Designing Electronic Conferencing that's Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent: Part IV
The foundation of this series captures one of the ironies of our ever-changing and expanding technical world: when it comes to electronic meetings, phone conferences, webinars and webcasts, the need for traditional "soft or people skills" - emotional-interpersonal intelligence, verbal and nonverbal communication/presentation, group dynamics, and leadership-facilitation - is more critical than ever. Increasingly, an organization's capacity to survive and thrive depends on the adaptation of these skillsets across a range of interactive media. The operational and tactical challenge becomes generating something like a parallel or analogous "live" and engaging experience that is "effective, efficient, and emotionally intelligent" in the virtual realms of individual and group learning, sharing, and decision-making.
If you are up for the challenge, here are the two more "low or medium tech and high touch" recommendations, "The Dynamic Dozen + 1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing":
7. Beware the "Monarchical Monologue" - Concisely Pause, Curiously & Carefully Seek Clarity, and Show Concern. For an electronic conferencing participant, presenter, or leader I understand how talking into the "black hole," that is, not really seeing or feeling the live emotional energy or reactions of your audience can be disconcerting. Are you clear, are you connecting with your audience? Are people tuning in or out? When uncertain or feeling anxious some folks become more quiet or hesitant; others, alas, have a greater need to be "in control."
Consider this example: an IT Officer of a bank shared how the CEO becomes a pushy, "little Napoleon" while holding electronic phone conferences. When running a live, fl-2-fl (flesh-to-flesh), in-the-same-room meeting he's still a no-nonsense, "let's get it done" leader; however, the body postures and gestures along with the eyes in the room evoke a degree of, if not empathy, at least executive concern for how the living, breathing, emotionally sentient social group is appraising him. Some form of social approval-social control helps tamp down Gen. B.'s excess testosterone and lurking, aggressive shadow side.
And a recent phone meeting experience revealed that virtual conditions "help" make some presenters more persistent than pushy; that is, not receiving audience cues, and not pausing to solicit feedback, these individuals, becoming increasingly self-absorbed if not more wired, lose sight of the need for participant interaction, relentlessly morphing into an "Energizer Bunny"…they keep talking, and talking, and talking.
So what is an electronic player to do? Try these skillful and savvy communication steps and strategies, applicable in a variety of interactive-communicative settings:
a) Be Concise and Curious. I believe over-talking or rambling on, especially as the communicator is basically conveying the same message over and over or when the presenter selfishly begins a new missive, one after another, without checking in regarding the previous post, is a dis-ease of epidemic proportions. Beware becoming a serial messenger; learn to compartmentalize your bullets and seek feedback. While selective repetition has emphatic value, recognize the potential for diminishing returns when indiscriminately or excessively tedious or talkative. Remember, the old axiom: you have two ears and one mouth. Use proportionately! Perhaps I'm hypersensitive: as a professional speaker I risk losing an audience when my message is not clear, brief, and to the point while still conveying emotional impact; in a "T n T" - Time-Numbers-Technology - driven and distracted world, information shared must have "why now-hands on-how to" relevance. An effective leader-presenter must meaningfully engage and mutually involve "the people in the room," no matter their actual location.
I see two disruptive virtual-multimedia daemons contributing to this communicational excess or impasse: 1) the egotist who believes he is enlightening the world with his never-ending pearls, products, policies, and process, and 2) an insecure communicator struggling with the absence of immediate audience approval or feedback who keeps trying to get the original message across, sometimes through repetition, sometimes by telling yet another story. One suggestion: in the latter scenario, stop trying so hard; better to find the pass in the impasse by asking, "Am I being clear?" Are there any questions or concerns? And don't put the burden on the other with, "Do you understand?" (Of course, a mature message receiver knows to provide some kind of responsive - verbal or nonverbal - feedback during a Message Sent = Message Received or MS=MR interaction.)
b) Pause Purposefully. In our "T n T" world, with time, attention span, and opportunity being in limited supply, communicators often feel they have to cram in the info. Force-feeding people a lengthy, uninterrupted, seemingly endless laundry list or menu of items almost assures that in the verbiage key issues and ideas will be lost (or not properly chewed on and digested). Especially in a virtual meeting or electronic leaning, sharing, and decision-making context, segmenting and chunking your message with a purposeful pause (a quiet yet bold symbolic underline, if you will) attracts attention, makes data more distinctive, and helps a receiver catch the gist before tuning out, fumbling, or forgetting ideas, intentions, and implications.
