Why and how to use your words and voice to escape the emotional wasteland  

by | Aug 17, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

“Use your words.”

That three-word statement reminds children to speak clearly and enunciate, according to the Urban Dictionary. The phrase also encourages children to articulate what’s bothering them rather than cry, scream, pout or do something that shows that they’re still kids and haven’t matured yet.

And now that virtual meetings are here to stay (more about that soon), “Use your words.” also serves as a cue to talk rather than use body language that people may not see on the screen. For example, if you raise an eyebrow, shrug, or curve your lip, others may not be able to detect these subtle gestures. Or, if they do, they may not be able to interpret them easily.

Granted, in smaller virtual sessions when everyone’s square is visible on one screen, whoever is facilitating the meeting may ask you to vote informally with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” or with some other gesture.

As a new rule of thumb, facilitators and participants need to devise workarounds to offset what’s absent from virtual meetings. It’s not just the body language of our fellow meeting participants. It’s being able to use three of our five senses with them: smell, taste and touch.

In the “Before Times” (pre-pandemic), we often enjoyed the other senses in our in-person meetings. Remember the scent as well as the taste of the cookies or cake someone brought to your gathering? Also, what about the aroma of the coffee and any fresh flowers in the room? And don’t forget hugging a colleague you hadn’t seen in a while, or high fiving those who deserved special congratulations.

To our brain, scents, taste and touch send special emotional signals. Scents are often linked to memories, and taste can be too. Touching others – appropriately of course in the office – signifies caring and support.

To say it another way, when we’re on video calls and communicating virtually, we’re in an emotional wasteland compared with in-person experiences. Instead of monitoring the five senses, the brain is focused on just two, your eyes and ears.

Yet, it’s important to make a commitment to continued video calls, because they’re often the lesser of two evils. For example, let’s say if you’re the only person who’s remote, you’ll be at a definite disadvantage during the meeting. Even if the people who are physically together are aware to be inclusive, they will unconsciously communicate nonverbally with each other with  body language. They also can make brief asides. The video camera and microphone won’t pick up everything. So as the remote worker, you’ll lose too much of the meeting context. Plus, you’ll feel like you’re being excluded and no longer a member of the in-group, which makes you feel worse.

That’s why the NeuroLeadership Institute is suggesting a new meeting guideline: “One virtual, then all virtual.” If just one person is working remotely, everyone should log onto the video call on their own device from their work location in the building. Hybrid arrangements cause more trouble than they’re worth.

So is there anything you can do to improve virtual meetings? Yes, encourage everyone on video calls to:

  • Keep their camera on so you at least can see one another.
  • Talk expressively with a range of tones and speeds to punctuate your points and maintain everyone’s interest. That is, use your words and your voice.
  • Use the chat feature along with emojis if available to add explanations and expressions.
  • Stay focused and present; don’t do other tasks.

Also, have shorter meetings (90 minutes maximum). And try to avoid as many back-to-back video meetings as possible. Between meetings, find time to stretch and move, ideally even getting fresh air.

It also helps to recognize the benefits of virtual meetings: no travel time, ease of including more people, and more democratic features to your meetings. That’s because everyone has the same “real estate” rather than the different power positions in a physical meeting room. Also, closed captions are available for those who need them.

Video calls have improved immensely over the past couple of years thanks to improved technology. And more advancements could come. Maybe the ability to share home-baked chocolate chip cookies?

We can dream, can’t we? Meanwhile, forgive me if I forget to unmute myself immediately…..

What works well for your virtual meetings?  


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