Balancing Airtime in Your Meetings

Posted Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Allen Slade

Some people think meetings are just a waste of time. At one level, meetings exist to share information and to make decisions. (It doesn’t always work, but that’s the plan.) At another level, leaders should see meetings as leadership development opportunities. Jim Clawson says effective leadership is “managing energy, first in yourself, then in those around you.” In a meeting, energy shows up most clearly as spoken comments. One way to think about managing the energy in meetings is airtime.

Airtime is the percent of time you are the focus of the team’s attention (talking, writing on the board, etc.). For a five person team with equal attention, each person should be the focus of attention about a fifth of the time – 20% airtime. A person dominating the conversation has 50% or more airtime.

 It is rare that each person gets exactly the same airtime in a meeting. You may have more airtime because your expertise or passion fits the topic.

Once you get a handle on your own airtime in meetings, notice the airtime of the people around you. Some people may dominate the meeting (take up most of the airtime) while other people almost never speak. In some meetings, unbalanced airtime makes sense. The high airtime person may have unique information or expertise that will help move the meeting ahead.

All too often, though, unbalanced airtime comes from ineffective meeting dynamics. There may be personality differences that drive airtime, such as extroverts speaking endlessly and introverts staying quiet. There may be cultural norms that prevent some from speaking up, such as power distance or gender roles. There may be managers who love to hear their own voice. There may be politics at work, with the deliberate attempt to keep certain ideas or people out of the discussion.

If you want to balance out airtime, here are some tactics:

Draw in the silent majority. Ask a quiet person a direct question. Often, when you break the ice, they will find it easier to participate in the future.

Gently redirect dominators. If someone takes up too much aritime, use an appropriately assertive statement such as “Let’s hear from some other people now.”

Restructure the conversation. Try beginning the meeting with an icebreaker exercise or by asking everyone to briefly report on activities or results. During the meeting, ask everyone to comment on the issue or decision.

Get a facilitator. If the meeting continues to be ineffective, look to bring in a facilitator. The facilitator can help you redesign the meeting beforehand. He or she can also help with in-the-moment interventions to get the meeting rebalanced.

When managing airtime in your meetings, you are not striving for perfect balance. Instead, you are looking to get everyone engaged in the meeting. Balanced airtime will make meetings more interesting. It will help your information sharing and decision making more effective. Balanced airtime will maximize leadership development of others. And, actively managing airtime for yourself and others will become another tool in your leadership toolbox.

One comment on “Balancing Airtime in Your Meetings

  1. Pingback: You're Not Listening

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