Reading the Virtual Room

This is a question I get asked a lot: How do you ‘read the room’ when you’re meeting virtually? In other words, how can you tell whether people are tracking or checked out, where the group energy is, and when it’s time for a break or some other shift? My answer: it’s not actually all that different from reading the room in face-to-face settings, although we tend to think it is.

It’s stressful for a skilled in-room facilitator to imagine working without the body language cues that are so familiar and so revealing, I know. But I think we make this harder than it is. There’s an expectation that because we lose body language, a virtual meeting won’t be as good as being in the room together and that it’s going to be an inferior experience.

But it doesn’t have to be. Start with an engaging agenda, where people have things to do that will achieve outcomes they care about. Let them create, write, draw, discuss, decide. Give them tools to support doing that work at a distance. Ask good, thought-provoking questions. Then get out of the way.

To read the room, look for the same things that you look for in a face-to-face gathering. The only difference is that instead of ‘body language,’ you’re tuning in more to tone of voice, evidence of activity, and the clues that you can get from the collaborative tools you’ve selected.

Are people working? Are they digging in to the things they need to talk about or build? Keep tabs on how many different people are participating — just a few, or most, or pretty much everyone? If there’s silence, is it paired with intense creation (generating sticky notes, writing in a document, whatever) or is it paired with a lack of activity? If it’s the former, there’s no problem; let them work.

On the other hand, if there’s a lot of silence and nothing seems to be happening, that’s a cue that something maybe wrong. If that’s what I notice, I will usually make a neutral observation about it and then simply ask what’s up. That might look like this:

“I’m noticing that it’s been quiet for a couple of minutes and I’m not seeing anything show up on the shared tool we’re using. Is something not working well for you that we can maybe change?” I have no way of knowing why people aren’t participating unless I ask them. If I’ve created the right container, there’s enough safety that people can speak up and tell me what’s going on for them. I can then make adjustments as needed to re-engage the group, take a break, or help them tease out whatever issue is causing the block.

Here’s a sampling of responses I’ve gotten to that question in the past, to give you an idea of what you might hear:

  • What are we supposed to be doing, again? (My instructions weren’t clear)
  • We can’t open/find the collaborative tool (Again, this is on me to get them where they need to be)
  • We can’t answer this question because we don’t have enough information (Time to reframe the question)
  • This isn’t the right thing for us to be talking about right now (Let’s find out what the right thing is, and talk about that)
  • We don’t see how this activity will get us to our outcome (I can briefly explain how I think it will and ask for suggestions that would make it work better for them)
  • All of us have just gotten an emergency text and we’re looking at our email because there’s a crisis that just came up for our team (Okay, let’s give you space to work through that)

There’s usually a very good reason people aren’t participating, and it’s almost always resolvable. But you won’t know until you ask — which is just as true in a face-to-face meeting as it is in a virtual one. We’re simply used to leaning more on what we see than on what we hear to make that determination.

Just remember, silence can be your friend in a virtual setting. It can feel really uncomfortable because you can’t see what people are doing, but it can be a strong signal for change in a group that doesn’t like to speak up or criticize. Be open and inviting so that the group feels they can trust you to fix whatever needs to be fixed, and you’ll find that reading the virtual room isn’t difficult, it’s just different.


Photo (woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime) by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash


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