The latest in our continuing weekly blog series of insights and reflections, Lessons from Lockdown, created by Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons.  This week’s post is slightly different from the earlier contributions and sees NLP practitioner, Tim Lyons reflecting on what is going on in everyone’s head during one of the, by now ubiquitous, calls we all regularly have on Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype. 

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Many people now have to meet virtually. It’s not as rich an experience as meeting in the flesh, but there are plenty of things you can do to optimise your experience, detect what is really going on and make more of an impact.

Let’s start with the basics

How good is your internet? It sounds obvious, but the whole of your experience on the call will depend on this. Too slow will result in poor graphics – including any files you share, how others see your face and you may miss the nuances of other people’s expressions. If you have an opportunity to get your internet upgraded, it will make your experience richer and less frustrating and at the same time give you more impact. Your organisation might pay for this, or you could try to claim it back from the government using HMRC form P87.

How is your seating?  Is it comfortable?  We have all seen people wriggling on an uncomfortable seat during long workshops. Your workplace could provide you with a suitable chair or consider using form P87 again.

Check your lighting. If the main light source or window is behind you, then you will always appear in partial silhouette and your face will not be as clearly visible.

Video

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Are you using a second screen? Many people use larger second screens for efficiency reasons. If you have, where are you looking when on the call? If the meeting window is in a different place to where the camera is (typically the top of your laptop’s screen), then you will always appear to be looking at ‘something else’, not us! One tip is to mark up a Post-It note with a picture of a face and stick it above your camera.

Having your own image in your view can be distracting, and some systems let you remove yourself from your own view, or you can switch off your camera completely. If you do use your camera, remember that everyone could be looking at you all the time – there is no rudeness in staring at one person in these sessions, unlike in a real meeting.  Conversely, it has the benefit that you can closely study another person’s reactions to what is said.

Be aware that if your connection device is a phone then the limitations of the screen size may cause you to miss nuances of expression, especially if it’s a large meeting.

Are you looking up or down at your camera? If your camera is high, you will be looking up at all of us, and if it’s low, you will be looking down on all of us.  This may unconsciously affect how others perceive you in the meeting.  Ideally, if your camera is level with your eye-line and you locate the meeting window as close as possible to the camera, you will get the closest impression to eye-to-eye contact (though it will never be exactly the same!).  This is a critical part of communication, and not having it can make building trust harder to do.

Audio

Teams, Skype, Zoom and other systems have only one audio channel and it’s monaural. In a room, you have two ears, and you can hear much more at the same time. Using conferencing systems can descend into unrecognisable cacophony if everyone talks at once. They only work well when just one person is talking.

If running a session, you should enforce strict controls on who is speaking, and ask others to mute their audio. It’s best to do this at the start of the session and some systems, such as Zoom allow the call owner to mute everyone in case someone forgets.

It’s a good idea to get everyone (if not too many in the call) to say something at the start – like introductions, to test their audio and get people used to using their mute.  Remember, there may be some in the call who are not so used to this way of working.  Be gentle with them.

Most systems have a hand-raise or wave facility that people can use if they have something to say. If you use this, the moderator must watch the screen to check for hands up, or people will not use it, and will just interrupt to get their point over – back to cacophony!

Always use headphones and ask your meeting to, as well.  Using PC speakers can cause horrendous echo.  Sometimes, bandwidth limitations mean that you have to switch off your camera in order for your audio to work better. Always do this if there are problems, since an interrupted, distorted or delayed delivery when you are speaking will make you appear unconvincing and your point will be lost.  Harsh, but sadly true.

The chat channel

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As well as the video and audio ‘channels’ most conferencing systems have a ‘chat’ facility that lets you contact other individuals on the call or everyone. This is a useful third communication channel that lets you make separate observations or hold side conversations with an individual, and even build support for a particular point of view.

You can do this even when someone else is speaking, though be aware that when people are reading chat they may mentally disconnect from the meeting and miss some of the discussion – it’s like someone else talking in a meeting. Chat channels may be recorded – so be careful what you type!

Where are you?

What is showing in your visible background? Depending on where your ‘office space’ is located in your home, this view might be of your bookshelves or your kitchen units. Think about the image that is conveyed? One person I regularly see on call is in their junk room with piles of black bags in shot.

Other family members must be considered in a shared space. If you’re in your kitchen, will colleagues on the call see people making their lunch or opening a beer?

You can get round this with some conferencing systems by blurring the background. Be wary of using humorous or dramatic background scenery, as it can be distracting, and family members & pets might suddenly appear in your image!

Your material

If presenting or sharing your screen – always, always do a run through offline, and do it with a stopwatch.  It’s advisable to make sure you have your electronic material to hand, do not appear to be searching for it on the call, or you may appear disorganised. If in the session you do need to refer to something not on screen, often better to ‘take this offline’ and appear to be in control.

