One of the most important pieces of asking a group of people a question—or starting a gathering or meeting with a question—is reminding people . . . ‘you have 100 percent choice and autonomy in how you answer any given question’ . . . And so when you give people choice, you empower them to chart their own path.

—Chad Littlefield, Co-founder of We and Me

I admire people with introverted personalities. Introverts are often profoundly thoughtful and more likely to find creative, unusual solutions to challenges. They tend to be deliberate and prefer setting their own pace, but the time and consideration they take can often yield incredible results.

Introverts sometimes get a bad rap in meetings, because they may initially feel resistant to participating in group settings. But the responsibility for fostering participation isn’t solely, or even primarily, on the introverted team member. Public speaker and corporate consultant Chad Littlefield tackles this issue directly when he says, “Do you know why introverts don’t like networking events? Because there is no good template for jumping into a conversation.”

So how might we create a “good template” at work? Participants need to trust that they can safely contribute to a meeting without being ignored or shut down. The best way for leaders to cultivate that sense of safety is through genuine curiosity, often best expressed in the form of meaningful, open-ended questions.

Let’s say you lead a team of twenty people. Ten have already worked together for two years on a related project. The other ten are new to both the team and each other. When you walk into the conference room, you notice that the team veterans are deep in conversation with one another, while the newcomers are quietly engrossed in their iPhones. You can already perceive a gap between these two experiences that you’d like to bridge before considering project goals.

A team’s work goals are essential, but fostering an environment where everyone feels safe contributing is equally important—otherwise, you’ll miss out on some of the best ideas to reach those goals. You can build a more inviting culture by modeling genuine curiosity about who your team members are as individuals and the perspectives they bring to the table.

I’m not talking about simply memorizing the name and job title that appear on a laminated card at the end of a lanyard. I’m referring to appropriate inquiries that lead people to communicate more meaningfully with one another. The message behind such questions should be, “You have a valued opinion in this setting, and your unique contributions are vital to the success of this team.”

For example, you could use a question-based icebreaker to create a problem-solving atmosphere: “What happened recently that lightly annoyed or inconvenienced you on your way to or from work? It could have been just some little hitch in your day. Describe what happened to you, or what you experienced. Take your time to think of something before you respond.”

To avoid reinforcing the dominance of extroverted veterans, have newcomers and veterans pair off and discuss their answers with each other. You might provide a series of conversation prompts on printed cards. In this scenario, instead of just getting one or two answers in front of the whole group, all twenty participants would engage actively.

The next question might be: “If you had total control over that situation I described, how would you improve the experience for another person who had to deal with it?” This offers a low-stakes opportunity for partners to reflect on each other’s experiences. In the process, they can a) constructively sympathize and commiserate with a challenge by suggesting an ideal solution, b) get to know someone they need to work with in the future, and c) see that their individual ideas have value.

By laying the groundwork for healthy group dynamics, the twenty minutes or so it takes to facilitate an exercise like this one can save hours of wasted time when your team works directly on higher-stakes organizational matters. Unblocking pathways of communication using questions like these will help leverage the strengths of every individual, which, in turn, will encourage them to share more and better ideas.

I’ll close with one more quote from Littlefield:

The number one characteristic of high-performing teams at Google was not the perfect personality match. It wasn’t the years of technical experience. The number one characteristic was the degree of psychological safety in the group. What that basically is—it’s a PhD term for “Can I be myself when I show up?”

If you want everyone on your team operating at full efficacy, introverts and extroverts alike, make sure their answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio