Get our free book (in Spanish or English) on rainwater now - To Catch the Rain.
Recognising quiet members in community groups
If you are a community group leader, facilitator, manager, helper, etc., then you will be in the position of dealing with members of the community group. These members will come from all walks of life, they will have a wide variety of personalities, skills, interests, agendas and wants/needs.
In most cases, your community group will have its fair share of quiet members. These members are no less important or useful than any other member but they're often overlooked, precisely because they're quiet and they don't say much, if anything. The problem of overlooking these people is the potential to leave them out of the discussions, to fail to account for their perspectives and needs and to potentially miss out on what may be important pieces of the puzzle that goes towards the local solutions needed.
Reasons for being quiet in group environments
It is important from the outset to make no assumptions. Thus, while the following list makes suggestions as to why some people remain quiet, it's not an exhaustive list and there may be any number of combined reasons that cause participants to remain quiet. Here are some of the reasons why people remain quiet in group situations:
- They are still trying to understand the issues fully and need time to digest them properly. They lack sufficient information to feel confident about understanding the issues completely.
- There are cultural taboos on them speaking out, such as gender-based prejudices that women remain quiet, or age-based prejudices that children don't speak up or that the elderly have nothing useful to add.
- Their language skills are hampered––perhaps English isn't their first language, perhaps they have a disability that makes talking out difficult, etc.
- They don't feel comfortable talking within a large group environment. In some cases, persons who identify as shy, introverts or highly sensitive persons (HSPs) feel extremely uncomfortable being made to speak out or have what feels like a spotlight be turned on them.
- They're afraid of ridicule, of being made to look stupid among their peers.
- Some members of the group are hijacking the conversation space and/or making it clear they won't accept dissension.
- The louder some people get, the quieter others become.
- The mood of the group is not aligned with the mood of the quiet person.
- The leadership of the group seems intimidating, focused solely on members of the group who seem instrumental to achieving certain ends or is unavailable outside of the group.
- They prefer to stay quiet as a matter of personal habit and would prefer other means by which to contribute, such as writing, partnering up, etc.
What you can do to help quieter persons participate
Most of all, it is vital that you do not assume quiet persons lack interest, are disengaged or aren't likely to contribute! Indeed, it is a fault for any person in a leadership or facilitation role to assume that quiet people have no contributions, are in agreement with the group, don't care or lack talent. They're often the people who care extremely deeply and aren't willing to jump into the first simplistic solution offered. Equally, it is important to not assume that the quiet persons have a duty of learning to be less quiet––for many such persons, that's asking too much. If the role of speaking up is easier for some than others, then the responsibility rests mainly on those who feel more comfortable to assist those who feel less comfortable.
It is often through providing means by which such persons can feel comfortable contributing that they will gain the confidence to share their ideas, interests and needs. There are various things that you can do to help, such as:
- Notice the people who are quieter than others. Don't ignore them because they sit back and say nothing. Their presence is an indicator of interest.
- Facilitate their dialogue in ways that they might find comfortable. This isn't an easy exercise and it'll vary from person to person, depending on the group membership, cultural background, issue at hand, etc. However, there are ways that you might assist, such as:
- Single them out by noticing them, smiling, then giving them the opportunity to say something - ask directly but keep your offer kind and open-ended and don't make them squirm. If they're still not keen to speak, don't push them; instead, let them know they come to you later with their ideas or thoughts.
- Offer to discuss one-to-one after the meeting or before another meeting.
- Walk and talk. Get people outside and walk around asking the quieter people for their thoughts. Break for morning/afternoon tea or supper, and walk and talk with the people you haven't noticed talking in the meeting. Purposefully find them.
- Take care to not interrupt or cut them off too soon. Allow them the space. You can always hold another meeting if things don't get covered in this one––prepare yourself for that eventuality in advance.
- Break the group down into smaller sizes, even into pairs.
- Create a quiet space for everyone to mull over the issues. Set aside part of the meeting for this time. It might be excruciating for some of the more vocal but it's an opportunity for them to reflect too.
- Ask for written input as well as oral. Allow for written input to be provided at a later date, say a few days after the meeting, to give people time to digest the information and come up with their own thoughts. Even better, set a deadline but also make it clear that thoughts after the deadline are still appreciated too, in case they come up with more ideas later.
- Stay in touch via email updates and make it clear that a "reply" to you will get answered in person, privately (that means no CC's or other divulging of private information).
- Create a culture within your group, meetings, organisation, NGO/CSO, etc. that respects every person's way of offering information, ideas and help. Make it clear that being quiet is not a sign of lacking interest but a sign that leaders and facilitators of groupwork have an additional responsibility to make no assumptions, reach out and help such persons be a part of the work being undertaken.
- Where possible, send out talking/discussion points, major issue summaries, etc. ahead of the meeting. However, don't assume everyone has time to read them! Moreover, some people prefer listening first, then digesting the information, then reading, then coming back with their thoughts. In an urgency-driven society, this can push the limits for some leaders and facilitators but it can result in better decisions in the long-run.
- Never assume that silence equals consent, lack of ideas or a willingness to go along with the decisions.
- Do not announce things happening immediately from this moment on. Allow time for ideas to percolate, grow and improve, and give the quiet and more vocal persons some time to go away and reflect over what needs doing in an ongoing way. Don't shut the gate! (Note that a desire to finalise things right here and now is often an indicator of the leader's or facilitator's priorities and desire to move on. Be careful of this one, as many community projects are evolving and continuously growing organically, meaning that deadlines and end dates are often extremely artificial and annoying to community members, quiet or otherwise.)
Most of all, be kind. Many quiet people are used to being dismissed as stupid, weak, inferior and disengaged by others in their workplaces, educational institutions, social groups, etc, within societies that value gregariousness and vocal confidence. They know it's not true but they're already primed to get such ill-informed, stereotyped external reactions from others. By being kind, using active listening and showing that you care about their input as much as the next person's, you'll get them involved in your community group's work. They may even turn out to be the champions you need the most.