Skill 4: Proactive Participation

Meetings are a constant part of professional life, and actively participating in business meetings can be a challenge. This is especially true if you are someone quiet, shy, or a non-native English speaker. 

But what is participation?

The reality is “good participation” looks different depending on cultural norms and communication styles. This means if you participate the same way in every meeting, in every cultural setting, you may not be participating appropriately.

For example, some participants tend to remain silent or passive, while others dominate the conversation. Non-native English speakers, in particular, may hesitate to speak up. As a result, the common choice is to remain silent, wait to be called upon, or let others who appear more confident do the talking. This approach, while understandable, can have negative consequences. 

Fortunately, there is a solution: proactive participation. 

This chapter will show you practical ways to participate more actively in English business meetings while considering cultural differences. Mastering this important skill allows you to reach your full potential, ask for what you need, and contribute to the overall success of your team and company. 

By learning some simple techniques, you can confidently join and even lead discussions, positively impacting your colleagues and the decision-making process.

Participation in indirect communication cultures

In indirect communication cultures, such as China, Korea and Japan, the norms for participation in meetings are different from direct cultures. In these contexts, it’s important to be patient and observe the group dynamics before speaking up.

It’s crucial to understand that in indirect cultures, meetings are most often for formalizing decisions that have already been made behind the scenes. If you are hoping to speak up and add to the decision-making process during the meeting itself, it may already be too late, as the real decision-making likely occurred before the meeting took place.

Therefore, in indirect communication cultures like China, Korea and Japan, good participation in business meetings can be as straightforward as attendance.

Participation in direct communication cultures

Many direct communication cultures such as in North America and Europe not only encourage but expect active participation and engagement during discussions and presentations. When someone is speaking, it’s considered polite to make eye contact and nod your head to indicate that you are listening and engaged.

Additionally, it’s important to make filler comments to show the speaker that you are following along and confirm your understanding of what they’re saying. In casual settings among friends, this type of active participation can sometimes lead to people talking at the same time or talking over each other. However, this is generally not considered rude in direct cultures like North America and European cultures, as it’s seen as a sign of engagement and interest.

In professional settings, it’s best to wait for a short pause before making your comment. The comment doesn’t have to be loud or long, it just needs to be a brief acknowledgment that you’re following along.

A skilled communicator in a direct culture like America will often pause during their presentation to ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” The presenter is trying to create an opportunity for comments from the audience. Even if you don’t have a specific question, this is a perfect opportunity to show that you are paying attention by making a simple comment about the presentation so far. For example, “No questions, but I’m very impressed with the data in your presentation so far.” 

Overall, this style of active participation is highly valued and expected in direct communication cultures.

What is proactive participation?

Proactive participation means actively engaging in discussions and contributing your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives without waiting to be asked or prompted. It requires taking initiative to join conversations, ask questions, provide input, and share relevant information or experiences—when it is culturally appropriate to do so.

Proactive participation goes beyond merely being present in a meeting or discussion. It means being an active listener who actively processes the information being shared and identifies opportunities to add value to the conversation. This could involve clarifying points or presenting alternative ideas in a respectful manner.

Proactive participation demonstrates your interest, engagement, and commitment to the topic at hand. It showcases your desire to collaborate, contribute, and be an active member of the team or group. Additionally, it allows you to use your unique knowledge, experiences, and ideas to improve the discussion and potentially influence the decision-making process.

Proactive participation is necessary in business settings, especially mixed-culture business settings, where effective communication, collaboration, and decision-making are crucial for success. 

By proactively participating, you increase your visibility, build credibility, and demonstrate your value to the organization. It also helps to foster an environment of open dialogue, where diverse perspectives are welcomed and considered, ultimately leading to better-informed decisions.

How to proactively participate

The easiest way to join discussions

The first step is to simply say something positive. This is similar to the “Opinion Sandwich” technique in Chapter 6: Disagree Smoothly. Some examples include:

Level 1 Smart Comments

  • “That’s a good point.”
  • “I like your idea.”
  • “Thank you for sharing that.”
  • “That’s interesting.”

Even a simple nod of the head can be an effective way to indicate you are listening and agree with the speaker, especially in virtual meetings.

