Who goes next — protocols for online meetings

who goes nextYou’ve surely overheard or been part of a “conversation” where one person talks non-stop. Who goes next? Nobody! “Free discussions” at meetings frequently suffer from the same phenomenon. A few people monopolize most of the time, and many people, often a majority, say nothing.

If you want to support everyone’s right to share at a meeting, you’ll need to facilitate what happens via defining and agreeing on who can speak, and when, and for how long.

One of those agreements involves determining who goes next.

Let’s explore strategies for who goes next, first for face-to-face meetings and then online meetings.

Face-to-face options for who goes next

When all participants are physically together in one room, there are several ways “who goes next?” may be decided.

• Random

No facilitation or explicit process used. Whoever speaks gets to talk. If two or more people start simultaneously, they decide (or battle) as to who should speak next.

Because this is the default mode for most casual human conversations, many groups unconsciously adopt it when they meet. As we all know, this (lack of) process eventually breaks down as the group gets larger, with people shut out or deciding not to speak.

• Round-robin sharing

The simplest who goes next protocol for a face-to-face group is round-robin sharing, where participants’ physical location determines who speaks next. When using a circle of chairs, this is easy to do. It’s not much harder for a facilitator to implement round-robin in other room sets, providing participants aren’t moving around. An agreed limit on time to speak is typically needed in order to prevent one or more people from monopolizing group time. And it’s important for the facilitator to check that no one’s been left out when sharing appears to be done.

• Popcorn sharing

In popcorn sharing, people indicate they’d like to speak by some agreed on method, say by raising their hand, and a facilitator guides who speaks next. This allows people to speak when they’re ready to say something, rather than be forced to speak because it’s “their turn” due to where they are sitting or standing. For successful group sharing, a facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again. Again, a time limit is recommended.

“Pass” should always be an option

However a group uses to decide who goes next, it’s important to make clear that speaking is optional. Give anyone who doesn’t want to speak at an available time an explicit opportunity to state this, rather than assuming that anyone who hasn’t spoken doesn’t want to.

Who goes next at an online meeting?

Determining who goes next during an online meeting discussion poses additional challenges to those of a face-to-face meeting. That’s because we don’t have all the signaling options that are possible when all participants are physically together.

• Facilitator chooses

At an online meeting there’s no physical room set to use for a round-robin process. (A common mistake is to assume that the order participants appear on one’s screen is the same for everyone, but that’s not the case—and the visible order may change at any time when participants join or depart the meeting.)

One strategy is to have the facilitator choose who speaks next. For a small group, the facilitator’s memory may be sufficient to keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t.

Alternatively, meeting platforms generally allow the host to display a list of participants, and the facilitator can use a screenshot of this list to invite and track who goes next.

Finally, for a more formal meeting, an agenda distributed before the meeting can include an ordered list of speakers.

As in face-to-face meetings, the facilitator should check that everyone who wants to has spoken before anyone speaks again.

• Participants raise hands

We are all used to raising hands when we want to speak in a group. If all participants have their camera on, and the facilitator can see everyone on one screen (check this — every meeting platform has a limit to the number of participants shown simultaneously), you can have people raise a hand if they want to speak. The facilitator then names who will speak next. If more than one person raises their hand, it’s good to recognize both: e.g. “Martha, and then let’s hear from Priya”.

If you have a few people on phones, the facilitator can check in with them periodically, asking if there’s something they want to contribute. However, phone-only attendees are typically second-class citizens on video conferencing calls unless the meeting group is small.

Some meeting platforms have the capability for participants to click on a “raise hand” icon, to inform the host they want to speak. (Microsoft Teams will be adding this, though the displayed hand is pretty small.) Zoom implements this well, even allowing phone callers to “raise their hand” by entering *9 on their keypad.

• Participants use text chat

If everyone has appropriate access, another approach is for attendees to request to speak via text chat. I’m not a big fan of this approach because I’ve found that text chat is a great channel for people to connect with other participants and comment on the meeting, and it’s hard to use this channel for two different purposes. One alternative is to reserve the meeting platform text chat for normal use, and agree on a separate text chat channel that uses a different platform for queuing speaking requests. This could be a viable approach for very large online meetings, though remember that running a free-floating discussion amongst a large number of people is just as ineffective and prone to abuse online as it is in person.

• Current speaker picks the next person to speak

A final strategy is to have the current speaker pick who speaks next. This adds a little nice informality to the sharing. There are a couple of things to bear in mind with this approach. First, it can be hard for people to remember who has spoken and who hasn’t. And second, I’ve seen everyone avoid choosing people with hard-to-pronounce names until they are the only folks left!

Are there other ways to decide who goes next?

If you have additions and improvements to the above ideas, please share them in the comments! And stay tuned for my upcoming post on a similar online meeting issue: who goes first?

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