I am currently leading a team of 3 members with whom I regularly hold one-on-one meetings. One of them is a bit shy and I feel that the meetings aren't quite as valuable as the others.

I don't want to force him to be more talkative (maybe everything is ok!), but I want to make sure he can freely speak his mind on these meetings.

What are some tips on dealing with shy team members?



Have a detailed agenda for these meetings, make sure the shy person knows it in advance and has time to prepare something to bring, and make sure you are prepared as well. It's much easier to work from something written down than it is to have a conversation on the fly.

Don't ask "So, how's work been?". Ask "Were you happy with your progress on release 1.4B?" Then drill down from there.

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  • Our meetings are regular (once every 2 weeks), but we don't really have an agenda. I'll try to prepare some questions in advance so that he can work from there. – agentshowers Jan 17 '17 at 10:09
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    I cannot emphasize how important sending it out ahead of time is. – Teacher KSHuang Jan 18 '17 at 11:57

As someone with pretty nasty social anxiety, I have some insight on this subject.

There are many reasons why he might not be very talkative. It could be social anxiety (clinical or just shyness) or any number of other reasons. One could even be asperger's syndrome. The reasons really don't matter.

First I think you need to accept him for being the way he is. The only thing that'll work (in my experience both as one with issues and dealing with people who do) is to make them more comfortable and be accepting. You've probably tried building a rapport so keep working on that but don't push too hard.

You need to make him feel "safe". I know that'll seem odd on in a business context but it's true. I would make sure that these one-on-ones are positives always. You may need to chastise him at times, but find a way to do so in a different context than these one-on-ones. That way when you ask him for one he won't internally panic. I would suggest scheduling them regularly so they become routine and always at a certain time. Even call them something like "our monday meeting" so they feel routine as well.

As I've said, I've got social anxiety. I've also been laid off or terminated a few times. It happens to all of us. But for me, I can't help but go into a near panic any time my boss says "can you come to my office for a minute?" even though I'm valued, my work is good and my position is budgeted through 2017. I still panic. Every. Time. I say this because you don't know what history your guy has one on ones could cause discomfort because of history or simply because he may just feel vulnerable.

I would also trying having one that is a "get to know you better" sort of thing that isn't even mostly job related. Open up about yourself. Maybe he'll open up.

Ask his opinion on issues. Ask his advice on process where appropriate.

Be careful of open ended questions. When those of us who are uncomfortable get an open ended question, we tend to answer it as shortly as possible.

Find what he likes and what he's passionate about. None of this takes much time but it's a process.

In short, you need to earn his trust.

When it's all said and done, it may not work. He may just not be the kind of person responds well. Maybe emails or instant messages will be a good option if that fails.

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  • We already have a fixed schedule (every two weeks at the same time), and I do try to talk about his interests. I'll try talking a bit more about myself and see if it helps, and I'll also try to focus more on close ended questions. – agentshowers Jan 17 '17 at 10:08
  • @agentshowers If his anxiety is due to fear, that should help. – Chris E Jan 17 '17 at 15:58

People are - generally - different from person to person. Thus, I only explain what has worked for me in the past and what techniques I usually evaluate using when facing this issue.

"Active listening" is my go to solver for getting people to talk freely. It is - all things considered - a reasonably easy technique. It is rather well described by the first hits in google and Wikipedia

I would primarily state my desire for a more "democratic" meeting in the one-to-one meeting with Shaun the Shy and explicitly that I would try to make sure that he can participate (with the assumption that he will). I will make clear that from time to time I will be interrupting the others to ask him his views. If fear now covers his face and palms are dripping with sweat, I would create a "safe word" which is a sentence that he could reply to anything and I would understand not to push further at that specific topic. If he seems OK with it without such a construct then we go from there. And then next one-to-one follow up on how it went.

If the problem is always in the many-people-meetings but never in one-to-one meetings there might also be an unseen conflict or something going on between the team members. If you know Shaun is very shy then this can also be unintentional from the others. Even to the point of you and me thinking it is only imagined - that Shaun has a ficticious and one sided conflict with someone else in the room - it may very well be - but the problem remains. If one of your other team members has a bit dominating personality you need to adress these in your meetings. You have to interrupt Dominant Doug more in the meetings, you have to turn away some more when he speaks and you have to cross your arms and look elsewhere a bit. You have to invite others at the expense of Doug. When Doug relaxes his dominant behaviour, reward it with being included again. But be careful, baby steps at first - these things are extremely powerful and you might end up with several unhappy team members if you go all in from the get-go.

What I do in the team meeting then is usually start at the basic. In these meetings I would position myself so that I am not turning away from the shy person even when he is not talking - i am inviting towards his input. If there is no "gap" in the conversation for him to participate, I would invite one. "Good work Fred, but before we go on, I would like to hear Shaun's comment on this". Active listening to get more than one-letter-answers. When Shaun is more comfortable, I would add some humor into the mix - "Fred, hold up a second, I can see Shaun is on the edge of his seat full of excellent comments. Shaun?". The humor adds a bit of tension to it, so that Shaun gets more used to talking when the tension mounts. But that is very personal and very related to how you are comfortable coaching.

I am by no means an expert, but I do encounter issues like yours in my work (Lean coach @ corporate level) and these tools are what I employ.

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