Have you ever been in a group dominated by a single person? Individuals try to get a word in edgewise but are interrupted or dominated by the talkative one. Teammates glare at each other. Eyes roll. It’s a drag on productivity and there is limited progress toward accomplishing the group’s goal.
The philosophy of “Equity of Voice” is that when individuals are trying to get something done in a group, or team, there’s a much greater chance of success if every participant talks about the same amount of time. For example, in a group of five, everyone should seek to speak one-fifth of the time and listen four-fifths of the time.
While a worthy goal, this isn’t always possible, and for good reason. Frequently, when groups convene the topic shifts, with one or two people being the subject matter experts on an issue. Thus, the specialists may naturally talk more. In fact, members of the group might want them to talk more so that everyone can learn as much and as quickly as possible from the experts. However, when everyone on the team has similar information, or gets up to speed on the topic, the group should seek equity of voice. This will improve the group’s success.
There are several ways to achieve equity of voice. First, tell people about it, and that it’s important for everyone to be aware of the time they are talking and listening. Reminding a group about equity of voice—the goal of sharing equally—will get people in the right state of mind. “Equity of Voice” could also be written at the top of a white board or on a piece of paper posted in the room as a visual reminder.
A second step would be to designate a “facilitator” or “guide” who lightly directs the conversation. In something like a staff meeting, this should not result in strong facilitation, where you don’t want people raising their hands and being called on to speak. Rather, someone simply needs to take responsibility to be aware of the give and take. If an individual is speaking too much, for example, the guide might ask others to be involved by asking a quiet staffer, “what do you think, Dan?” The guide’s actions should not be too obvious or overbearing. The best teams try to share equally on their own, and while this can happen organically, it’s okay to lightly direct. If equity of voice feels imposed, people may feel like they need to wait their turn and it can limit exchange of ideas; if they’re encouraged to speak, or to let others speak, it moves group discussion in a more natural direction.
I once worked in an office where the team was high performing, and on many issues, everyone wanted to participate. It was an opinionated group, and also respectful. In an amusing moment during one spirited meeting, we decided to use the concept of the Native American Talking Stick, where the person with the stick has the floor to speak, uninterrupted, and others must wait their turn. In our case we didn’t actually have a stick, but instead, used a small bottle of mustard someone picked up from a luncheon they attended, and it was on the conference room table because sometimes we held lunch meetings there. When a member of our team wanted to speak their mind, they held the mustard and everyone else waited their turn to talk. It may seem silly, but it really worked.
In a structured gathering like a board of directors meeting, equity of voice can be firmly controlled by the chair. The best leaders of structured meetings seek balance in contributions from all participants.
It’s not always possible to get everyone to speak equally, but it’s worthwhile to try. If colleagues are sensitive to how much time they are talking versus listening, a group has a much greater chance of achieving balance, as well as achieving successful collaboration.