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Seeking virtual calm in the storm

A few thoughts on creating great spaces for good thinking and for calm in our virtual interactions. Because calm is contagious too.

My online feed is inundated with people hustling and jostling for attention. This seems to be how many have opted to serve…or cope.

I find myself oscillating between waves of creative and productive energy spurred by limitations and by a determination (pressure?) to make this time count and other moments when I need to shut out the ‘productivity porn’ (1) displayed by others and shut myself away, do my own thing and think…

It occurred to me that this is a time when we badly need to be thinking well. It is also a unique moment when some of us have more time to think. So I got thinking: How can we help others to think well and, while we ride out this storm, how can we do this in a virtually?

It is also a unique moment when we have more time to think.

I think Nancy Kline’s ‘More Time to Think’ provides a lot of the answers. Kline’s belief is that the quality of our relationships, thinking, actions and results are all underpinned by the quality of our thinking. She outlines 10 components that should be present to foster the best possible independent thinking in ourselves and in those around us. They include listening to ignite — not to interrupt. Giving each other equal speaking time and treating others as equal ‘thinking partners’ and ensuring a ratio of appreciation to criticism of 5:1 because we think better when we feel appreciated.

I had a range of online meetings before Easter but wanted to share two starkly contrasted sessions that brought home to me what it feels like when these components are — and are not — present:

In the first, we were 35+ people logged in. Importantly, many of this group are accustomed to being on stage or front-of-room. The format was 2 guest speakers, an MC and a panel. We all had our microphones off throughout the talks but, I’ve got to say, the cacophony was deafening! The chat functionality was working overtime! I found I had to hide the feed to focus. The group seemed to be climbing over themselves to enthuse, comment, be present, interact, amuse and hijack the spotlight — and our thinking. I couldn’t help wondering how they could possibly be listening well and commenting and exchanging with each other at the same time. The session lasted two hours and while I took away some useful tips from the speakers I exited the meeting mentally fatigued and with poorly formed or pragmatic bullet points to show for my two hours.

In the second, we were 16 or so who had been trained by one of Nancy Kline’s Time to Think Faculty, Candice Smith. Candice ran a 2-hour session harnessing Kline’s components. We broke out into pairs and listened to each other with no interruption, she split us into groups in online breakout rooms (awesome functionality!) and talked and we had engaging conversations as a group in ‘gallery’ view. Everything was done with superb intention, calm and attention. We ended with a round of appreciation and all clearly felt edified by the experience. My extensive notes reflected the thoughtful time we had spent as a group (strangers to me, for the most part).

So what did I take away from this? A few thoughts on how I might do online meetings so that mutual quality thinking is king. They are definitely work in progress — and they sit under Nancy Kline’s way superior component list that you might want to explore — but here goes:

  1. Safety First… We may all be boats in the same storm but you never know how people are travelling. Most companies I’m speaking with are checking on the home office set up and OH&S but be sure to simply check that people are OK; that they feel safe. Let’s not underplay the crisis playing out, the impact on our work and lives and the strain and drain of tragic news coming from certain parts of the world. …and allow for feelings. More than ever, we probably should allow sufficient emotional release to restore thinking whether we are offline or in a virtual meeting. We are more attentive and think better when we are not grappling with a feeling we haven’t been able to express.

2. Listen. Really listen and be visibly present on screen. We know that eye contact is a crucial part of showing you are present and yet while we have a visual on the person, it isn’t always helping. In the photo to the left, I’m looking at the person I’m talking to- Yeh, I know, I look a bit stunned — but I also look distracted. In the photo below, I am looking at the camera. It feels odd at my end but the feedback I got when I tested this was that the listener feels more listened to when you look at the camera. And when people feel listened to, they think better.

3. Embrace silence…Allow for silence on the call but also set up times when each person can talk and the others will remain silent. Consider setting up the time to take turns to listen. In Kline’s world, this involves setting up ‘thinking partnerships’. There is a discipline to how this plays out and it is a privileged time to talk through something with a silent sounding board. Learn how to be a thinking partner for others to ignite their best thinking.

