Book clubs can be such a wonderful space for people to share their ideas; diverse viewpoints can lead to deeper and more valuable discussions that help us grow, both as individuals and as a society. 

But what do you do when people don't speak up? How do you encourage quiet members to contribute?

According to BookBrowse's research report, The Inner Lives of Book Clubs, 16% of people currently in a book club say their group has one or more members who rarely participate in the discussions. In most cases, the respondents express sadness and frustration saying that they would like to hear from these quieter members because their opinions and experiences are of value. After all, it's the active participation and communication of ideas that allows for meaningful discourse.

To better understand what to do (if anything), it's important to look at the reasons why a book club member might be staying silent.


Few Opportunities to Speak

It's possible that a quieter member of your book club is, in fact, interested in adding to the conversation but simply never gets an opportunity to speak. This sometimes happens if the group has one or more overly dominant personalities (ODPs) who control the floor and make it difficult for others to get a word in. According to our research, more than one-third of all book clubs report having an ODP who, whether intentionally or not, doesn't give others an equal opportunity to contribute. More on this in our earlier article, "What to Do When a Book Club Member Talks Too Much.

One simple technique some book clubs use is to start each meeting by asking each person in turn for their opinion on the book. Some groups limit the amount of time that any individual can speak for; and many will ask a direct question of quieter members (which can be a good strategy so long as doing so does not cause undue pressure).

We've found that having a book club facilitator (most groups rotate this role) can significantly improve how a meeting is run -- the facilitator can gently rein in talkative members, guide people back to the topic at hand, and create space for quieter members to jump in. This can be particularly helpful when meeting virtually (such as by Zoom) where it is more difficult to pick up on social cues. For more ideas on how a facilitator can help your group, read our article, "Tips on How to Be An Effective Book Club Facilitator." 

It's also possible that the group runs out of time before everyone has a chance to share. If that happens, consider extending the length of your discussions. This may require changing the balance of social to discussion time or extending the overall length of the meeting.


Afraid of Being Embarrassed or Judged for Ideas

According to our research, book clubbers are in almost universal agreement that respect for each other's opinions is critical; 98% consider this "very important/essential." And people don't have to agree in order to treat each other respectfully. Do what you can to make sure everyone in your group feels heard and cared about; don't let people talk over each other, let everyone finish their thoughts and, obviously, no name calling. Treating everyone with dignity, whether or not you share their opinion, can create the safe environment others need before speaking up.


Lack of Familiarity with the Group

If someone in your book group doesn't know the other members very well and hasn't yet acquired the trust necessary to feel comfortable opening up, we recommend scheduling in a few extra minutes for a meet-and-greet (even if just virtually). That way when it's time to discuss the book, people might be more likely to volunteer their thoughts because they feel more familiar with everybody. You could also play a short game at the start of your meeting. If most of your group members already know each other, a game such as pair share might be less intimidating to new members (if the group is meeting online, each pair could chat briefly by phone before rejoining the group to share what they have learned).


Need More Time to Think Before Responding

If a member feels that they need more time to consider their responses to questions about a book before speaking up, whoever is facilitating the meeting could send out a handful of likely topics for discussion ahead of time. With that said, be cautious about setting the expectation that people need to prepare ahead of the meeting. In fact, we recently interviewed a book club that expressly discourages too much research so that the membership come to meetings ready to form their own original thoughts.

For access to thousands of discussion guides, visit BookBrowse's readers' guides page.


Disabilities or Language Barriers

For some book club members it's challenging to jump into the conversation because of a disability, such as a stutter or hearing problem; or because there is a language barrier. Make sure there is enough room in the conversation for all members to contribute their ideas or to ask questions, and give everyone the uninterrupted time they need to complete their thoughts. Patience and mutual respect will work to strengthen your group. 


Don't Like to Speak in a Large Group

Get creative! If you want to encourage quiet members to talk and you know they don't like to speak in front of large groups, try chatting in small break out groups for part of the meeting. Doing this could alleviate anxiety and then, when the group reconvenes, a representative from each group can share highlights from their breakout discussion.


Didn't Finish the Book

It's happened to everyone at some time or other. Life gets busy and sometimes you just can't finish the book in time. If that's the case, it might be better to let a member join in the group to listen but remain quiet. If not finishing the book becomes a pattern, you may wish to look at why. More on this in our article, "What to Do When Members Come to Book Club Without Reading the Book."


Individual Personalities

At the end of the day, some people are simply quieter than others and, as much as you value a member's opinion and would like to hear their thoughts, if they have made clear that they prefer to mostly listen, there is no need to pressure them into talking. By doing so you risk making them feel uncomfortable and singled out. Show them respect and give them the space they need.


Not sure? Ask!

We're proponents of good communication in book groups. When in doubt, you can always just ask a person how they're feeling -- is there a reason they're not speaking up? Is there anything the group can do to help? We recommend speaking to them separately so you don't put them on the spot during a meeting.


For more information see BookBrowse's book club advice pages, which are useful resources for both new and established groups; and other blog topics based on our Inner Lives of Book Clubs research.

--Elena Spagnolie, Library Specialist



Many of the findings in this article are taken from The Inner Lives of Book Clubs: A Report on Who Joins Them and Why, What Makes Them Succeed, and How They Resolve Problems, which is available to buy in PDF or print.

You can see more articles in The Inner Lives of Book Clubs section of this blog; and receive future articles in your mailbox by subscribing to our newsletters, in particular Book Club News or Librarian News.

And if you're looking for an expert on book clubs for interview, please contact us!

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