Tag Archives: virtualteams

How to Get People to Speak Up in Your Remote Sessions

You’ve been in that meeting. Usually it’s a remote meeting, but not always. The presenter or facilitator has just finished a segment, and they say, “Any questions or comments? Questions? No? Okay, let’s move on,” and the meeting sweeps on before you manage to get your question out.

Or maybe you’ve been that presenter. You want to answer people’s questions, so you say, “Any questions or comments?” Then the silence stretches on for a year or two and you nervously continue: “Anyone? No? Okay, let’s move on,” all the while wishing that someone had asked a question or shared a remark.

Interestingly, whenever one of those happens in a meeting, the other one is usually happening too. That year-long pause for the facilitator or presenter is really only a couple of seconds long. However, that person is experiencing something called podium time, or the terrifying skewing of any period of silence so that it seems to go on forever no matter how short it actually is. (Another quality of podium time is that the time available for any given agenda item passes at an accelerated rate, but that’s a topic for another post.)

We have a fear of radio silence, and as the person in charge, we feel it’s our job to prevent it. But I want to encourage you to think of silence as your friend, if what you want is to get people to ask questions or share their comments. It’s hard to do. Here’s how I taught myself to embrace the silence and make space for people to talk.

1. Leave enough space for people to respond. It takes someone a few seconds to mentally frame a question or remark, and another few seconds to decide to speak. In a remote session, it takes a few more seconds after that to decide that no one else is going to start talking so it’s safe to speak up. If you don’t give people all those seconds, nothing will happen.

I do it by keeping a beverage handy. After I ask for questions and comments, I pick up my beverage — slowly — and take a sip. I might take a second sip. Then I slowly set the beverage back down. Almost every time, someone is speaking by the time I’ve placed it back on my desk.

Take a nice slow sip. Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

This is especially useful if you’re on video, because everyone can then see you are committed to your beverage and you aren’t going to be talking for a few seconds while you sip.

2. Ask for participation in an inviting way. There’s a world of difference between these two openers:

“Any questions?”

and

“What questions do you have?”

The first one, “Any questions?” is okay, but not great. It carries a tiny implication that you don’t actually expect anyone to ask anything. While we’re used to hearing it, it’s not the most inviting way to ask for remarks. It says, “I have to stop in case anyone is confused, but otherwise I’d like to keep going.”

The second one, on the other hand, says, “I imagine you must have questions, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they are.” It’s an inviting way to make space.

Likewise, when asking people to participate in a conversation, some ways of framing the invitation are better than others. This is useful when you’re trying to encourage a group discussion about something. Consider these two phrases:

“Anyone have any comments about this?”

and

“What would you like to say about this?”

Again, the first one is a little dismissive. There’s a slight implication that you’ll pause, but only if anyone really wants to say something. The second one indicates that you expect people to have something to say, and you’re ready to listen. It’s especially effective combined with the beverage trick, which makes it crystal clear that you’re not moving on for a while.

3. Ask people to stay off of mute. There are two reasons I prefer small groups to remain un-muted. First, it’s a hurdle to participation. A small one, sure, but it’s there, and I want people to be able to act on their impulse to speak. Second, it allows the chuckles and the gasps and the other small sounds to come through, which really brings a group alive.

The exception is when there is sudden or temporary background noise. People obviously can and should mute if they need to sneeze, cough, or speak to someone near them; or if there is intrusive environmental noise like construction sounds, dogs barking, and so on.

If the session is a one-way presentation given to many people, the norms are different and I am more likely ask people to mute by default. But for teamwork, groupwork, and small workshops or classes, keeping everyone’s microphone hot can increase participation.

4. Learn to love the silence. This isn’t easy, but it’s essential. That silence after you invite participation is actually your friend. It’s easy to imagine that everyone is wishing you’d just move on, already — and in all likelihood, someone in the group is probably feeling that way, which is fine. But it’s also likely that other people do want to ask or say something, and it’s important to give them the space.

Pause and embrace the silence. Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

When you allow the silence to exist, you create a vacancy that others can lean into and fill. If you welcome the silence and sit in it calmly, it will be an inviting silence: a step back so that others can step forward.

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A Sneak Peek at Results of The Grove’s Recent Survey: Five Minutes on Working Virtually

If you haven’t had a chance to take the five-minute survey yet and would like to, you can find it here.

The Grove recently launched a short survey on virtual work and remote meetings. Among other things, we asked hundreds of people who do virtual work about their biggest pain point: the one thing they wish would go away and just stop being a problem about working remotely.

The responses fall broadly into three categories. Respondents identified pain points related to technology, to people, and to the setting where the work is done. It may surprise you to learn that technology is not the category with the most pain points. The largest set of different pain points is related to people. In fact, the number of pain points having to do with people is almost twice as large as that in either of the other two categories. Note that this doesn’t say anything about how often a given point was cited; I’m not dealing with that here, just looking at unique responses. The image below is a compilation of the responses, sorted unscientifically by yours truly. (Click to see it bigger.)

List of pain points in remote work
Compilation of responses to the question: What is the most painful part of working remotely?

The pain points related to people have to do with how people feel in remote meetings, things people do or fail to do that make the work harder, the difficulty of making or maintaining interpersonal connections at a distance, and basic knowledge and skills around working remotely. I know I have struggled with most, if not all, of these issues in the past ten years of working virtually. Many of these pain points can be addressed through training (of facilitators and participants), making explicit agreements about how to work together and behave as a remote team, and extra time and effort involved in preparation. Sometimes, though, it seems as soon as a team gets one issue taken care of, another, hydralike, rears its annoying head.

Regarding technology, the agony is divided between tool-related issues and those dealing with connection (or lack thereof) when trying to communicate. One that we did not see, but that I expected, is overwhelm about the number of tools available. Does anyone else find it hard to keep up? I sometimes feel that if I just keep looking and keep testing, I will find the perfect tool for every task related to remote collaboration. I’m not saying I’ll find one tool that does everything. Rather, I’d love to find a set of tools that collectively do everything. Easily. Okay, maybe now I’m dreaming.

The setting we’re in when we do remote work accounts for the remainder of the pain. Real life issues, the consequences of not being physically in the same room, and the effects of having to be sitting at a computer are the main groups here. As with the other categories, some of the complaints can be addressed through group norms, different tools, or extra effort, but again I can empathize and have experienced all of these myself. What about you? Do you have a favorite, and how did you stop the pain?

If you’d like to get your voice in the mix, please hop on over and take the five-minute survey. It will remain open through June 30, 2015.

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