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I'm a developer working in a team of around 10-15 people, with almost two thirds of them working remotely. We use scrum, and have daily standups, sprint plannings and other meetings over conference calls.

Sometimes during these meetings there are open-ended questions posed to the room which tend to be met with silence. For example:

  • "This user story does not seem very clear. Does everybody understand its scope?"

  • "Is everybody happy with the level of effort assigned to this ticket?"

Usually no one speaks up, but later I hear from colleagues that they did have something to say about it.

At least from my part, I believe that the reason why people don't answer questions or express opinions is because they feel they may be challenged, or that if they speak up they will be 'volunteering' for some task.

I don't want to just assume this is the case, though. So I would like to know what might be a good way to ask them how they feel about these questions.

What's a good way to ask this without feeling like I'm challenging them? I don't want to just ask "why don't you speak up?" if there's a better way to communicate that I'm just trying to understand if there really is a problem.

I feel there's willingness to improve communication and cooperation within the team, but we just don't quite know how to do it. So I thought a good place to start would be to ask around specifically about the silence after open-ended questions. I'm open to other suggestions, though.

edit: to clarify, I do already tend to speak up to try and lead by example, while trying to be careful 'not to overdo it'. Also, the team has been working together for less than 2 years, and we do have good relationship with management.

edit 2: I am not usually the one who is asking these questions.

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    Nobody can answer a question that starts with "does everybody..." because nobody is aware of other's state of mind. You could try reword that by "does anybody need clarification/is unhappy with the level of effort" so people feel more like they can speak for themselves, rather than for the group. – Arthur Havlicek Oct 11 at 11:04
  • @ArthurHavlicek, I like the idea of changing the wording to make it appeal more to the individual. I'll try to suggest that to the team. Thank you. – Claudius Oct 11 at 12:33
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What's a good way to foster an environment where colleagues feel free to express their opinions, if I'm not in a management role?

This responsibility, to participate in a collective spirit, falls on the entire team. I think you definitely should on occasion ask, when met with silence, say something similar to: "Hey person XXXXX, what are your thoughts about this?"

Ultimately though, if this is a pattern for the whole team, it falls mainly on the Scrum Master to call the team out a bit and say "Why aren't you engaging in the grooming of this story?"

You could also suggest to the Scrum Master to set up a team meeting where the topic is How do we increase participation.

  • I think as someone who is more often on the answering side rather than the asking, I would not feel very comfortable putting other fellow devs on the spot by asking randomly. But I do think the idea of suggesting to the scrum master to do a How do we increase participation meeting. Maybe it could even be done on a 'voluntary participation' basis. – Claudius Oct 11 at 12:40
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    +1. Right now, "normal" for nobody to speak up during those moments. Random asks changes the normal to having people speak up, even if it's prodded at first. – Kevin Oct 11 at 18:27
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There is a lot of background information missing:

  • how "old" is the team;
  • when did OP join the team;
  • what is the relationship of the team with the management;
  • what is the management style in the company;
  • etc;

All these things are important. If the management style "punishes" any error and overloads with work anyone who dares to speak, then the silence is well placed. Forcing the people to speak will actually mean hurting those people.


However, if you think that things are not that bad, then you can take the advice already given elsewhere on this page, and start answering yourself. To not shoot yourself in the foot too hard, you should answer very light and low risk questions - in the beginning. If everything will be fine, you can get more courage to get more involved, and your colleagues might follow your tracks.

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We use scrum, and have daily stand-ups, sprint plannings and other meetings over conference calls.

That is the 1st problem. Conference calls especially large one tend to be met with silence. This is across the board. We have the same problem but you can make some strides to change this.

What's a good way to ask this without feeling like I'm challenging them?

One tactic we use at my work is to ask direct questions to individual instead of asking a question to everyone. The way we do this is by letting it be known we plan to ask everyone at the end of the call/meeting if they have any thoughts or questions and what action items they took away from this. We call it our "Round Table".

This serves 2 goals. One is to make sure people are taking some kind of notes as they will be ask what is their take away or action items at the end of the meeting and two people will be more prepared with questions or information at the end.

This works very well for us and we have a very large company and meet with many people over many different cultures and this still works well. I would give that a shot. Maybe bring the idea to management.

Typically we end our meetings like this:

"Ok so starting from the left, Sara what have you got... Ok thanks Sara. Bob what have you got... Ok thanks Bob. Jan what about you... Oh you are having an issue with such and such well Bob is working on a similar issue and he has some resources you might not. Get with Bob after the meeting to see if you can help each other. "

This has be very good at including everyone without feeling like we are targeting a specific person and it serves as good clarification without others having to feel "dumb" for asking so they don't have to stay silent.

Personally I do not understand the need to stay silent. I don't care what others think if I ask a question. I have a job to do and if I don't know something I need to know. Does not matter to me if someone thinks its a dumb question. For me I just need the info so I can do my job well.

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