Breaking the Wall of Silence in a Virtual World

If you have ever led a virtual meeting, this scenario is familiar: You pose a brilliant provocative question, hoping to trigger a flurry of insightful responses. And instead, you hear….Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. (Apart from crickets, that is.)

So what’s your next step? Do you ask the same question again, louder? Beg people to stop multitasking and pay attention? Give up and go onto the next question (which more than likely will generate the same lack of response)? Or perhaps you move to an early close of the meeting, due to an obvious lack of interest.

There are many techniques for generating more active participation in the virtual world. But first, you have to try to figure out the reasons for the silence. If you guess wrong, you might drive people further away from the virtual table. In this edition, I’ll explore some of the typical causes for a lack of participation, and will offer some remedies to help break through that painful wall of silence.

  • Juggling too many tasks at once. When people dedicate a big chunk of their brains to another thinking task (reading an email, writing a text, finishing that big report), they are not capable of actively participating in the meeting conversation at the same time. (That’s because our frontal lobes cannot fully engage in more than one true thinking activity at once. Contrast this to walking and chewing gum at the same time, neither of which requires a great deal of conscious effort.) If you suspect that rampant multitasking is causing the silence, state your observations, with a smile on your face. (“I’m sensing that some of you are really busy right now, and may have a lot of other work to get done.”) Pause a moment, then make a request. (“However, we have a few critical decisions to get through, and we need everyone to fully focus for the next 10 minutes to make sure everyone understands what we’re agreeing to today. Is that fair?”) Pause again to make sure it sinks in. Now ask your question again, perhaps posing it in a slightly different way, and start with someone by name to get the conversation started.
  • Need time to think and reflect. Not everyone feels comfortable giving off-the-cuff responses. Some people, especially those who tend to be introverted or speak a different native language, need time to think. That silence you hear may be an indication that people are busy formulating a thoughtful response. Allow everyone several seconds to prepare their responses. (“I’m going to ask you a question, and then give you a moment of silence before going around the virtual table, starting with Ian…”) Another idea: Use a web meeting tool that allows people to write in responses as an option. Above all, make it inviting for people to participate, rather than trying to force them. (“Greta, you have experience in this topic that would be helpful to others. Can you share…?” vs. “Greta, you’ve been awfully quiet.  What gives?”)
  • Dazed and confused. No matter how clearly you may have thought you worded your question, your request might be vague or confusing to others. If no responses emerge after a few seconds, try rephrasing the question, and take ownership for the potential lack of clarity. (“Let me put it another way. I’m not sure I worded my question in a way that you can easily answer. What I meant to ask was….”) If you know that some people do not speak the shared language with fluency, assume that you will need to paraphrase frequently, and build in extra time all along the way.
  • Why am I here?When people find themselves wondering why they have been invited to a meeting on a topic that has little relevance for them, they tend to withdraw. If you suspect this might be the case for some of your reticent participants, try stating your observation in neutral terms. (“I am sensing that some people aren’t contributing because they may feel the conversation is not relevant for them.”) Pause, and then express a desire not to waste anyone’s time for future meetings. Let them know you will follow up with them privately to determine if this is the case. Or, if this is a group with a healthy level of trust, you might invite verbal responses in the moment, so that everyone can join in an important conversation about participant selection.
  • Conversation derailed.When a meeting leader allows people to hijack the conversation, others tend to tune out. Since we don’t have visual cues to aid us in reining in a big talker, we must often resort to interrupting. An apology goes a long way to soften the blow.  (“Joan, I am sorry to have to jump in here. I realize you have many ideas to share. However, we have just 20 minutes left to hear from everyone else around the table. Can we cycle back to you if there’s time today? Maybe we can get together sometime after this meeting, to discuss more of your ideas.”) Pause briefly, and then continue to go around the virtual table. (Another option: If you are using web meeting technology, you might also try asking people to type in additional ideas that can be shared in the meeting notes.)
  • Boredom. Nothing kills participation faster than forcing people to suffer through a long PowerPoint presentation that could have been sent out in advance.  When designing your virtual meeting agenda, plan on having about 70-80% of the time be interactive, whether through verbal participation, hands-up, polling, typing in responses, or even silent writing and then speaking. (Give people something to do with their fingers that are itching to multitask!) Try shifting activities and embedding opportunities for interaction about every 5-7 minutes. Use a variety of tactics to keep people guessing and remain engaged.

In a virtual world, silence rarely means consensus. In fact, unless you have exceptionally finely-tuned antennae, you have no idea what that awkward silence on your call really means. What’s important is that you take your best guess as to the reasons, and try an approach that has the greatest chance of drawing people back to the conversation.  This takes practice and patience. When all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with saying: “I asked a question, and all I hear is silence. I’m not sure what to make of it. Can someone help me understand what might be going on?”

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