Dark Horses: How to Learn From the Quiet People in the Room

Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watched. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest…he strikes.

Anonymous

It’s the quiet people you have to watch. According to the opening quote from the 2018 film Vice about former US Vice President Dick Cheney, this is best done by demonising them. Mr Vader’s troubled reputation aside, I think this is terrible advice. Especially when it comes to being in the same room with one. It invokes the image of an inherently evil character, secretly plotting our demise.

In reality, there’s more to quiet people of course. While everyone’s focused on the person with the evil grin, we may be missing another Dark Horse, which I think is the perfect analogy for the quiet people in the room. Let’s take a closer look at those Dark Horses, where they come from and how we can learn from them.

What’s a Dark Horse?

The Dark Horse is an idiom describing someone or something that rises to unexpected prominence. The term originated in horse racing as a reference to the contender nobody had on their radar. It’s also been applied to politics describing a candidate no one thought would win. U.S. President James Polk is an example of such an unexpected surprise nominee and winner.

In a sense, quiet people are a special case of Dark Horses. When it comes to meetings, they’re like an unknown known that can easily be overlooked. Unlike the proverbial elephant in the room, Dark Horses are not actively avoided. They’re not conceived as a problem or considered a risk. They’re not unknown per se. Dark Horses are also different from Black Swans, things we could not possibly have known no matter what we had done.

At worst, we might say, Dark Horses are treated with indifference and not even ignored. At best, they’re deemed irrelevant because nothing points to them being of significance. But what if our mind is playing tricks on us?

Dark Horse Biases

There are plenty of reasons why someone would dismiss the person sitting quietly in the corner. We can pin it on arrogance, stereotyping, ego, or hubris. Indeed, not to concern ourselves with seemingly irrelevant people can be a conscious choice. Maybe we don’t want to associate ourselves with low-status people. So we focus on decision-makers, those who can make things happen by making others do what they want. However, this approach seems rather short-sighted and neglects the significance of soft power.

In a more charitable reading, there might be biases at play we can mitigate once we become aware of them. Our minds have the tendency to use so-called heuristics: quick, efficient and time-saving yet imperfect problem-solving techniques. These mental shortcuts kick in whenever we’re faced with a question too complex to answer in an instant. When faced with the question of who to talk to when meeting a group of people for the first time, we might intuitively go with the outspoken, communicative and senior-looking person.

More specifically, the Halo Effect is one such intuitive trap we can fall into. It leads us to judge people by emotion. In our meeting scenario, we’d assume that the likable woman who just firmly shook our hand and made impeccable eye contact is also the most qualified and important figure in the room. Meanwhile, we write off the unassuming character who only whispered her name. First impressions play a major role here — and it can get worse.

Even if we manage to catch ourselves misapplying a heuristic and begin to reason, we’re still prone to motivated reasoning. This phenomenon causes us to start with a feeling of what we want to believe. We then go on a quest for evidence to justify our position and stop as soon as we find a piece of information that does the job. Put differently, once we made up our minds about who the people in the room are, we tend to stick to that judgement.

It all sounds like a blueprint for missing the Dark Horses. But who are those people anyway?

Who Are the Quiet People?

In a way, our opening quote turns the above bias on its head and urges us to be biased against quiet people. But apart from calculating gentlemen seemingly plotting our demise, let’s hypothesise further on who they might be. We could be dealing with:

  1. Leaders only tangentially involved in an issue who, nevertheless, have the power to veto anything that’s later agreed on. They’re in the room because it affects their area of expertise. Perhaps only because they want to be a part of it and feel like they contributed. Regardless, they’re mostly in the room to observe.
  2. Inexperienced leaders, or victims of the Peter Principle, who are out of their depth and overshadowed by more experienced staff. There’s some humility in their behaviour as they don’t pretend to know stuff and share meaningless nonsense only to have contributed. Which brings us to the third category.
  3. Non decision-makers on whose expertise decisions nonetheless rely. They’re in the detail, they write the briefs, the background papers. When the meeting is over, they’re the ones who make recommendations or have to implement the decisions.

Now that we have a much higher resolution image of our potential Dark Horses we may want to ask: What makes them tick?

Inside the Minds of Quiet People

I’m not going to try to cover every potential motivation of a Dark Horse. But there are three approaches we might look at to get to know them better:

  1. Intuitively we probably think it’s a matter of temperament. Sure enough, the Big 5 personality traits (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Extraversion) give us an indication. For example, people low in the extraversion tend to be exhausted more quickly being around people while people high in extraversion tend to be energised by it. They prefer listening over talking. Being low in assertiveness, an aspect of extraversion, is also associated with a more quiet demeanour.
  2. In Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss distinguishes between three types of people: the assertive one, the accomodator and the analyst. Analysts, so Voss, tend to have an unassuming, methodical and reserved nature. For them, silence “is an opportunity to think”, which doesn’t mean they’re expecting others to talk. The distinction between Voss’ three types is not always clear cut. Though they can be helpful to discern with what kind of person we’re mainly dealing with.
  3. Apart from inherent proclivities, sitting in silence can also be the result of self-discipline and a deliberate choice. A reaction to the environment if you will. Ex Navy Seal Jocko Willink speaks to this attitude. He gives the example of a heated debate with people constantly talking over each other. Rather than forcing a word in, he chooses to use the time to listen, strategise and wait for an opening in the conversation. As they say, a confident person doesn’t fight for attention.

