“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
– M. Scott Peck, Journalist, Psychiatrist
When self-help guru M. Scott Peck said those words, he was espousing the virtues of focus in any relationship. Of course, Peck, who passed away in 2005, wasn’t operating in today’s digital business environment, where the number of online meetings is rising nearly every day.
Meetings – One-on-One or One-to-Many, Virtual or Otherwise – Should Have 3 Dimensions
Leadership consultant Dan Rockwell believes business meetings should include three dimensions of discussion:
- Leaders talk to the people around the table.
- The people around the table talk to the leader.
- The people around the table talk to each other.
Seen from a conventional perspective – i.e., most meeting participants are sitting in the same room – appropriate behaviors for facilitating these three dimensions are easy to visualize:
The moderator, the meeting’s “leader,” starts the discussion with some opening remarks, and then gives a verbal handoff to someone else in the group, often establishing eye contact with that person and giving a literal smiling nod.
The next speaker accepts the exchange by meeting the moderator’s eye contact, perhaps smiling back and then starting to talk.
When that participant finishes a thought – assuming typical business courtesy applies – a similar transition ushers a new contributor into the conversation.
Anyone not speaking is free to sit back and listen – especially the moderator, who carries accountability for facilitating this series of conversational exchanges.
This seemingly straightforward process breaks down quickly, however, with one-dimensional moderators on the job.
“When one person does most of the talking, the people around the table disengage,” Rockwell writes in a recent post to his LeadershipFreak blog. He grants that moderators bear primary responsibility for providing direction to meetings but clarifies that great ones “don’t monopolize the conversation.”
“Yes, there are times when leaders speak to inform, provide focus, or add insight,” Rockwell elaborates. “But my experience indicates that leaders talk way too much in meetings.”
Moderating Conversational Exchanges Can Be More Challenging During Virtual Meetings
Talking more than listening is a common trap that snares moderators, especially with today’s increase in remote sessions. And for those whose jobs are enabling efficient and effective meetings, failure to yield the figurative floor can drain productivity by curtailing the diversity of discussion.
“The art of effective listening is essential to clear communication, and clear communication is necessary to management success.”
– Retail giant James Cash (J.C.) Penney
But like Peck, Penney wasn’t moderating virtual meetings, where taking turns, taking cues and taking time to listen often takes place on a greater scale than a conference room and always at a digital distance that removes the nuances of body language.
Consider online conference calls, when screens separate meeting participants. Even with the advantages of video conferencing, looking every participant in the eye can be challenging with laptop and smartphone cameras capturing a speaker’s face from just a bit off-center. And what about webinars, when a moderator’s job is facilitating audience engagement as presenters share content? Staging side-conversations is just as impolite in a virtual setting as it is in a literal forum.
Polling and Chats Give Moderators of Virtual Meetings Another Dimension for “Listening”
While the scale and separation of digital meetings present moderators with some challenges, conferencing and collaboration platforms provide meeting leaders with capabilities that enable another dimension for “listening” to participants:
Especially when facilitating webinars, polling enables moderators to gather feedback from dozens of participants in the span of minutes. In fact, polling can give moderators a head start preparing for Q&A sessions. By taking just 15 minutes to review slides prior to a webinar, great collaborative moderators can prepare three to five questions to pose to an audience while a speaker presents. When the time comes for Q&A, moderators already will know what’s on the minds of participants – with statistics to illustrate these points.
During online meetings, moderators can use chat functions to circle back to participants after they finish talking. By practicing one of the core skills of active listening – i.e., paraphrasing a person’s comments and playing back those thoughts to them – through quick chats, great collaborative moderators can clarify and reiterate important points from key contributors and reinforce them with the whole group before adjourning and/or send them in summary form later.
With both these capabilities, moderators can engage many people in a virtual setting and solicit feedback that illuminates information and optimizes meeting time – all without uttering a word or hearing one spoken.
Peck would be pleased. And Penney, perhaps, amazed.
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