…and oxygenate the meeting. Just as we should when we meet together, I think we should inject breaks in our online sessions to stretch and breathe. Someone in the second session I described even suggested short meditations in longer workshops. Make time (see point 6) but don’t make it longer than needed.

4. No hogging. Whether you are the vendor, the manager or a peer, it makes sense to allow equal speaking time. In a way, video conferencing lends itself to this as you need to check in with each person more online because you can’t see them around a common table. Where the platform allows it, use breakout rooms to break the group into smaller clusters to be sure that everyone gets to be heard. If you’re on the phone, tread carefully as the visual cues are obviously absent.

5. Make it engaging but fluid. I am used to running live workshops so facilitating online is new to me. I have tried powerpoint in Zoom (‘curious about other platforms…) and think that some visuals are helpful to break things up. The down side is that you lose a visual of the person (not everyone has a 2-screen option at home). I also tried using the white board that Zoom offers. This is good but my preferred option at this stage is to create blank slides in a short powerpoint deck and write in them live as I would a whiteboard. This should make it more interactive and fluid as it eliminates the need to come in and out of the deck.

6. Hosts need a co-host. It seems to me that one of the best ways to facilitate an online session is not to do it alone. I am missing the interaction of a live room so I’m encouraging people to chat. The problem with that is that I find it hellishly distracting to follow the chat feed. I recently ran a session and had my contact in the company curate the chats and interrupt when he saw fit. He then sent me all the questions and comments and I sent more detailed responses after the workshop. That seemed to work well.

7. Allow time; make it ‘easeful’. In the online meetings, allow for time to think, for pause, for note-taking and reflection. Beyond them, plan for the long haul. We are being advised to expect this to last. So take the time and plan out different types of meetings that cover not only progress reviews but check ins, development coaching as well as role and relationship development. As Aisha Ahmad said rather well, “Understand this is a marathon. If you sprint at the beginning, you will vomit on your shoes by the end of the month.” We need to pace ourselves.

“Understand this is a marathon. If you sprint at the beginning, you will vomit on your shoes by the end of the month.” (2)

8. Welcome the blurring of the lines between work and home. Unless you have curated a backdrop (some are totally irrelevant to the business of the person. Maybe watch this.), your home, your cat, your kids — are likely to sneak into the call with you. Within reason, embrace this blurring of the lines to build rapport. Make sure your team feels safe when their kid interrupts or when their cat’s posterior appears on the keyboard. This will help them continue to think well and might also forge stronger bonds when back at the office.

9. Create shared experiences. Tonkin Consulting, a dynamic Adelaide-based engineering firm I have enjoyed working with, posted that they had held a company-wide meeting online. Rather than suggesting that everyone grab a drink for the call — as many are doing — they had pizzas delivered to everyone’s homes! The result was a shared experience that will be way more memorable than a meal shared in the office and just a really nice gesture.

10. Curate attendees not just content. Because we are getting into online meeting overkill — and because bandwidth can be a problem — there seems to be a tendency to turn off video and focus on clearing the inbox. This isn’t good for the listener or the speaker. Teams probably should develop a protocol around that but maybe — just like at the office — we need to do a better job at ensuring that meeting invitations go out on a needs not a nice-to-have basis.

Some people were geared up for this online gig. Others of us will be learning as we go. This list is not focused on production value but on how to make these virtual interactions both effective and edifying. I intend to keep exploring and learning…

(1) ‘wonderful term used by Aisha S. Ahmad ‘Why Should I Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure’ in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27

(2) also by Aisha S. Ahmad.

Rachel runs Systematic Inventive Thinking Australia and is based in Melbourne. She delights in challenging default thinking and working with organisations and students to give them a toolset and mindset for thinking differently using what they have.

Bias and blindspot buster.

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