In sum, quiet people might be silent by nature, by choice, or both. It’s perfectly possible they’re confident extroverts who understand that the number of words uttered does not correlate with competence or importance. Or we’re dealing with an insecure introvert plotting and strategising. While the last type probably comes closest to the quiet man Vice wants us to fear, any combinations of the above are probably plausible.

At the end of the day, quiet people are the Schrödinger’s Cat of the meeting world. We won’t know who they really are until we talk to them. How can we uncover these unknown knowns?

Uncovering the Unknown Knowns

At first glance, the concept of unknown knowns seems paradoxical. It’s part of a conceptualisation of different aspects of knowing and not knowing. The mental model was popularised by another controversial figure of the Bush administration: former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In this concept, unknown knowns are the knowledge we don‘t realise we have.

Much like the proverbial Dark Horse, unknown knowns are classified as available knowledge. The problem lies in our management of the existing information. Knowledge is really only useful if we’re aware that we have it and it’s accessible when we need it. So the goal of uncovering unknown knowns is to avoid those unnecessary blind spots. Whether that’s our own ability to memorise and recall information or making sure the collective expertise of a group or organisation is readily available.

In terms of meetings, we can think of their purpose, not as an ego-fest, but the exchange of information. Information that enables us to make better decisions. Parkinson’s iron Law of Triviality demonstrates what happens if this is not the case. In his famous example, a nuclear reactor is waved through in minutes before board members spend hours debating about bike sheds and coffee. Put differently, most time is spent on simple and accessible issues people personally care about. The relevant information remains an unknown known.

So ideally, we’d want the knowledge exchange to be highly relevant to achieve our goals, which includes extracting as much valuable information as possible from everyone who might possess it. As long as a meeting is not meant as a symbolical farce, the shift in mindset to collecting information is important. Because the most valuable unknown knowns could be sitting with anyone, including the quiet people.

How to Learn From Quiet People

The simple most obvious solution is to talk to everyone. But let’s be more specific. Suppose we were to nerd out on prepping for the mother of important meetings. Here’s a more methodical approach we could take to mitigate biases and avoid missing the Dark Horse:

  1. Prepare: before the meeting we start by mapping out who we’re dealing with. What are their roles and expertise? How might their work affect ours? Not having or being able to get that info is something to remember once we’re sitting in the room. Apart from the meeting protagonists it’s also useful to have a sense of what kind of information we’re hoping to get.
  2. The protagonists: Once we’re in the meeting, it should be our goal to get a sense of everyone’s thinking about the issue at hand. Especially from those who don’t seem to play a big role. The image of exploring a new hotel room comes to mind. Could you have a good nights sleep without having checked every room and closet of your new temporary home? Similarly, if we end a meeting and haven’t heard from every single person no matter how unimportant they seem, we’re leaving knowledge on the table.
  3. The irrelevant: Okay, some participants may indeed be less relevant. Have some turned out to be rent-a-crowd, a group of people who serve no function other than making the delegation look more important? Great, that tells us how important the meeting is to our counterparts. Or are we truly dealing with a few inexperienced interns? Perfect, they can potentially provide a more unfiltered perspective. And who knows, they could soon rise in the hierarchy and remember how we treated them when we first met.
  4. The missing: There’s still potential knowledge we haven’t thought of. It sits with the people who are not even in the room. Those who couldn’t make it, those who might have been made to not make it, or those who play a role in the project but nobody cared to include. We can get a sense of them by asking the people present about who is affected by the project and how it impacts them. To the very least we know who else to talk to.
  5. De-brief: There’s still something we can do even after the meeting. We treat the event like a Shakespeare play that has to be re-read in order to fully understand it. We do this in meetings by having those who don’t speak listen and observe. What was the general atmosphere in the room? Does everyone agree on the main take-aways? How were people reacting when attention was not on them? The nuances of a conversation can easily get lost on us when we’re wrapped up in the conversation. So why not even bring a few quiet people who are only there to observe?

Admittedly, that all seems like a lot of effort. Information wise, on the other hand, such a methodical uncovering of Dark Horses seems like low hanging fruit. The information is all there, we just have to realise it.

Closing Thoughts

Late comedy legend George Carlin once warned about watching the quiet people. If he were in a bar, Carlin pondered, he’d rather ignore the quiet bookish guy and keep his eyes on the noisy machete-wielding lunatic. He’s not wrong. By definition, Dark Horses are an evasive breed. They’re always the ones we least expect.

Treating everyone in the room like they matter and seeing the world through their eyes might be the simplest way to learn something from everybody including the quiet people. Because it’s almost as if the ultimate Dark Horse is our ego. The part of us that doesn’t realise the wealth of information right in front of us.