Communication is a prized skill in the professional workplace, but one that does not come easily to everyone. Most job postings list “strong communication skills” as a basic requirement, without really specifying what that means. Extraversion is often rewarded in the western professional world, even though introverts demonstrate traits that are critical to effective leadership.

Not everyone has a natural inclination toward verbal expression. Even senior employees with significant expertise and comfortable positions may struggle to contribute in a meeting context if they are not a natural “talker”. Many successful professionals have hidden communication disabilities.

It is normal for employees to contribute to a meeting in different ways and in different amounts. However, managers who value inclusiveness should pay attention to the structural and cultural elements of the meeting which may inadvertently raise barriers to communication. 

Here are four ways to ensure that your meetings are inclusive to employees with diverse communication needs. 

1. Provide an agenda ahead of time

Using an agenda is a classic best practice to keep meetings on time, organized, and productive. To be truly inclusive of participants, this agenda should be shared in advance.

This helps employees with communication needs in two ways. If the meeting participant experiences differences with verbal processing and/or attention, this “preview” facilitates cognitive preparation. This includes factors like memory (which information will be recalled), focus (which attention strategies might they want to use, if any), and vocabulary (which words will be used).

If the meeting participant has communication differences that impact the way they verbally express themselves, this preview helps them identify where they may be expected to contribute, so they can prepare their message accordingly. They may communicate most effectively when they are able to write down notes, rehearse their message aloud, or use supporting tools like images or videos. 

Many people with communication differences struggle to express the full scope of their knowledge when they are put on the spot, even though they have the expertise and opinions in their head. Providing advance notice of topics and the schedule helps all meeting attendees feel as prepared as possible.

2. Provide advance requests and expectations for participation

As the meeting leader, you may assume that everyone attending your meeting knows they are expected to “participate”. However, that can mean different things to different people. Active listening is a form of participation, after all! If you’ve ever made a general statement asking for feedback, ideas, or questions, only to be met with a room full of silent gazes, you may want to consider implementing this practice.

If you would like specific individuals to speak on particular topics, let them know ahead of time. To be truly inclusive of those with communication differences, do this the day before so they have plenty of time to prepare. (Ten minutes advance warning is enough time to stress, but not enough time to truly prepare.) Let them know which agenda item(s) you would like them to comment on, and what type of comments (summary, question, explanation, etc.) you’re hoping they can provide.

You should also provide 24 hours notice if you would like people to contribute verbally at any point in the meeting, even if the specific topic doesn’t matter. It’s natural for many people to prefer to remain silent if there is no explicit requirement or request for them to talk, and they don’t have direct opinions on a specific matter. You can request verbal participation by saying something like “I know you’re not reporting on any of our agenda items, but I’d like you to ask at least one question or share one idea tomorrow. It’s important for the rest of the team to hear from you.” If you know there is a specific topic where their input would be useful, you can say something like “I’ll probably ask for your opinion once we get to topic [X].”

3. Encourage asynchronous follow-up

One of the best insights I ever received was during a staff training. The instructor had provided a lot of information and a few team members had asked questions. The instructor asked if anyone else had questions or comments they’d like to share. One employee spoke up and said “I don’t have any questions right now, because I’m a processor. I listen and then the questions come to me twenty-four hours later. I know I’ll have questions tomorrow so I’ll send them to everyone.”

Not everyone processes verbal information at the same speed in real-time. Some people are very fast processors, generating new ideas as soon as they hear a verbal stimulus. Others, like the employee above, are deep listeners who process information sequentially, and over longer time spans which allow them to incorporate other outside information. 

Requiring that all responses and questions be verbally delivered and addressed during the time restraint of a single meeting may prevent you from hearing valuable information or perspectives from employees with longer processing times. If you need to move on from an agenda item or close the meeting, say something like: “Please continue to share feedback or questions via email, or come find me later to discuss one-on-one. We covered a lot and I want to make sure everyone has time to get their ideas heard.”

4. Plan for more time than you need

Time is the foundation of inclusivity. You include people by making sure they have all the time they need.

Nobody likes meetings that drag on unnecessarily. A good meeting covers the essential information as efficiently and quickly as possible, being mindful not to waste everyone’s time. However, overemphasizing speed -- “Okay, everyone, we have a lot to cover and not very much time so we are going to get through this in thirty minutes” -- is likely to discourage those with different processing patterns or who need extra time to get their verbal thoughts together.

One strategy for increasing inclusivity without wasting time is to add 30% to however long you think the meeting should take, based on the agenda. If you think the topics can reasonably be covered in 30 minutes, schedule a 45-minute meeting. This means no one has to feel rushed or pressured to present perfectly-formed ideas, and folks who are anxious about speaking up can have a bit more time to “warm up”. If you’ve circulated an agenda and prepared people for their contribution roles, odds are you’ll be able to accomplish everything and end the meeting earlier than scheduled. And that’s the best kind of meeting!

Want to hear more about communication styles and how to navigate communication diversity in the workplace? Contact us to learn about our business workshops that can be customized to your team.