Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Psychology of Business and Conference Calls: It’s Not Always a Dead End

At one point or another, I’m sure you’ve been on one of those conference calls that just don’t work very well. People talk over each other, there are uncomfortable silences that stretch on and on, it is unclear if things are going well or participants are unhappy. Attendees seem distracted.  

Most people know meeting by teleconference is a poor substitute for face-to-face but few people know why it doesn’t work so well or what to do about it.

There are two broad reasons conference calls are difficult.

The first reason is that, while running any kind of meeting is difficult, it’s more difficult when the participants aren’t all in the room together. An absolute essential is that you have to follow good meeting practice: you need an agenda, you need to make sure everyone knows why they are there and what their role is, and so on. 
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Secondly, conference calls are difficult because we can’t use the common visual social cues. This includes how to know when to speak, who is waiting for who, and other miscommunication. Even what a person said as opposed to what a person meant to say. 

To improve communication on conference calls, explore these suggestions to ensure a good meeting.
  1. If you have sent out an agenda, flag which parts are for discussion, which parts are for information only, and which parts are for decision making or brainstorming. People do better when you help them manage their roles. Set the expectation in the agenda and people are more likely to follow your lead.
  2. Everyone thinks they can multitask but few people realize how it affects their performance. There is a reason why cell phone use causes more frequent motor accidents. In fact, using a phone while driving brings the average drivers’ response times down to around the 40th percentile(1). So while you may think you can multi-task and remain attentive, realize that you will do much better on a call if you focus entirely on the meeting and help others do the same.
  3. The lack of eye contact is another significant issue. Eye contact reveals whose turn it is to talk. People in conversations unconsciously signal with their eyes the appropriate moment for others to talk. If you’re on a call with many people, you need to use people’s names or ask direct questions so people understand it’s their turn to talk. That may even mean asking everyone if they could take turns answering, or calling out specific people so that no one’s contribution is missed.
  4. Facial gestures have a huge impact in reinforcing or clarifying words. On a call, you can’t signal what you mean or “see” the other person’s intent.

To make it easy for the person listening, say your gestures. You could say, “That really made me smile,” “I’m looking a little puzzled now” or anything similar. You will find people engage much better and there will be less miscommunication.

Similarly, people will often nod or shake their heads to signal agreement but you won’t be able to tell that on a call. Instead, ask attendees “Do I have agreement?” or “How many of you are shaking your heads now?”

Consider too that faces are very powerful connectors. We are wired to appreciate the human face. If your team hasn’t met before, think about exchanging photographs of everyone on the call. It might sound cheesy, but the conference calls will be more effective if people can put a face to the voice.

Finally, in a normal meeting, people will tend to stay after to confirm what just happened or look to the people around them to get the temperature of the meeting. To get the same effect on a conference call, consider leaving the line open for a little while after the formal call is finished. You’ll be surprised how people might get involved.

When the conference call is finished, distribute the notes and minutes back to people even quicker than you normally would. People tend to remember and understand what is communicated more readily when they are in a group. Every conference call is like a little one-to-one meeting with the facilitator, where you need to get back quickly to make sure you leave as little room as possible for people to forget or misinterpret what happened.

So, in the spirit of keeping the line open a bit longer… 

Conference calls are hard because you don’t have the same opportunity for managing and reinforcing what is happening through the normal social cues.  Therefore, improve your calls by bringing the social cues back into the call experience by using a good agenda to focus people on their roles, signal normal non-verbal gestures verbally, help people put a face to the voice, and use post meeting time to reinforce what happened and get it in writing.

We’re hanging up now, but feel free to call us at (612) 423-2747.


(1) Canadian Automobile Association[11] and the University of Illinois[12] found that response time while using both hands-free and hand-held phones was approximately 0.5 standard deviations higher than normal driving (i.e., an average driver, while talking on a cell phone, has response times of a driver in roughly the 40th percentile, someone who would normally be in the top 20% moves down to around the 70th percentile).

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