The Betty Effect: silence is golden but what gold might be missed?

Do you like to sit back and listen?

Pull up a chair, chat to your neighbour, then sit back and let others talk.

You’re probably listening keenly.

Maybe you hear not just what’s said, but what’s unsaid. That’s amazing.

Perhaps you even ‘hear’ the body language that the louder ones might miss.

The talkers in the group are probably delighted. More air time!

Some might not even notice you’re there.

Like a woman I’ll call ‘Betty’.

She was in a really small group, about 6 people from the same company. A mix of genders, experts, ages and personalities. They’d come together to build a little collaborative muscle.

Each had brought a collaborative challenge to the table. Their job was to pick one and do a quick deep dive, using a process that is objective, effective and energising. It helps get someone ‘unstuck’. I call it Peers Solve Problems*.

After quickly choosing a problem, they were off and running. We’d done some warm up exercises, including how to bring in quieter people.

It worked like a treat. They re-framed negative responses to more open-ended ones. They paused for just a second longer to jump in with their idea. They took turns.

But nobody asked Betty.

She sat in their small circle, her eyes and ears keenly following the conversation. Not one person turned to her to ask what she thought. Not with their voice, their eyes or an open hand. It was like she wasn’t there.

After 15 minutes, the group was pretty chuffed. They’d come up with a few strategies to shift the problem. 

“That was great, I’m going to use that with my project team.”

“I felt like we really listened to each other.”

“What about Betty?” I asked.

Oops. They looked nonplussed; a bit embarrassed.

The woman next to Betty gasped.

“I didn’t realise! We work alongside each other every day.”

“Does that happen all the time?” she asked, turning to Betty.

“I prefer to listen,” said Betty. “If I have any ideas, I’ll talk to someone afterwards.”

What if Betty had spoken up? What direction might the conversation had taken? We’ll never know.

It reminded me of a story on Susan Cain’s The Quiet Revolution website, which is all about ‘unlocking the power of introverts. Jennifer Oldham talks about the ‘risk in living an invisible life’ that when she keeps her ideas to herself, she denies herself the ‘opportunities to learn and connect with others.’

She asks herself three great questions when she’s tempted to stay hidden or quiet:

😨 Is there a threat? Is it real or just perceived?

🌻 Is there a growth opportunity?

🍀 Will I have this chance again?

It’s never just about me’ when ‘we’ are collaborating. No matter how collaborative we think we are, it is worth checking:

🔸 Who is in the group?

🔸 How do they prefer to participate?

🔸 What can we – what can I – do to make that possible?

Perhaps give people a question to consider before the conversation, so they have the opportunity to reflect on their own. Enable people to talk in pairs rather than the whole group.

What skills do you think are needed to bring Betty into the conversation – if you’re Betty or if you’re sitting alongside her. I’d love to hear.

*If you want to fine out more about the Peers Solve Problems process, reply to this blog with ‘PROCESS’ in the subject field and I’ll get in touch.