The Introvert’s Guide to Mastering Meetings

Brought to you by American Express OPEN Forum

Susan Cain is the author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and is the co-founder of Quiet Revolution. Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic and more. The two recently sat down to discuss how to advocate for yourself at work and make yourself heard at a meeting, and why the right story will help you put your best foot forward.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on productivity.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Emily: I’d love to talk about practical tips for creating a positive environment at work. Maybe we can start with how people advocate for themselves.

Susan: A lot of people are really comfortable advocating for other people, but when it comes to advocating for themselves, they have trouble. If you recognize yourself in that description, the best thing that you can do is use a psychological trick and tell yourself that you’re actually doing this on behalf of somebody else, because the fact is, that you probably are.

Before I became a writer, I trained people in negotiation skills and I had a client who had her own small business, and she had a heck of a time asking for contracts to be paid as much as she deserved to be. She was passionate about the work she was doing, she believed she was doing great work in the world, and she wanted to do more of it. Once we reframed it as, “The more you ask for in this negotiation, the more you’re going to be able to do this work that you care about so much about,” it was like everything was unlocked for her, and she could suddenly be much more assertive.

Emily: Another area where we see people not showing up the way they want to is in meetings, and how meetings are run. Do you have any ideas about how to get everyone to contribute in an effective way in meetings? I tend to process ideas really slowly, so whenever I’m in a meeting and people want to brainstorm, I don’t come up with things, but then two hours later I’m like, “Wait a second, I have a great idea!” But now there’s no venue for that idea, because the meeting’s over.

Susan: I hear this kind of lament from introverts all the time. The Kellogg School recently found that in your typical meeting, you have three people doing 70% of the talking, which is horrifying. How do we, as organizations, make good decisions, if we’re only hearing from this very small percentage of people?

Susan Cain, author

At Quiet Revolution, we’re very mindful of meetings. When we first started, we thought we would just abolish meetings completely. That turned out to be a disaster because you actually need meetings to know what everybody’s doing, there’s no way around it. So then we started experimenting with not having meetings in the mornings, just in the afternoon. This gives people uninterrupted flow time for the mornings and works pretty well.

It’s also important to know how to run the meetings themselves more effectively, so becoming mindful of how much each person is talking is really useful. If you know that you have somebody on your team who has great things to say, but is probably not contributing as much, you might want to go up to that person before a meeting, and say, “Emily, I know you have such great things to say about meaning in this project. Can I look to you to talk about that today in the meeting?” That way you’re letting the person be on notice that this is what you want to talk about.

Emily: I think introverts sometimes feel more comfortable expressing themselves in the written form versus presenting at a meeting, even if it’s just an idea. Have you seen companies say, “Let’s take a moment to write your ideas down first, and then bring them to the meeting”—do you think that would be helpful?

Susan: Absolutely. In fact, there’s amazing research on this that finds that for everybody—this is true for extroverts too—when they take the time to generate the ideas on their own, instead of in the middle of a group, they produce more ideas and better ideas, than if they had tried to do it in a group.

Emily: That makes sense. You’re not subject to groupthink there; you’re truly thinking independently.

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Susan: Exactly. And building on what you said, techniques like brain writing are great, where instead of everybody vocalizing their idea, you ask everybody to write down their ideas—maybe on post-its in front of them, and then you gather all the post-its and put them on a board at the front of the room. Everybody can see them and that’s a way of getting everybody’s ideas out at once, without so much focus on what their origin is.

What are some ideas that you have for bringing out the best in employees?

Emily: I have two, both related to storytelling. The first one is telling yourself a story about the last time you helped somebody at work. Research finds that when people tell a story about a time when they were generous in the workplace, they actually end up becoming more generous and productive after they tell the story. It’s like the story gets inside you and changes how you live your life and how you do your work.

The second one is to share positive stories in your meetings that inspire and enliven employees. One of my favorite examples is from the company Life is Good. Have you seen their t-shirts and hats and stuff?

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Left: Emily Esfahani Smith, Right: Susan Cain

Susan: Yeah, I love those.

Emily: They do this wonderful thing where they read stories that their consumers have written to them. A widow who lost her husband to cancer several years ago wrote, “That was a really tough experience, but wearing your apparel helped me get through it.” A cancer survivor said, “I wore your hats every single day, and it helped me get through chemotherapy.” The people at Life is Good read those stories out loud at their staff meetings, and when I talked to some of the employees, whether it was the receptionist, the designer, or the person loading the trucks, they all told me that they felt a strong sense of meaning in their work. When managers shared those stories of resilience and hope in meetings, the employees at the company ended up reframing their tasks in terms of this larger mission of spreading hope and optimism.

Susan: I love that. Another piece of advice that we often give at Quiet Revolution is to encourage people to think of what they might want to contribute at a meeting in advance when you have time to think, and then give yourself a push to speak up early on in the meeting, because the ideas that are advanced early become anchoring ideas. Other people then start directing their comments to the person who has advanced that idea, whereas if you wait too long, the opposite thing happens, where you feel emotionally more and more on the margins, and people are not looking at you, and they’re making their comments, and it becomes that much harder to enter into the whole discourse.

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I think at the end of the day, all of this is really about where you’re coming from on an emotional and psychological level, so you want to get into the habit of exercising the habit of knowing what you truly think about things, and then speaking from that place of conviction. If you’re doing that, it doesn’t matter if you’re soft spoken, or hesitant, or whatever it happens to be, people can feel the conviction that’s underlying your words, and they’re going to respond to that.

Emily: It’s so powerful, and you know when someone’s speaking from that place of conviction, because you are engaged with them. It’s such a gift when people do that at meetings.

Susan: There are other techniques that we borrow from the world of education, but also work really well in the realm of small businesses. There’s a technique that the teachers use called think-pair-share, where you give people a question to ponder, you ask them first to just sit quietly at their seats and think about it. Then you break them into pairs to talk about it, and then you ask the pairs to share it with the whole room.

What that does is, it gives everybody time to think, it gives the quieter people a chance to vocalize their ideas out loud, with just one other person, which makes it then much more likely that they’re going to be inclined to vocalize then with the room, and you just get more ideas flowing.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.