A communicational analogy might be writing concisely, using short and to the point paragraphs and bullets - while still being thought-provoking - to sustain and focus a reader's attention and also stimulate reflection. Brief breaks in an electronic presentation encourage momentary back and forth, allowing the parties to ponder ideas and posit new possibilities. Now active listening may morph into creative listening and responding.
c) Seek Clarity. Clarification involves asking the other party to provide more information, to elaborate upon a statement, or answer specific questions. A clarification attempt is not an inquisitorial, "WHY did you do that?" It's more recognition that something is not clear; perhaps the listener has some confusion and desires more information, again, for better understanding. And clarification should not be the springboard to a harsh or blaming "You"-message and/or a dismissive judgment, e.g., "You're wrong" or "You don't really believe that, do you!" A much better response is, "I disagree," "I see it differently" or "My data says otherwise."
d) Show Concern. Asking questions that gives the other party a chance to speak his or her mind (and if desired, to also speak from the heart) facilitates cognitive clarity. But it principally seeks emotional connection and demonstrates another "c"-word - concern. Not only do you want to walk in the other's shoes…you also wish to feel their bunions! ;-) Yet showing empathy doesn't mean there isn't room for difference. As I like to say, Acknowledgement does not necessarily mean Agreement. That is, an interactive player can both listen attentively and respectfully and after taking in a communicator's message share his or her differing and even "troubled-with-what-I'm-hearing" perspective.
e) Balance the Real and the Ideal. Of course, in a TNT-driven and distracted society or organizational culture, there are many occasions when timelines and deadlines are critical, and delay leads to unacceptable consequences. Decisions, judgments, and action steps must be made based on the data at hand, despite limitations, information gaps, or uncertain circumstances. Nonetheless, whatever steps can be taken to check out inferences and assumptions, to uncover hidden agendas, to close the gap between what you imagine and what you might in fact discover, along with "clearing the air" between different interests or "silos" and getting real buy-in before launching, take them. Authentic start-up commitment is your most important process!
8. Ask Good Questions (GQs) - being Humble, Curious, Mistaken & appearing Naive. Why do so many have a hard time asking questions, in addition to the often questionable assumption that they already have sufficient information and "the answer"? Some obvious points come to mind: 1) people don't want to be seen as nosey, rude, or presumptuous, maybe even a "know-it-all," 2) they don't want to overstep their boundaries or insinuate themselves in "personal business" thereby "making" others uncomfortable, defensive, or angry (often an erroneous assumption by the "question asking-impaired" or a projection by a person with limited assertiveness skills; actually, a concerned question is more an invitation which may be accepted or turned down), 3) the questioner is worried about getting a "wrong" or unexpected answer, or the other may decline to field the question, which may be perceived as a rebuff or a challenge to the questioner's control, authority, or status, 4) in some contexts raising questions puts into question your blind loyalty; e.g., my "Law of the Loyalty Loop": Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer, 5) there's a fear that asking the wrong question may reveal a lack of knowledge, intellect, savvy, or maturity, or that the questioner will be so judged, 6) in related fashion, some see asking questions as not being decisive or as needing others' approval, and 7) it may open the floodgates; others may now feel free to put the questioner under scrutiny or in the "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure" spotlight.
So What Makes a GQ?
My conception of "good questions" is 180 degrees from winning the "gotcha" game. GQs attempt to close the knowledge gap between what you and others infer from message sent and what the messenger intended, believes, or hopes to achieve. More specifically, when these questions:
1) are asked with humility - "I don't have all the answers" - along with a desire to truly listen and learn from the other party, and to more genuinely understand before confronting and judging,
2) are asked with openness, that is, reflect an interactive process that is not contaminated by hardened assumptions or "personal bias or baggage," and
3) invite personal feedback, that is, help the other feel safe to express his or her mind candidly and even critically: "I really want to know your thoughts and feelings, even hope you'll 'speak the unspeakable'; I value your perspective and position. And I will not lash out or wilt under fire (but won't accept abuse either),"
Then this becomes a process of affirmation for the individual being questioned and the questioner. In addition, your message transcends transmission and enters the realm of building relations. While as we've noted, acknowledgement doesn't mean agreement, (actually, most folks just want a fair hearing), such respectful dialog may even jumpstart the rebuilding of trust between one-time antagonists. No longer does difference and disagreement = disrespect and disloyalty. But remember, especially in a sensory diminished electronic/phone conference, "good questions" may need to be posed frequently, as there are plenty of gaps and barriers to MS=MR.
