By: Lorin Phillips, CAMPUSPEAK Speaker

There is nothing scarier to me than an organization where their members feel silenced. The leaders stand in front of the room during a meeting, share decisions made by leaders, tell the group what is happening next, and there is a quiet, emotionless head nod. Then on to the next topic. The meeting concludes in 30 minutes or so without a single question or discussion beyond perhaps repeating the time or location. Some time passes and then the after-meeting discussion starts to happen. Often it starts in smaller friend groups and eventually someone is fired up enough or has enough support of close friends to make a declaration in GroupMe. Rapid fire opinions follow; screenshots are taken and sent on to officers or advisors, and the officer GroupMe begins to blow up with various forms of “Why didn’t someone say something? We just talked about it at the meeting.” Then enters the dialog around respect. The next meeting a direct statement is made to the group about needing to speak up and ask questions…how are they (the officers) to know something is wrong if people don’t speak up? Someone rolls their eyes in the back row signaling the obvious irony just observed. Why would I speak up and say something if this is the response? The cycle of silence begins again.

If none of that sounds familiar, you have a group culture that encourages and welcomes healthy conflict. Be proud of that environment and continue to encourage caring and constructive disagreement. If it sounds all too familiar, here are four critical components to help you evaluate and problem-solve.

Start with Why. Every group dynamic can be a little different.  Taking time to think critically about ‘why’ before identifying solutions is important. Asking ‘why’ helps us get to the root of the issue. An example reflection might look like:

  • Why aren’t people aren’t speaking up? Because we rarely vote or discuss anything except officer elections.
  • Why aren’t you voting on more and discussing what goes on your calendar? Because the last time we did that we had a group of negative people who would put the ideas of younger members down. It created a lot of drama.
  • Why are people allowed to talk like that to others in a meeting? Because no one has talked with them about the concerns.
  • Why has no one talked with them and asked them? I don’t know.

When you get to a point that you don’t know why anymore, you may have found your starting point for some brainstorming ideas.

Move to How and Who. How can we talk with people who are discouraging discussion? Who will have that conversation?

  • When you talk with them, listen more than you tell. Start with an opening statement and ask them why. We’ve noticed the chapter isn’t talking with each other in chapter meetings and instead is having discussions and disagreements electronically. Why do you think that is happening? Give them space to explore the ‘whys’ too. This isn’t a confrontation but rather an opportunity to explore the issue with someone who might have another perspective. If there is an opportunity for individuals to own their contributions to the problem, take it!
  • Ask them about the how and who. How can we begin encouraging discussion? Who should we count on to be good role modules of healthy chapter meeting discussion? Who or what do we think might be a barrier to change? How can we get them on board?

Find the bright spots. It is easy to get stuck in the negative complaining pieces around an issue and never get to solutions. To move from complaining to problem-solving, think about the bright spots. Think of a highpoint around the issue.  What was a time when there was healthy disagreement or constructive sharing of ideas and differing viewpoints? What traits, circumstances, and attributes made that possible?

Determine what is next. What did we learn from the bright spot that we can apply here? Think about expectations, education, and ways to engage members in meeting new expectations.

  • What expectations need to be set to ensure a safe place for differing opinions? What expectations need to be set about places where not okay to express differing opinions? If there is a particular environment where the issue is occurring (chapter meetings, GroupMe, private Facebook group), what expectations do you need about how and when you use that form of communication?
  • What skills are needed for members to feel more confident to have these discussions? What education do we need to provide the chapter around the expectations?
  • What happens when someone doesn’t meet those expectations? How will you enforce the new expectations?
  • What happens when someone DOES meet those expectations? How will you reinforce the behaviors you wanted to do?

Top of Mind. What can you do to keep the new expectations and changes at the top of everyone’s minds? It takes 30 days to form a new habit. This will be a new habit for your organization. Maybe it is a fun catchphrase that begins part of your lingo.

  • We don’t need to agree, but we do need to understand.
  • Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It means we are learning, changing, and growing.

Perhaps it is taking the time to share stories at the end of a meeting highlighting when people were meeting the new expectation(s). Catch people doing it right. Praise the progress instead of waiting for things to be perfect before giving recognition. Change, even small change, is change. Celebrate it!


To learn more about Lorin Phillips and her programs, visit