Have you ever been in one of those painful training or round table sessions where no one ever says anything?

You feel like you have to keep talking, just to fill the silence. After all, the moderator is dying up there, and you have lots of valuable insights to share!

Last October I participated in a large planning exercise for the development of a major public arts policy, and before we went into the break out sessions, the leader laid out a set of protocols for effective discussion. I’m kicking myself now for not writing down all of them, but one stood out, and I’ve been using it to huge effect ever since:

Three, then me

which means, once you say something, keep your trap shut until three more people have contributed. No matter how agonizing the silence, let the discussion happen. Let the moderator decide when the silence is too much. What I’ve discovered is that the shy ones, who just let you do all the talking, will start contributing, and pretty soon you have a real discussion, not just you and the moderator chatting away.

When one person isn’t hogging the conversation, everyone feels safer to contribute.

Some other discoveries? That incredible insight that you are absolutely sure that no one else will discover– yeah. Someone else has discovered it, but they haven’t had a chance to get a word in edgewise.

This technique works best when everyone is aware of it, because people know that they have to contribute to keep the discussion going. That one guy that everyone relies on to talk isn’t going to talk until you say something. But it also works where I am, as far as I know, the only one doing it (this is because I’m that guy).

Not only does my restraint allow others to contribute, but it helps me to listen.