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Is "silence means agreement" a good ground rule?
Sarah A. Sheard

If there is no contention, does that means that there is agreement? Some groups use "Silence Means Agreement" to speed up decisions and move the discussion along. If no one objects to a decision, it is implemented as having full consensus.

However, I have found this NOT to be a good idea. Why?

First, it is too much like what people are already used to. In a meeting with a traditional boss, employees are assumed to go along with the boss unless they object in public. Bosses use this when they want to push an idea through. If a team is run this way too, the quieter people can assume there has been no change, with the boss just replaced by the more vocal team members. They can feel that they don't have a real part in the team.

Second, what happens when this rule is applied is that people simply reserve for themselves the right to object later, and they don't commit to the decision. They just agree that they don't object RIGHT NOW.

Instead of silence meaning agreement, I have found that if you actually poll people by going around the room, and ask them their opinion, two things happen:

    1. Those who have reservations state the reservations, which they might not do if silence were an option. Often, their reservations change the whole direction of the group. Either they think of something no one else has, and thereby add to the quality of the product, or they have a real problem with it which the group has to address to ensure buy in.

    2. I have also found with MYSELF as well as others, that when I am asked whether I can buy in to something, I actually MAKE the commitment internally at that point. If I have to say yes, no, or "I can live with it," (we use thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways for quick polling), then I actually decide at that point that I can actually live with it. Otherwise I might reserve judgment: "naw, it's THEIR decision, and I just decided not to interfere with them."

The bottom line is, I strongly recommend going through the process of polling everyone.

Some people don't like polling because it takes too long, and can even throw the whole discussion off track. This will happen if the first time someone objects, the group stops to discuss the objection rather than finish the polling. Sometimes the person polled actually may agree but chooses to clarify a personal viewpoint.

So we set a ground rule that once a group starts polling, it finishes before doing anything else. With thumbs it is easy. If your polling is done verbally, set a ground rule that the only acceptable things to say are: "yes," "no," "I can live with it," or "hey, no discussion until we finish polling."

The group is then obligated to hear from all the people who said "no." When these dissenters have the opportunity to clarify their opinions, a better solution often results.

"Silence means agreement" can rob quiet people of their voice. A quick poll of the participants can improve the quality of the decision, make all people feel heard, and help ensure all participants make the internal decision to buy in.


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