Virtual meetings are now familiar territory. Despite this, many of us are unaware how to make them truly effective.
Tony Hughes, CEO at Huthwaite International leading global provider of sales, negotiation and communication skills development, shares advice on the key skills your team needs to create a great communications culture.
Understand the purpose
We’re all inundated with video call after video call, whether that’s for business meetings with colleagues or socialising with friends – it’s become a daily occurrence for most. If you had six or seven face-to-face meetings each day, you would quickly become overwhelmed, so consider this when planning virtual meetings too. Ensure each meeting has a purpose and make it clear to all involved from the start. For example, is the purpose of the meeting to think creatively and generate new ideas or is your aim to get focused and make some important decisions in one or two major areas? Make sure people know what is expected from them in advance.
Also, take into consideration who is attending each meeting. We’re all aware that communicating via video can lead to problems when there are too many people trying to have their say – so don’t overcomplicate it. On the other hand, you don’t want to create additional meetings to communicate the points already agreed so think carefully about who needs to be involved. Base your decisions on your meeting invitations around the meeting purpose.
Engage people in a way that achieves your meeting purpose and manage your communication airtime
Our research into communication skills shows that there are three main classes of behaviour important to group interaction in task oriented situations, these are:
- initiating behaviours - putting forward ideas, concepts, suggestions or courses of action
- reacting behaviours - putting forward an evaluation of other people’s contributions
- clarifying behaviours - exchanging information, facts, opinions for the benefit of the whole meeting.
Feedback on the proportions of these behaviours used in meetings can help groups examine their own behaviour and to assess the need for behaviour change. In effective group communications, all three main behaviour classes are present in a balanced way.
A tip to help set a good, cooperative tone for a virtual meeting and encourage a balance of behaviours is to start discussions with a non-controversial issue where people aren’t committed to a particular solution so a straight forward agreement can be reached, before diving into the more contentious areas of the agenda. This encourages people to listen to and build on others’ ideas from the beginning, will help set the tone for the rest of meeting and will be a useful precedent to refer to. Try to structure meetings in a way that means all points are addressed properly and are fully developed before moving on to another issue or suggestion.
Don’t allow discussions to lead to a breakdown in communication
A strong indicator of an effective meeting is how well people respond to one another’s ideas and proposals. When a creative type meeting is working well, people react positively or at least constructively, to what others say. When a meeting is ineffective, the opposite occurs and tensions can rise leading to a potential communication breakdown which will diminish any successful meeting outcomes.
What we might perceive as a negative attitude can lead to what Huthwaite refer to as ‘Defend/Attack’ behaviour where opinions are expressed more strongly and more directly which can lead to people feeling exposed and becoming overly defensive. Defend/Attack usually involves value judgements and contains emotional overtones.
Avoid these behaviours by responding positively and appropriately and most of all, try to actively listen to what is being said. Really take the time to understand a differing point of view point and respect their position before jumping in with a response. Listening is key and our research shows it is often what separates skilled communicators from unskilled. Taking the time to listen will give you time and space to fully consider other opinions. If you decide you do disagree with what they’re saying, actively listening will leave space around the discussion which offers the opportunity to react in a constructive, rather than an emotional manner.
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Avoid irritating verbal behaviours
There are a few verbal behaviours that can be instantly harmful to meeting discussions and apply to meetings both in person and online. Virtual meetings can present multiple communication barriers such as poor connections and technology issues, leading to irritation for all parties involved so it’s important not to add further irritation with the words you choose. Declarations that you are being ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ when talking to people can cause tension as they can undermine the person you’re speaking to and may cause lasting damage to your relationship.
Other phrases, such as telling someone you’re ‘being honest with them’ or ‘that you’re trying to be frank’, can be very misleading. You don’t intend to imply that weren’t being honest a moment ago but that is the inference you’re allowing by using these kinds of phrases. Building a reputation that you are selectively honest is the kiss of death to a productive meeting. Steer clear of this kind of language if you want to keep your reputation intact.
Make sure meeting standards don’t slip and build trust in your virtual environment
If you are hosting a business meeting online it’s important that you don’t let your normal meeting standards slip. Try to nominate a meeting manager/chair who can focus on managing the discussion, making sure everyone speaks their turn and that you cover everything that needs to be discussed. Their purpose is to steer and guide the conversation in a productive manner. It’s helpful if the chair can clarify the information presented and the meeting outcomes, especially for long or heated discussions where meeting focus can shift about very easily. This will ensure everyone is clear about what has been agreed.
Arguably, in an online meeting this can be done even more efficiently than in the real world. This is due to video conferencing features such as the ability to ‘highlight’ a particular participant when speaking, or sharing links and additional information. So, if you want a meeting to be productive and efficient, use the rich features of the technology available to keep standards high and meetings effective.