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Leading From The Side

Add value without grabbing the spotlight.

There are many subtle ways we can add value in meetings without grabbing the spotlight or taking up too much airtime.

But sometimes we forget how influential these actions can be. The suggestions below will contribute to more efficient, productive meetings and also strengthen your image as a collaborative thought partner.

Many professionals attend meetings where they do little if any of the talking: their role may be to simply listen, take notes, or contribute if certain questions are raised. But their designated role for that meeting may be pretty minor: they are just expected to be there.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Yet there are constructive ways we can contribute and lead from the side in meetings, collaborating to help them run smoothly and productively. Here are seven contributions you might make, depending upon the circumstances:

Structure. Even when a meeting has a clear agenda and is conducted professionally, there can be considerable variation in the way people express themselves. Some get right to the point; others ramble. Some focus on ‘high-level’ questions while others direct their attention to the minutiae.

Regardless, one thing we can all do is organise our thoughts and remarks into key points. These points anchor our words in the minds of listeners by providing a framework — ‘Here is what I think is important’ — and make our remarks more easily understood and remembered.

This approach also models structure for others: when they see structuring done well they can learn from and emulate your technique.

Confirm understanding. Confusion can occur in meetings for any number of reasons, and that is something we generally want to avoid. For example, there may be asymmetries of information wherein certain individuals are more prepared or better-informed than others. There may be differing priorities around the conference table. Or the conversation may simply be shifting too quickly for some individuals to keep up.

These situations lead to moments when confirming understanding will be helpful to the entire group. A quick check of facts or interpretation — ‘Before we move on I’d just like to ensure that I’ve understood correctly…’ — can reduce confusion, build alignment, and avoid misunderstandings. 

This may mean briefly interrupting the flow of a meeting, but it is in a good cause. People will generally forgive an interruption if we are gracious, concise, and trying to bring clarity to the discussion.

Influence pace. There may also be opportunities to influence the pace of a meeting with timely questions and clarification of important points. This can be particularly effective if you feel that someone may not fully understand everything that is being said, or that important points are being glossed over and bear repeating.

Adjust your speed. For virtual meetings or conversations involving multilingual individuals, it may also be helpful to slow your pace of speech. When we use virtual communication tools we necessarily lose nuances of body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Slowing down to compensate is helpful for the entire audience, and ultimately more efficient since it reduces misunderstandings and the need for repetition.

Similarly, if you find yourself in meetings with people who are operating in a second or third language, slow your speech slightly to allow them more time to process what is being said. Make a point to enunciate your words clearly and avoid using slang terms that they may not recognise. All of us can be more effective in the digital workplace by acknowledging the challenges presented by virtual communication and working in multiple languages.

Be concise. Limit your airtime to leave space for others to speak and contribute. This will eventually be noted and appreciated by clients as well as by colleagues. If you focus on being clear, concise, and easily understood you will be impactful and the airtime will take care of itself.

Explore strategic possibilities. Another powerful technique for adding value without monopolising airtime is to ask concise, pertinent questions, particularly implication questions. Asking ‘What if?’ at the right moment requires effective listening and engagement, so remember to keep your eyes and ears open.

Build collaboration. Strengthen your personal connections with colleagues and clients with occasional phrases like “Building on Antonio’s point…” or “I’d like to return to Kirsten’s comment…” Referring to their individual contributions in this way signals that you are listening carefully to their words. Over time this recognition can help build rapport and empathy between you.

In sum, look for ways to add value in meetings without doing a lot of the talking. This will make you distinctive in many settings and build your image as a collaborative communicator and thought partner.

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