Time to Think About Productive Teleconferencing
In recent years, teleconferencing has risen in popularity, and no wonder. Why spend hours (and money) travelling when you can be in your own workplace – which may also be home – with everything you need to hand?
However, getting teleconferencing meetings to be productive can be more challenging in some ways than face to face meetings. Because if you want people to think and share their thinking (rather than sitting silently on the end of a phone, staring at a VC screen saying nothing or doing their emails surreptitiously) you have to create an environment where that can happen easily.
Inspiration comes for me from Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment ™. This is as useful in teleconferencing as it in in face to face meetings.
Nancy Kline believes that the quality of everything we do depends on the thinking we do first.
And she observed over several years that we do our finest thinking when someone actively helps us to think, creating an environment that enables us to think fully for ourselves, without direction, interruption or fear.
Yet most of the time we don’t give people the chance and the time to think and to tell us about their thinking. We interrupt, suggest, get bored waiting, try to influence them with our thinking, get distracted, and silence them. It’s not usually deliberate, but it’s not productive for anyone. And so ideas don’t get born, minds don’t get opened and people get trampled on.
Not giving people time to think can be just as much a problem in teleconferencing as in face to face meetings.
In fact, I believe that the single MOST important factor in the ability to think for ourselves is the way we are treated by others around us when we’re thinking. Not education, not experience, not knowledge. It’s other people’s behaviour.
The 10 Components of a Thinking Environment ™
Nancy created the Thinking Environment as a way of helping people to think well. At its the heart is the principle that people do their best thinking when they are encouraged and feel safe to do so. There are 10 Components; here I will focus on just 4:.
Giving and receiving Attention and feeling at Ease are essential, and believing that everyone’s voice matters, whoever they are, creates a sense of Equality that makes a massive difference to the meeting. And Appreciation for people who are there, who’ve made the effort to show up, and who’ve contributed, will set a positive tone.
It’s hard for people to pay the same Attention on a VC or teleconference as they would in a face to face meeting. They can’t always be seen so they might be tempted to multitask. So at the start I invite a brief discussion about the things that can irritate people in tele meetings. Typically people will cite "people not listening", "doing emails or texts" "people interrupting each other", ‘background noises’, etc. . I then ask – “So how can we make this meeting different and ensure we give real Attention to each other?”
I discourage too much use of the "mute button" because it can encourage people to multi-task if they think they cannot be heard. If they do multi-task, the meeting will definitely take longer. And people will not feel as if they have been listened to (the remote clicking of someone else's mouse is astonishingly distracting when you are the one speaking!). Feeling listened to is key to creating an environment where everyone contributes their finest thinking.
I prepare agenda items in the form of questions (questions open up thinking whereas agenda lists tend to close it down) and this helps to focus Attention as well as generate new thinking. So rather than “Budgets” the agenda might ask, “What are our budget priorities for the next year, and how do we ensure we meet our objectives?”
It’s important for people to feel that the right amount of time has been allocated to a meeting. And what feels too long for one person can be not enough time for another. So again this is another reason for agreeing the agenda, the rules of engagement and how people are going to make this meeting work well for all. Keeping the agenda items to a manageable size is important, as is ensuring that people aren’t interrupted. It’s hard to feel at Ease when you don't get a turn to speak or think you are going to be silenced or interrupted or ridiculed when you do speak.
I’ll stress this point. I ask that people really agree to not interrupt when someone else is speaking. And in exchange for not interrupting, when it’s their turn to speak, they won’t be interrupted. And as they aren’t going to be interrupted, I ask them to be succinct.
When they have finished talking on a subject I suggest they let the others know they’ve finished – either by saying “I’m done” or if we’re in a round, they could turn to the next person and ask "What do you think?
I send round a list of participants in advance. And when we meet if I am Chair I describe a mental picture of a round table and I give each person a place "Frank is to the left of Petra, and to her left is Carl" etc. This gives the basis for the "round" in which every can have a turn to speak, if they wish.
With Equality everyone's ideas matter, and everyone is equal as a thinker, regardless of role or hierarchy. Along with this principle, they are encouraged to share the time equally.
On each agenda item we do a round. If someone wants to miss their turn they can, so it goes to the next one. At the end I will ask anyone who skipped if they’d now like to say anything. If not we move onto next agenda item.
If we haven’t heard much from any one person I will contact them afterwards to follow up and ask how they found the meeting. I won’t put them on the spot at the time unless I can see a good reason for doing so (i.e. where the meeting is specifically to resolve conflict or address communication problems, in which case I’ll have contracted to offer my observations).
People haven’t mentally arrived until they have spoken, and sometimes don’t say much more than hello so they haven’t really engaged. A quick opening round asking about something positive, e.g., “What’s currently going well for you in your life or work?” sets the meeting off well.
And a closing round asking “What has been most valuable for you today?” is a powerful way of acknowledging what has been achieved and ensuring that sense of momentum leaves the virtual meeting room when the participants leave to go their separate ways again.
Just applying these principles consistently can truly transform your meetings.
If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your teams to get better results from meetings, just contact me for an exploratory discussion.
Image with thanks from www.rgbstock.com/bigphoto/mBc4WzQ/Noisy+Birds
© Linda Aspey 2015