Creating Space for Unheard Voices in Work Environments

This piece was originally published in PRSA’s Strategies and Tactics Annual Writing Issue

We’ve all experienced it. You are in a work meeting or group discussion and you have something to contribute but there’s no opportunity to speak. Others are taking up all the air in the room — even virtually — with their own thoughts and opinions without yielding the floor for other points of view. It’s frustrating. It makes you feel overlooked or invisible in the conversation. “Why was I invited to this meeting?” Perhaps you feel as if no one in the conversation values your perspective or insights.

Now imagine if you experienced that every day. Every day, you participated in meeting spaces where you tried to share an idea, your experience or your expertise, and you were talked over, interrupted before you could make your point or ignored.

For many of our colleagues who identify with one or more underrepresented or underresourced identity communities, this may be a daily experience. Community identities can be defined by race/ethnicity, gender identity, age, organizational level, sexual identity or geographic background. Especially in spaces that lack diversity and representation, there is often less intention by peers in power or in privilege to take steps to ensure that everyone who wants to share has opportunities to be seen and heard.

As we approach a new year of cultural observances, such as Black History Month, becoming a better ally to family, friends and colleagues dealing with inequities, bias, prejudice and discrimination is at the top of many 2022 intention lists. Being an ally is more than stating that you are one and what you value; it’s woven into the actions you take.

As communicators, we manage communication channels, messaging and activities and facilitate the voices included and amplified in those dialogues. Learning how to create spaces where more voices are welcomed and heard is one of the simplest ways to be an effective ally.

The following tips outline how we can create and support these open spaces for discussions, meetings and events. Once you start integrating these approaches, you will be amazed by how conversations become richer and fuller, and how quickly colleagues will start adopting these practices as well.

1. Set the tone of inclusion at the start.

At the outset of the discussion, clarify that all suggestions are welcome and that you would like to hear from anyone who has an idea, question, feedback or insight. Reinforce that participants should keep their comments short and succinct to create more time for others to contribute.

As meeting leader, enforce a time limit on those who speak frequently or take a lot of time to make their points. Emphasize that if more people can speak and be heard, then the dialogue will be richer.

2. Use a raised hands process.

If a person wants to contribute and isn’t being recognized, then encourage participants to raise their hand when they want to speak. If multiple hands are raised, keep track of the order out loud and honor this when calling on people.

3. Make eye contact with participants, frequently.

In our virtual environments, it’s more difficult to read nonverbal communication cues. Ask participants to keep their video cameras on and use the gallery view on your video conferencing platform to scan your virtual room.

If some participants choose not to use video, then create pauses throughout the gathering to check-in with non-video participants or individuals connecting by phone and offer space for them to share. If eye contact isn’t effective, then encourage participants to use gesture recognition or meeting reaction functions and acknowledge when they are used.

4. Prevent interruptions.

Pay attention to who is trying to talk. If the speaker is interrupted by someone talking over them or speaking before the previous person has finished their thought, then redirect things back to the original speaker to finish. By demonstrating that interruptions will not be allowed, attendees will adjust and follow that direction for the remainder of the meeting.

5. Use a “parking lot” list for topic tangents.

Off-topic issues or concerns can capture a lot of time in meetings. By placing these items on a “parking lot” list tracked in real-time, you can refocus on the meeting goal. And you are communicating that the thought or topic was heard and will be addressed later, allowing more space for others to be heard.

6. Create safety for speakers of different abilities and comfort levels.

Not everyone is mentally, emotionally or physically comfortable speaking publicly, even in smaller spaces. Regardless, everyone wants to be heard and feel valued.

Create spaces that are safe and welcoming — perhaps you can encourage people to share their thoughts in the chat and you can read them aloud to the group. Try following up with them one-on-one if there is more to explore afterward.

7. Don’t make assumptions about identities.

When research and data isn’t readily available to talk about audiences and how to engage them, we lean into personal experiences or understanding of those communities. We look to colleagues to serve as unofficial focus groups and, based on assumptions, we ask them to share their insights as a representative of an identity community.

Instead, allow them to choose to self-identity or share their experience as a member of that community. Don’t call someone out to participate, but ask if anyone has personal insights about this identity community based on experience, research or previous work that they would like to share.

8. Use improv rules during brainstorming.

The guiding rule of improvisational comedy is: “Yes, and…” It’s when a participant accepts what another participant has stated — yes — and expands or builds on that line of thinking — and.

This same rule can be applied to brainstorms to encourage people to contribute, generate as many ideas as possible and spend more time brainstorming instead of criticizing ideas. Even if an idea is not quite right, it might inspire another one. It also evens the playing field by removing the common participation obstacles of being corrected or judged in front of your peers.

9. Seek feedback on how to create supportive environments.

Go straight to your sources. Seek feedback and guidance one-on-one from colleagues about whether they feel seen and heard. If not, then what do they need to feel more supported during discussions?

To get the most candid responses, consider using a confidential survey to evaluate meetings and solicit opportunities for more growth and inclusion. Take that feedback and share it with colleagues with recommendations for adjustments or new policies. Your openness and transparency will further demonstrate a commitment to creating space for all and how you value developing a more diverse, equitable and inclusive collaborative environment.

When in doubt, apply the Golden Rule. Create the space and inclusion that you would want in order to feel seen, heard and valued.

As an ally, you can never go wrong when you talk less and listen more, encouraging others in the room to do the same. There is much for us to hear and learn from each other, and creating space for more voices is a strong first step.