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The power of giving people time to think in meetings

Blog posted by: Richard Gold, 05 May 2022.

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I have spent the past couple of years helping people in all kinds of organisations make their meetings more productive, inventive and engaging by making the most of everyone involved. And the strikingly consistent feedback from participants in my training workshops has been that the simplest, most transformational change they had made to improve the effectiveness of meetings was to give people time to think (and share their thoughts) before open discussion starts.

Giving people time to think is as simple as it sounds. Rather than launching straight into a discussion about the topic of the session, pose a question to the group: give them some time to think individually about their answer (and ideally write it down); give each an opportunity to voice their answer in turn; and then begin the discussion. This may seem like a slow way to start a discussion, but it’s transformational. Here’s why.

Giving people time to think avoids hierarchy, domination and anchoring effects

One of the most common complaints about meetings is the dominance of a few voices. Sometimes it’s an organisational hierarchy thing – the most senior people feeling the urge to stamp their authority on the direction of the meeting. There are often the ‘usual suspects’, those who always speak up (something I have often been accused of – and, hands-up, probably guilty).

But it’s not just hierarchy and extroverts that are an issue. In an unstructured discussion, the first person to speak effectively sets the starting point for the conversation so that subsequent contributions are received relative to that starting point.

This is known as ‘anchoring’, and it’s a real drag on making the most of everyone. Consider the spectrum below where there is a range of possible ideas/solutions/views about a topic. We’ll represent that range as being from West to East.

If the first person to speak about the topic is towards one end and your view is towards the other, it can be quite hard to make your contribution without setting yourself up in opposition to the expressed view. It immediately creates a potential conflict in making your point. So, you have to be confident and feel psychologically safe to speak up, especially if you haven’t had time to think through your ideas.

If everyone has time to think about their response and put it on the table before the discussion starts, then both hierarchy and anchoring effects are reduced. Other ideas – some of which may even challenge the limitations of the spectrum and drive breakthrough thinking – can be voiced before the discussion starts.

Now the discussion can be address pros and cons, overlaps, synergies between different approaches; crashing together lots of ideas without setting two up in conflict and building from there.

Giving people time to think promotes inclusion

When you give people time to think, they can think at their own speed, in their own way, according to their own cultural norms, in their own language. When everyone thinks and everyone shares their thoughts in turn the barriers to speaking up are reduced, whether those relate to cultural, language, expertise or neurodiversity challenges. Giving people time to think (and respond) is essential to make the most of your hard work in getting diversity in the room to produce the diversity of ideas that the team is capable of.

Giving people time to think promotes active listening

If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, you’re not properly listening to what’s being said. And if you are listening, are you thinking about what you can say in relation to it? By getting your thinking out of the way before everyone speaks, your brain is free to think about what you’re hearing: all the ideas and how they relate to each other. This can help you find interesting combinations and connections, and make the most what everyone brings.  You are free to give quality of attention that is palpable to the speaker.

Giving people time to think helps bring up insights

We’ve all experienced the ‘esprit d’escalier’ – that realisation of what you should have said when asked a question in a meeting; what you wished you’d thought of at the time. In fact, you probably did ‘think’ of it in the meeting – you just didn’t know.

This is result of a subconscious survival instinct. Our brains (or to be more specific a region called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)) censor ideas that may lead to us being criticised or ridiculed as it may lead us to be kicked out of the group and left on the plain to be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Our brains haven’t evolved to know the difference between a social threat and a mortal one.

When you leave the room, you are once again safe and that idea you had (but didn’t know you had) comes to the surface. Having time to think without interruption is a great way to quiet the ACC and allow ideas to surface in the moment when they’re useful.

Giving people time to think leads to better ideas and collaborative/creative results

There is a fair amount of research that shows that brainstorming sessions tend to provide fewer and less good ideas than having people do work on their own first. (Google ‘myth of brainstorming’ for a selection.) And this is true not just of brainstorms, but of any meeting where you need to make the most of everyone involved. Which should, of course, be all meetings.

So, next time you’re planning a meeting (you do plan your meetings right?), set aside a little time for participants to think. It’s a big step on the path to making the most of everyone in your meetings, improving projects and team culture.

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About the Author

Richard Gold

Richard is a strategy and team development consultant, coach and facilitator. He uses playful techniques such as LEGO® Serious Play® and applied improvisation alongside traditional tools from decades of strategy, marketing and digital transformation consulting project experience to help teams and organisations achieve breakthrough thinking by making the most of all of their people. Time to Think is one of 12 Playful Principles® which Richard has developed as a framework for making the most of everyone in any meeting – whether in-person, remote or hybrid. Details and registration for his Playful Principles® for Productive Meetings training workshop is here. Connect with Richard on LinkedIn or via his website.


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