same way, and these five rules changed my meetings for the better.
Sometimes, I need more time to get my thoughts together before I can express them confidently. In Self-Promotion For Introverts, author Nancy Ancowitz explains that many introverted people struggle to work through their opinions on the spot and can benefit from some time to prepare. While some people love to think aloud, discussions that require immediate problem-solving often leave out people who don’t.
I like to set a ground rule that everyone must have enough time to prepare for a meeting. When I do, I experience richer discussions in general. When everyone has a moment to think, you avoid the fluff and half-baked ideas from participants. Time to prepare can look like this:
- Sending out the meeting agenda a day (or week) in advance
- Giving people access to the presentation or readings beforehand
- Allowing a few minutes of silence at the beginning of the meeting for everyone to think about the topic
If I’m not the meeting leader, there are several ways I now ask for time. I’ll say, “Would you be able to prepare an agenda or share relevant documents in advance?” or “Would you mind if I suggest a few ground rules for the conversation, including a chance for everyone to prep?” Over the years, I’ve only had one person say they had no time to create an agenda, so I offered to draft it instead.
Similarly, there’s nothing worse than preparing for a meeting only for one participant to derail the conversation completely. I once had a group meeting with another writer and a client who wanted writing services from both of us. We’d discussed the goal for the meeting in advance, so I prepared accordingly. Unfortunately, as soon as we got on the call, the other writer brought up an unrelated topic and took over the entire discussion.
Setting a ground rule about sticking to the agenda can keep everyone focused so that the conversation doesn’t follow the whims of a few people. It also creates a predictable structure, so people know exactly when they’ll get the chance to express their opinions.
While it may seem elementary, creating some rules about how many times someone can speak is an excellent way to ensure everyone gets a turn. Some people take over meetings without realizing that they’ve been the only one speaking for 30 minutes.
This is not to say you should plan out exactly when everyone has to talk. One study suggests that turn-taking freedom is a factor that makes meetings feel more authentic and valuable to participants. However, that freedom to participate is limited if one or two people take over or constantly interrupt others.
The ground rule “new voices at three” helps people self-regulate how much they’re talking. Once I’ve expressed my thoughts in a meeting three times, I hold back to allow new voices to enter the conversation. Then, when more people have had a chance to share (or there’s a lull), I can jump back in.
Having a ground rule like this keeps people aware of the space they’re taking up, and it makes people more likely to think before they speak.
Since I sometimes need more time to think than others, moving quickly from topic to topic results in me losing the chance to share. Or, I’ll feel like I have some good ideas after everyone else has already moved on to something new. For this reason, I like to sometimes call for a follow-up moment.
A follow-up moment is a chance to go back to a previous discussion topic. You can insert these moments into the agenda after each section or at the end of the meeting. For example, before concluding, the facilitator could ask, “Does anyone need a follow-up moment for anything we discussed today?” Now, anyone who didn’t get to speak their mind has a new opportunity.
The oldest discussion rule in the book is also the one most frequently broken. One person should talk at a time.
Reminding everyone of this expectation before a meeting makes it easier to call out people who break this rule. Remind interrupters that everyone agreed to respect the person talking and that they can take the floor next (although you might want to set a time limit for long-winded participants).
When I know I can expect the people in my group to be patient and attentive while I speak, I feel less pressure while sharing and can articulate myself more confidently.
The Harvard Business Review has a great explanation for how to set ground rules effectively. The main tip is to make sure everyone feels included in and understands the expectations. Whether I’m in charge of the meeting or not, I like to say, “Would anyone mind if we set some ground rules for this meeting, so we all have the same expectations?” I’ve never received any pushback. In fact, most people say that they love the idea.
If you work with the same group of people often, consider establishing group ground rules together. If not, you can take a moment before a meeting starts to develop the rules with all of the participants.
Sometimes, people break the rules. Even after we’ve agreed to stay on the subject, I’ve had an excited coworker unintentionally derail the conversation. I prefer when it’s everyone’s responsibility to address a broken rule, but you could also leave it up to the facilitator. I remind the person of the rule without hostility.
When my coworker took over the meeting — let’s say they started talking about pears in our discussion about apples — I said, “Your points about pears are very interesting. However, we did agree to stick to the agenda. So, let’s get back to discussing apples, and we can bring pears up in a later conversation.”
When I first thought of suggesting discussion rules, I was nervous that my team members would think it was ridiculous. However, I’ve only seen positive outcomes from everyone feeling more included. If you are always spoken over in meetings, or you notice someone else is, suggest these ground rules and help strengthen the discussion.