We have all been in meetings dominated by the person who just had to have their say on every topic, or sat round a dinner table where someone never managed to get a word in.
There is a simple formula for solving this. If we are in a group of 8 people, we should talk for roughly 1/8th of the time, and listen for the remaining 7/8ths. In a group of three, we can talk about 1/3rd of the time and listen for 2/3rds. In other words, speaking time should usually be shared more or less equally by the number of the people in the group, and most of our time should be spent listening.
The trigger for me was being part of a large board – significantly bigger than the ideal size of 6 – 8 recommended by the Institute of Directors. Even in the best of circumstances it is hard for everyone to have their say on a large board, and, in our case, the frequent and fulsome contributions from the vocal few made it impossible. How to ensure that everyone had their say so that we could harness the collective wisdom of the full board? I proposed some principles for how we work together, with Equity of Voice prominent among these. It helped, and here are some of the lessons learned:
- It is better for the Chair to call out Equity of Voice early and casually, rather than waiting for frustration to build
- Better still is for the group to self-monitor and peer-monitor their level of contribution
- I also find Equity of Voice a useful ground-rule when facilitating groups
- And of course there are times when it is entirely appropriate for one or two people to do most of the talking – Equity of Voice is a guideline not a rule.
My proud-to-be-a geek husband Dave Moskovitz points out a parallel in the original definition of the Internet Protocol in which Jon Postel stated that an Internet application “should be conservative in its sending behaviour, and liberal in its receiving behaviour”. As an example, if all our mail servers spent most of their time sending rather than receiving emails, the system would soon be clogged and no messages would get through.
Which is a nice summary why Equity of Voice matters. If we want to be heard, we all need to do a lot of listening.