Guess an Emotion

The second easy way to contribute to discussions is a technique called “Guess an Emotion.” This is another skill Warren learned from his detective friend in Canada. The purpose is to acknowledge someone’s emotions. It is very powerful, and that’s why it is used by all interviewers from police to talk show hosts. 

It is also very simple:

  1. Listen carefully to the speaker.
  2. Think about what emotion the speaker is feeling about the topic
  3. Say “That sounds [emotion]. (Challenging, difficult, tiring, exciting, fun, etc)

For example, you are listening to a presentation about the challenges of cleaning a large data set. The speaker seems very active and emotionally stimulated. You can say, “That sounds challenging,” or “That sounds a bit frustrating.” 

Key Point: Avoid using the word ‘You’ as it can seem overly direct. Research shows it is safest to use the word ‘That’ as in the examples)

There are two main advantages to this technique: First, if you guess the wrong emotion, it’s okay! The speaker will almost always correct you, and tell you their true feelings. In the example above, after your comment, the speaker might say something like, “It wasn’t frustrating, but it was definitely tedious.” Or, if you guessed the correct emotion, they might say, “Exactly,” or “Yes, it was.”

The second advantage to the Guess an Emotion technique is that it builds relationships by showing that you are listening, and demonstrates your empathy. In this way, Guess an Emotion fits well with the skills in Chapter 2: Jump In & Tell Me More.

The most rewarding way to join discussions

Once you’ve mastered the basic positive comments and Guess an Emotion, you can take it a step further by connecting your thoughts to the situation or presentation:

Level 2 Smart Comments

  • “We did something similar in [location/project/previous company].”
  • “Please tell me more about…”
  • “Can you explain further?”
  • “I have some data you might like to see.”

The purpose of these techniques is not just to show that you are actively engaged, but that you have something to offer. More than that, it shows that you care and that you are a team player. This is especially true when directly communicating.

Overall, all proactive participation techniques allow you to actively engage with the discussion, demonstrate your relevant experience, and offer additional information or perspective.

Observing and practicing participation in meetings

To practice meeting participation, we recommend you start small and build your confidence. Try using the Level 1 positive comments in one-on-one conversations first. Then, gradually incorporate the Level 2 techniques as you become more comfortable.

Observe how others utilize these strategies in meetings, on TV, or in movies. It’s a very common practice. Seeing it in action can help you recognize opportunities to use it yourself.

Remember, developing these skills takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself, and don’t be afraid to try, even in your native language. The more you practice, the more natural and confident your participation will become.

Proactive participation is a vital communication skill that can significantly impact your professional development and influence at work. By leveraging simple techniques to join and lead discussions, you can effectively leverage English as a powerful business tool and make your voice heard.

What are the benefits of proactively participating in meetings?

Proactively participating improves your reputation at work

Why is proactive participation so important? Your comments and contributions have a direct influence, both positive and negative, on several key areas:

  • Creating Impressions and Visibility: Active participation demonstrates your engagement, knowledge, and strategic thinking. This helps build your professional reputation and visibility within the organization.
  • Influencing Decisions: By voicing your perspective, you can directly shape the discussions and decisions that impact your work and the broader business.

Research shows that two main things influence career advancement: whether or not people think you are a team player, and whether or not people think you are a skilled worker. Proactive participation influences both of these points.

Proactively participating improves your team performance

Proactive participation not only benefits you individually but also contributes to the success of your team. When team members actively engage in discussions and share their insights, it creates an environment of collaboration, creativity, and collective problem-solving.

Here are some ways in which proactive participation can improve your team’s performance:

  1. Enhanced decision-making: By actively contributing different perspectives, experiences, and expertise, your team can explore a broader range of ideas and potential solutions. This diverse input helps identify potential risks, uncover blind spots, and ultimately leads to more well-informed and effective decisions.
  2. Increased innovation: Proactive participation encourages team members to share their unique ideas and approaches, sparking innovative thinking and fostering creativity. When individuals feel empowered to contribute, it can lead to breakthrough solutions and innovative approaches that drive progress.
  1. Improved problem-solving: Complex challenges often require multiple perspectives. By proactively participating, team members can use their collective knowledge, skills, and experiences to look at problems from various angles, leading to more comprehensive and effective solutions.
  1. Better communication and understanding: Proactive participation promotes open dialogue and ensures that everyone’s voice is heard. This open communication fosters a deeper understanding among team members, reducing misunderstandings and miscommunications that can hinder progress.
  1. Increased team cohesion and commitment: When individuals feel valued and their contributions are acknowledged, it strengthens team cohesion and commitment. Proactive participation creates a sense of ownership and investment in the team’s goals and objectives, motivating team members to work collaboratively and support each other’s efforts.

