Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

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