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Information & Communication - Want Better Groupwork? Talk Less

Picture a group of people trying to solve a problem, and you’re probably picturing what’s called brainstorming. People compete to call out ideas, trying not to judge anyone’s idea, no matter how unusual it may be. Now picture a meeting – it’s a lot of people talking across a table, right? Problem is, neither is the most effective way to stimulate deep thinking or good ideas. For that, you need to harness the power of silence.


Use science – and silence – to make meetings and problem-solving sessions more productive for everyone.

What is Want Better Groupwork? Talk Less?
To understand the power of silence, you first have to understand what’s problematic about the way popular idea-generating or information-sharing scenarios in the workplace operate. In 1985, two professors published the results of an experiment in Journal of Pereonality and Social Psychology. They showed that groups tend to focus on already-shared information rather than new information provided by lone members: in other words, group-think is biased against individual-think. This means that scenarios where groups try to think together – out loud – are less successful at hitting on or taking up new ideas than are scenarios where people think individually. But while silence and independence are necessary for creativity, fortunately there are ways to harness an individual’s ideas for the good of a group. They just requires a willingness to avoid, for short periods, the first tendencies of groupwork: talking.

How does Want Better Groupwork? Talk Less improve employee engagement and culture?
Exceptional idea generators are often introverted, but most group idea-generation works against introverted thinkers, encouraging attention to be paid to the loudest or the most willing to talk: in other words, the extroverts. Extroverts may benefit from thinking aloud, but introverts may not, and you don’t want an important subsection of your company to feel ignored or underused, especially when it comes to areas like idea-generation that should be among their strengths. Rebalancing the process of sharing ideas and working collaboratively means introverts are more able to share their ideas, and that groups are more willing to engage with ideas from everyone. Employees who feel listened to feel more valued, leading them to do better work.

What are the benefits?
Understanding idea generation and group information-sharing dynamics will better attune your workplace to resources already at its disposal. Don’t suffer internal brain-drain! Tap into the potential of employees you have and reap the rewards.

How do you conduct Want Better Groupwork? Talk Less in the workplace?
As you think about the power of silence in the workplace, you might want to look to an unlikely model for inspiration: Quaker worship meetings. Lots of business meetings start with ice-breakers or chit-chat, and there is a time and a place for those – sometimes meetings are merely to reconnect the team and share updates. But sometimes you want to prepare colleagues for deep thinking or problem-solving. The default state of Quaker meetings is silence: while participants can speak, they are not obligated to do so. In spirituality, as in creativity, silence helps remove distractions. This deeper state of thinking is what we want to access when getting things done.


Talk Less to Think More

It’s hard to think deeply when you’re listening to someone else talk – you’re guided too strongly by responding to what they are saying, meaning one speaker can inadvertantly limit the scope of possibilities for everyone. Susan Cain, who wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that people working in groups come up with fewer ideas than an equivalent number of people working alone. What you want to do, then, is reformulate your idea-generation activities to balance the strengths of the group and the strengths of the individual. In this, silence is a proven productivity hack.

If Happy Hour Is 9 to 5, Alexander Kjerulf says “silence breaks” in meetings encourage deep thinking and reflection. They can be extra-helpful for making the second stage of longer meetings more productive, especially when tackling bigger issues or during brainstorming solutions. It may seem odd to sit in silence, particularly when your team first tries it, but stick with it. “The purpose of meetings is not to talk,” Kjerulf writes on his blog, but “to arrive at ideas, solutions, plans and decisions.”

So say your meeting is veering toward auto-pilot, and you’re worried participants are tuning out. Take a “silence break”! This isn’t a break where everyone stretches, checks their phone or chats to their neighbour before being quieted down again: instead, the meeting continues, just without talking. Minds are refreshing themselves; people are thinking about matters at hand.

Likewise, when your team faces a particularly thorny problem, try brainstorming silently rather than aloud. Doing this gives introverts a chance to do their work without getting caught up in worries about interjecting in a group free-for-all. You don’t want to lose some of your best thinkers simply because they never get to contribute – or never get the brain space to come up with their ideas in the first place!

Colleagues can write their ideas on paper and then combine them all afterward to discuss. Or everyone in turn can explain their best idea after the period of silence. Some call such techniques “brainwriting.” No single voice or personality dominates the discussion – at least not before the ideas have been generated – and people who need time and space to work best are allowed it.

Some take this process further. In a 2007 article in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers found “electronic brainstorming” – generating ideas via a shared platform, without being interrupted by others – led to greater success than face-to-face collaboration. This can be done remotely or from opposite sides of the same room!

Whatever you do, reflect on another interesting aspect of silence. Surveys show those who think meetings went the best are usually the ones who talked the most. If you’re the leader, that’s probably you – but quieter participants may disagree, because they didn’t feel they participated. Balancing silent creative time with vocal collaboration time make everyone feel involved in how the meeting went. Turns out you can communicate more by – sometimes – opting to saying less.

Reference Material
Why Your Meetings Stink—and What to Do About It
The Science of Silence: How Solitude Enriches Creative Work
How To Improve Meetings, According To Science
The Case for More Silence in Meetings

Updated on: 12/24/2020

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