By fostering an environment where proactive participation is encouraged and valued, teams can leverage the diverse talents, perspectives, and experiences of their members. This collective effort leads to better decision-making, higher innovation, more effective problem-solving, improved communication, and ultimately, enhanced team performance and success.

What are the unwritten communication rules behind proactively participating?

Communicating in Indirect Environments

Indirect Rule 4: Being present and speaking only when you have something meaningful to add is considered as positive participation.

In indirect cultures, commenting frequently out of turn draws unnecessary attention to the individual, and away from the group. Drawing attention can be thought of as selfish.

Communicating in Direct Environments

Direct Rule 4: Paying attention and expressing interest through comments, clarifying questions, and interjections is considered positive participation in discussion.

In direct cultures, participation and making comments is the main way you can show the speaker that you care. The goal of this rule is to show your interest in what is being said, and that you want to understand.

How do you get everyone else to participate in meetings?

Encouraging participation from all team members during meetings can be challenging. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for fostering an inclusive and collaborative environment. Here are some strategies to help get everyone engaged and contributing:

  1. Set the tone from the start: As the meeting leader, establish an open and welcoming atmosphere from the beginning. Explicitly state that you value everyone’s input and encourage participation throughout the meeting.
  2. Use an icebreaker: Start the meeting with a fun, low-stakes icebreaker activity. This can help relax the atmosphere and get people comfortable with speaking up in front of the group.
  1. Go around the room: At the beginning of the meeting, go around the room and have each person briefly introduce themselves and share a thought or idea related to the meeting topic. This ensures everyone has a chance to speak early on.
  1. Ask open-ended questions: Instead of closed-ended yes/no questions, ask open-ended questions that encourage more detailed responses and follow-up discussion.
  1. Call on individuals: If someone seems quiet  or hasn’t spoken up, politely call on them by name and ask for their perspective on a specific point.
  1. Use breakout groups: For larger meetings, divide people into smaller breakout groups to discuss aspects of the topic. This creates a more intimate setting where quieter individuals may feel more comfortable contributing.
  1. Recap and summarize: Periodically summarize the key points raised and contributions made, recognizing those who’ve spoken up. This reinforces the value of participation.
  1. Allow time for reflection: Build in short pauses or breaks to give people time to gather their thoughts before moving on to the next topic.
  1. Lead by example: As the facilitator, model the behavior you want to see by actively listening, building on others’ ideas, and encouraging differing perspectives.
  1. Offer meeting resources in more than one language: If a significant number of people are non-native speakers, you can increase their comfort level by offering the agenda and any other resources in multiple languages.
  1. Follow up after the meeting: For those who didn’t contribute much during the meeting, follow up with them individually afterward to gather their thoughts and feedback.

Creating an inclusive and participatory meeting environment takes conscious effort, but the benefits of hearing diverse perspectives and ideas can lead to better decision-making and team cohesion.

What if employees are still not participating?

If you have tried all the tips listed above and employees are still hesitating to participate, there are usually two possibilities:

  • Employees don’t know that attendance alone is not considered participation. This is not unusual when you have multi-cultural meetings. You may have to have a meeting where you discuss and agree on the team communication culture. If team members work together to agree on a communication style that everyone feels comfortable with, they are more likely to use it! If you’re not sure how to build a custom communication style, take a look at Chapter 3: The Unwritten Rules of Communication for inspiration. 
  • Employees don’t feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety is the idea that you will not be punished or shamed for speaking your ideas, questions, concerns, or making mistakes. You can make employees feel more psychologically safe by treating them equally well, by refraining from public criticism or judgment, by admitting your own mistakes, and by making it clear that you value all opinions and questions. Furthermore, if a subordinate brings you a concern, take them seriously and be sure to follow up with them at a later date.

Proactive participation is a vital communication skill that can significantly impact your professional development and organizational influence. By leveraging simple techniques to join and lead discussions, you can effectively use this powerful business tool and make your voice heard.

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