Behaviour

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Remember that sessions can be recorded – the moderator must advise those on the call before you start a recorded session.  So be on your best behaviour; and expect that not everyone else will be! Remember to smile, or at least not continuously frown. Be polite.

Body language – you cannot NOT communicate

This section is strongly caveated, since what follows is highly generalised and not everyone conforms to these norms.  Nevertheless, impressions are often given and taken and in general these will operate below most peoples’ level of consciousness.

Sitting forward/closer or back/away can indicate that another person is either engaged or not engaged; similarly if you do this, you can convey your own interest, or not if you wish to give that impression. However, it might just indicate an uncomfortable chair!

Doing other things such as fidgeting or checking a phone can give an impression of ‘not being in the meeting’. You might want to do this deliberately, to give an impression of boredom if someone is rabbiting on but be careful not to appear rude.

Folding of the arms – can often mean someone feels defensive or does not want to agree with a point of view (but this is not always true – how well do you know that person?).  Placing a hand or finger over the mouth when listening is often an unconscious signal that someone does not like what is being said or would like the speaker to ‘Shut up’. But not always.

Not everyone is an extrovert, and a good session moderator should consider people who look as though they want to say something and ask them for their opinion or comment. It’s often the quietest people who make most sense!

Eye accessing

Again, this is highly caveated, as people can be ‘wired up differently’. However, one of the discoveries of neurolinguistic programming is that in many people:

  • Looking up & left (your right on screen) means they are remembering images;
  • Looking to their left (your right on screen) means they are remembering sounds and maybe speech;
  • Looking up & right (your left on screen) means they are constructing images in their mind;
  • Looking to their right (your left on screen) means they are constructing sounds and maybe speech in their mind.
  • Looking down and to their left (your right on screen) means they are having a conversation with themselves.

This is often wrongly interpreted as indicating that people who are constructing images and words are ‘making it up’, however that view is too crude. Whether you choose to pay attention to eye accessing cues is up to you.  It helps if you know the person, as only then are you truly calibrated. A ridiculous but great exemplar of this is the TV character Vicki Pollard, played by Matt Lucas, whose eyes swivel left and right when you know she is making something up.

Emphasis when you speak or listen

The head-and-shoulders view that most people have of you on the call can be used to your advantage. To do this, you should consider some of the following.

Be aware of your head movements during conference calls, which can be amplified by the framing effect of the camera – continually nodding to signal agreement when listening, although a natural movement, may appear overly deferential. Equally, shaking your head if disagreeing might be seen as blocking or negative. It may be better to remain still unless you are responding, say to a request to do something.

If you are making a positive point, reinforcing with a small nod will emphasise the point. Conversely, if you are making a negative point or want to signal disagreement, shake your head (but not excessively!). If you watch Boris Johnson speaking publicly, he often makes a rapid but small forward body and head movement to emphasise a point.

Often in the P3M world we are discussing project timelines, milestones, standards and other quantified concepts. Remember, when on camera – do time backwards – project timelines go from right to left!

You can signal points in time such as milestones or deadlines effectively with a vertical chopping motion of the hand – but remember if you are discussing several milestones, that you get the time sequencing correct (earliest on the right, latest on the left!).

To indicate a standard or a level of something, a short horizontal hand chop action towards the camera emphasises this effectively and dramatically.  Remember to go up or down if you are describing different levels or quantities.

Moving the forefingers of both hands towards each other or apart emphasises making something smaller or tighter, or extended or bigger.

If you need dramatic impact, pause in your speech for one second and at the same time freeze all body motion, and then continue. It is best to practice this to get it right.

To indicate ‘getting hold of something’ or seizing an opportunity, use the thumb and forefinger pinch or, for more important or bigger things, the ‘fist grip’, a motion beloved of politicians (David Cameron and Boris again).

Using some of these tips and techniques may go some way towards overcoming the limitations of lockdown and providing a better experience for you and your colleagues on the call.

Tim Lyons FAPM, ANLP Coach, NLP Master Practitioner

If you would like to contribute or discuss your ideas, please contact Tim on LinkedIn or via Twitter

Lessons from Lockdown: Introduction

Lessons from Lockdown: Collaboration

Lessons from Lockdown: Resilience

Lessons from Lockdown: Creativity and Innovation

Lessons from Lockdown: Behaviour and Mindsets

Lessons from Lockdown: Risk and Decision Making

Lessons from Lockdown: Influencing at a Distance

Lessons from Lockdown: How to See Opportunities in Threats

Lessons from Lockdown: The Psychodynamics of Being on the Call

Lessons from Lockdown: Lockdown through the Lens of EDI