This post and the follow-up one are adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, published by Harvard last week.  Please order a copy here.

A videoconference is not the same thing as a face-to-face meeting, even though it includes a visual representation of the person or people you’re talking to, as well as, of course, sound.  So why is it different, and what is lacking?

The first and most important difference to note is that a videoconference is a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional person or group of people.  That’s important because our brains spend a good deal of energy unconsciously mapping the layout of each room we find ourselves in – and mapping where the other people in the room are in relation to ourselves.

On a video conference, our unconscious minds are mystified by the room-mapping and people-location work, spending a lot of effort and brain energy trying to solve the impossible question of how to turn two dimensions into three, and so we find videoconferences stressful and tiring.

Second, the normal easy hand-offs of a conversation – as I finish what I’m saying, I signal to you that it will soon be your turn to speak – are a little more difficult than in person.  They are certainly easier than on a phone call, because we can at least see the other person.  But they are still difficult because many of them involve moving toward and away from each other in space, and that dimension is not as obvious on a two-dimensional video picture.  We do a lot of leaning in and out during a normal face-to-face conversation, and that gets lost on video.

And third, the emotional intent of the speakers on a video call don’t get through as clearly as in person, and that makes for stressful conversations as well.

Given that we’re stressing our brains out from the start, what can we do to make videoconferences less onerous for participants?  There are three broad categories of response necessary. First, you need to institute formal means for turn-taking. Second, you need to create a new role, that of an MC, to provide a referee and coach for the various forms of virtual meetings, to ensure that all participants feel heard. And third, you need a way to put back in the human intent that is bleached out of the videoconference.

Turn-taking is surprisingly difficult to master once we humans are taken out of our normal settings.  As we grow up, we learn a whole retinue of winks, blinks, nods, head tilts, and so on, that help regulate simple conversation. By the time we’re adults, most of us can take turns without having to think consciously about it very much.

On video, lacking some of these cues, our brains get busy trying make up information, and we have a harder time getting accurate signals from the few sensory inputs that are left. A simple technique is to first discuss and then implement the device of hand raising. It’s familiar to just about everyone from school, and it is minimally intrusive. Get verbal agreement from everyone (in turn) to wrap up what they’re saying when they see a hand go up, and the problem is solved, for the most part.

When there are more than two participants, institute the role of an MC, or a chair. The chair’s responsibility is to keep track of the discussion at a level the group is comfortable with and to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. If he or she is able, the MC can also help you summarize points, compare people’s points of view, note actions to be taken, ensure that the agenda is adhered to, and do any other task to keep the meeting on target. The MC can also help with the third area, next.

The third area is the intent check. Here, the best method is the simplest. Have each participant rate his or her emotional temperature in three categories—green (everything’s OK); yellow (I’ve got some concerns, but nothing desperate); and red (I’m upset). If more-specific applications of the method are needed, the temperature check can be taken at ten-minute intervals or after significant stages are reached. You can also call for more-detailed descriptions of how the person is feeling.

With these three modes of assistance in place, videoconferences can be made bearable. They are still stressful for the unconscious mind, however, and as such, they should be strictly timed, with appropriate breaks every ten minutes or so, so that participants have time to recover.

Next time, some additional tips for mastering video conferences.

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