How to Foster Open Communication in Meetings

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How to Foster Open Communication in Meetings

Editor’s note: Given Bespoken’s dedication to helping people communicate with purpose, we are thrilled this week to welcome guest blogger, Tai Tsao, from Meeteor.  Meeteor is an innovative platform helping teams meet mission through effective workplace communication.  Enjoy!

Do your employees speak freely in meetings? Do they feel their voices are heard and valued?

Everyone on your team brings unique perspectives based on their professional and personal experiences. If your organization does not provide a safe environment for open communication, you could be missing valuable insights.

As a meeting leader, you want to establish a culture of open communication in meetings. But first, how do you know whether your team feels safe to speak up?

What does an unsafe meeting environment look like?

I’ve observed a range of company cultures – from dysfunctional to thriving – in my work as an organization development consultant. Here are some common communication behaviors of people when they feel they can’t share honestly in meetings. People might:

  • Hold back their thoughts so when you ask for input, you get silence.
  • Fight too hard for their ideas, act defensively, and/or not listen to each other, which can lead to talking over each other.
  • Censor their opinions in order to conform, resulting in verbal or silent agreement.
  • Hold “real” conversations after the meeting while making “loaded” eye contact during meetings.
  • Avoid making eye contact or speaking up.

It turns out people are hard-wired to act conservatively around authority. Business and management professors James R. Detert at the University of Virginia and Ethan R. Burris at the University of Texas at Austin conclude that “a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?)” are the main inhibitors to candor at work. In their studies, they found that when employees can express their thoughts openly, organizations achieve stronger performance and higher retention.

At Meeteor, we’re on a mission to help teams create a positive team culture in which everyone can contribute their best and thrive. We consolidated the following steps to help teams combat this behavior bias and reap the benefits of open communication in meetings and the workplace.

Step #1. Define open communication in meetings with your team.

Think about a time you participated in a meeting that provided a safe environment for honest discussion. What did it look like?  Then ask your team the same question. Don’t force people to share their thoughts if they’re resistant; rather, find other ways to gather this information and (re)build a candid company culture.

Initiate offline, informal conversation to understand what your team really thinks.

Connect with people individually or in small groups outside of more formal meetings. Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, recommends proactively seeking feedback in casual, informal settings, such as lunch or coffee chats. An attitude of curiosity and a genuine desire to understand team members’ concerns will aid this connection.

Gather anonymous feedback.

If people are not comfortable speaking with you individually, try other ways to gather feedback. Ask people to write down ideas on sticky notes. Your team can look at the notes together and identify common themes. Or, you can just gather the feedback and report back. Another way is to create an anonymous online survey for people to answer.

Don’t expect change right away.

If this is your first attempt to establish open communication in meetings, or if the team size is small (making it more likely you’ll know who said what), you may not immediately get honest feedback. Don’t give up. It can take time to build trust. Let your team know that you are prioritizing honest communication.

Step #2. Share your learnings and invite responses.

Once you’ve gathered information from individuals, share your learnings with the team to generate actionable next steps. Respect individuals’ privacy by not disclosing who said what.

Model the behavior when you share your observation.

The way you share your observations will model to the team that you welcome different ideas and even difficult conversations. How you deliver the message is as important as the message itself; your vocal tone and body language influence how your message is received.

Share your observation with warmth and welcoming voice. You can say something like, “I’m noticing that there may be ideas that aren’t being shared in our meetings. I’ve talked to people individually and received XYZ feedback. I would like us to have a culture of open communication in meetings and wonder what we can do to encourage this.”

Reflect on the learning as a group.

Team members may be hesitant at first to participate in this discussion but give them time to think about their responses. Use the following questions to guide the team:

  • What benefits might we experience from including diverse perspectives?
  • What will the team lose if great ideas are not surfaced in our discussion?
  • What are the ways we can create a safe environment for open and honest communication?
  • What are the new norms our team can embrace to sustain open communication in meetings?

It may take several meetings and some follow-up communication to shift the trust of the team, but the rewards will justify the effort.

Step #3. Take actions based on your team’s suggestions and start implementing quick wins

Implement your team’s feedback as soon as possible to show them you are serious about building open communication in meetings. Here are some strategies that can help to consistently bring candid voices into the room.

TIP #1. Establish and rotate the “challenger” role in meetings.

Make “raising issues or concerns” in meetings a norm. Some teams create a “challenger” role, or “devil’s advocate” as a way to challenge group think and raise unpopular ideas. According to Detert, “It’s a good way to show that this process of putting things on the table is everybody’s job. And everybody does it without consequence.” You can start by inviting people who are more comfortable with this role to give it a try. It helps others see this behavior in action and feel more confident to speak up.

TIP #2. Ask participants to write down their ideas and follow with a round-robin sharing.

To create an inclusive meeting environment, you want everyone’s voice heard in meetings. After posing a question for discussion, give participants a moment to quietly reflect and write down their ideas, and then go around the room so everyone shares. Everyone comes up with their own ideas without feeling pressure to conform to the ideas of others. Everyone participates, further democratizing the meeting process.

Step #4. Build off of your successes

Once you establish some quick wins, ride the momentum and introduce the concept of norms to create lasting change. Here are some example norms you can establish in your team meetings:

  • Ask clarifying questions to avoid making incorrect assumptions.
  • Make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Balance your participation – speak and listen.
  • Listen actively to teammates without interrupting others.
  • Say it now, in the room. Avoid waiting till later to raise an issue.
  • All voices count. All opinions are valid, but offer reasoning behind your thinking.

Step #5. Reflect and iterate

Once you begin implementing practices that facilitate open communication, make sure you schedule time to review them and adjust the approaches accordingly. Improving communication is an ongoing process and adapting to a new way of working takes time. Having regular team review meetings creates a space for your team to celebrate what you’ve achieved and identify areas for improvement.

Like any relationship, it can take time to establish trust. A meeting leader must be patient and consistently model an attitude which welcomes open communication. When a meeting leader is transparent with her team, the team is more likely to reciprocate with honest feedback.

Ready to build a work culture that supports open communication? Share this article to let your team know. Follow the #ThrivingTeams conversation on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook!


Tai Tsao is leading change management efforts at Meeteor. Meeteor helps mission-driven teams build a thriving team culture, develop effective meeting practices, and achieve greater impact through programs and technology. Tai is driven to help individuals, teams, and organizations transform the way they work. Tai holds a Master’s degree in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

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