• Leila Ainge

Are you listening? Face the camera and smile.

Updated: May 10, 2020

I received an email this week saying that only 7% of what we say is heard by the listener and that our body language makes up the rest. Actually up to 55% of what we process is non-verbal, but only in some situations.

Here’s why, Albert Mehrabian conducted the original research (Silent Messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes) that is often misquoted, his research centered on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes and he concluded that when emotive messages are being conveyed we seek out any incongruence between what we see and hear, this is why the words, tone, and body language make up the three elements, 7% spoken word, 55% body language and 38% tone.

Let’s take an example of a four year old who is asked to say sorry, his hands are folded and his mouth is pouting and his tone is drawing out the word sorry as if it’s the most difficult word in the world... familiar? Here, the incongruence is obvious. The four-year-old might be sorry, but the body language and the tone is conveying a different story. We have visual cues to other emotions.

In a virtual meeting you are processing words, technology, instant messages, multiple video streams and potentially muting to hold a side conference with a family member.

It’s not going to be easy to interpret body language or tone on video conference call, technology itself may introduce challenges, muffling of microphones, feedback, background noises which makes understanding tone and intent difficult.

In terms of body language, facial expressions may be altered by video stream quality, position of cameras and lighting, and lets not forget that you are looking at multiple people in different locations. Dependant upon the software you are using the person speaking might be prominent on the screen, you might see all or none of the other participants, and you don’t know what the virtual room looks like for your colleagues- all of these things make reading ‘the virtual room’ particularly challenging and this says Gianpiero Petriglieri is exhausting, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,”

Listen up

Whilst we cannot easily estimate the % of our words people hear, we can control how much we listen to, and actually by introducing active listening techniques as a host or facilitator, you can improve the productivity of your meetings.

We can all reduce the dissonace we feel in virtual meetings, mute everything manually if your software doesn’t do this for you. Close down your emails, turn off reminders and notifications. Change your presence or status to ‘Busy’.

Face your camera so the person speaking can see you paying attention, use verbal nods of the head, thumbs up, even emoticons, and don’t forget to smile.

Give feedback to the person talking, you don’t have to provide your own opinion or solution, for example ‘I can hear that was challenging’ followed by a smile , or ‘Sounds like you’ve achieved a great deal in a short time’ followed by a smile- verbal encouragement to the person talking lets them know that you are listening, they are relying in the verbal cues from the virtual room and they may or may not be able to see all of the video faces.

Silence is golden

There are fewer natural silences in virtual meetings and here’s why, we presume technology is failing if there is silence, even if we can still see everyone, silence on a video call feels like the sound has stopped working, so we subconsciously fill the time and space with sound.

Introducing silence, or reflection time into virtual meetings is a good habit, introduce a virtual coffee break 25 minutes in, pause the meeting and ask everyone to mute for a minute. You can use a virtual timer. I have also seen a great technique in software development teams where a member brings a ‘challenge or question’ this is written on a PowerPoint and a timer us used for 5 mins so the group can read and digest, and then the session facilitator asks each member in turn for some initial thoughts, a virtual whiteboard is used by the facilitator.

Check the temperature

If you don't see the body language or pick up on the tone, there is always the direct method of asking the room in turn how they are feeling. In larger online settings polling works well, it can be introduced as an icebreaker.

You can’t eliminate the dissonance that exists between you and the virtual room, but you can reduce it by raising your listening game. Create space for active listening, understanding and clarification.

Back in the room

I'm curious, are you the person with a laptop open or shut in a physical meeting, is multi-tasking the right thing to do in any meeting environment?

Be completely present in the moment, face the camera, or people in the room and smile.

Gianpiero Petriglieri's quote features in the BBC article ‘why are zoom video chats so exhausting?’

The full article published on BBC’s website is here

For more information about the research 'Silent Messages' visit Dr Mehrabians website

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