Four Keys to Becoming a "Good Questioner"
I suppose my going on four decades experience as a therapist, coach, wide-ranging psychological-organizational-critical incident-grief debriefing-OD & team building subject matter consultant, public speaker, workshop leader, group facilitator, including a ten-year run orchestrating an AOL chat group - "Shrink Rap ™ & Group Chat" - and now webinar presenter motivated me to hone an array of questioning (and listening) skills. Perhaps the most important qualities for being an effective and empathic questioner involve three "beings" and one "appearing." Let's examine Four Keys to "Good Questioning" that Cultivates Openness, Understanding, and Trust - being Humble, being Curious, being Mistaken, and appearing Naïve (facilitating, of course, all manner of coming OUT ;-):
a) Being Humble. Perhaps the foundation of good questioning is a sense of humility: the dynamics of people and their past and present life is complex, requiring an appreciation for both a common humanity and an uncommon diversity. We live in a web-wired, "always on/upgrading" bio-psycho-social-cultural-geographical-global world. You must be able to acknowledge not having all the answers and that input and ideas from others are vital for achieving a more valid and valuable understanding of this interactive (and hyperactive) world with its myriad, multifaceted, and meaningful points of view. In fact, this approximates one definition of "respect" - paying close attention to another's lived experience and world view. Alas, respect is often in short supply with so many compelled to rapidly jump from one person-situation task or problem to the next.
As noted previously, especially when using electronic media, you want to close the assumption-knowledge gap between inferred and intended message through messenger-receiver feedback. It may require some time, attention, and "good questions" to discern the goodness of fit between message received and what the messenger overtly proposed and covertly believes, what she expects and hopes to achieve, the tension between her fears and fantasies. (And don't overlook this humbling and paradoxical truth: for many of us, a palpable fear is often at the core of a most intimate, overt or subterranean, fantasy.)
b) Being Curious. Clearly the above-mentioned humility doesn't keep a good questioner in his or her place; to the contrary, it releases and exercises an individual's exploratory senses and muscles. And curiosity isn't all brain; it's also brawn, or at least the backbone to ask tough or sensitive questions with a tactful, patient, yet persistent manner. You are not afraid to discover "the good, the bad, and the ugly" about this individual (or about yourself), and you will work hard to hold quick judgment in abeyance.
Sure you are seeking information for its own enlightening properties. But when it comes to the realm of multimedia and emotional insight-interpersonal intelligence, asking good questions say others are important to get to know, to understand, to connect with, and to learn from. Ultimately, back and forth questioning and sharing helps build empathy, trust, and partnerships.
c) Being Mistaken. While curiosity will not likely kill the chat, or other electronic media, curiosity often means moving out of a comfort zone, both your own as well as stirring or even provoking the object of your curiosity. (I'm using the word "provoking" or "provocative" based on its French derivation, "provocare" - to arouse or awaken energy or curiosity, to stimulate the mind.) Especially when visual/sensory data is reduced, a good questioner must be willing to ask about the apparent or even patently evident, to not assume there is comprehension or agreement when genuine and mutual understanding has not been earned. A listener might even wonder why you don't know "that" answer, or be puzzled or put-out as the piece of information you seek seems so "obvious." However, what seems obvious to one may not be so to another, especially when a questioner is exploring a deeper or more comprehensive person-situation assessment. Better to incur the other party's judgment or incredulity than to bypass the necessary headwork, heart work, and homework.
In addition, when time is a factor in the quantity and quality of engagement, you must have the confidence to ask assumption-based, "big picture" questions even when you know you have not found or put together enough pieces of the puzzle. (You might want to say, "This question may seem out of left field, but I just want to check if there might be a connection between these two events, as unlikely as it may seem.") Remember, your goal is less being right and more to help draw others out, thereby enabling the pieces-parties to connect conceptually-interpersonally.
Anger, Authenticity, and Affirmation
Of course, being an active questioner, no matter how sensitive or tactful, you must be prepared for, if not fully comfortable hearing, "I disagree," "How could you think that?" and, even, "You are wrong!" Again, the risk is often worth the reward: For authentic relationship building, based on my experience in trenches virtual and veridical (veridical: "corresponding to facts; not illusory; real; actual; genuine"; Dictionary.com; I needed to come up with a "v"-word counterpoint to "virtual," when people are in fact physically, "fl-2-fl" - flesh-to-flesh - in the same room), it's vital allowing others to be constructively critical. Acknowledging and mutually engaging with anger expressed in an acceptable manner (often by the receiver not confusing the sender's "attitude" or "face-saving" smoke for "hostile" or "abusive" fire) is a necessary condition for intimate sharing and connection as well as the evolution of trust. [Footnote: A pattern of hostility or abuse must be countered by one or more of the following:
(1) appropriate, preferably fl-2-fl, engagement, and limit-setting, if necessary, with the aid of a conflict mediator,
(2) momentarily withdrawing from the line of fire to lick any wounds and reflect upon resources and strategy, and/or
(3) reporting the problem to appropriate authorities, hopefully ones more responsible and responsive than some recent heads of academic institutions. If not genuinely or adequately responsive, the threat of an outside attorney may get the attention of the authorities. (Of course, taking on a company tends to be fraught with risk and requires the financial means along with courage and stamina.)]
d) Appearing Naive. What I mean by "appearing naive" has less to do with such synonyms as "inexperienced" and "unsophisticated" as it does with guileless, trusting, or especially "artless," which "stresses absence of plan or purpose and suggests a degree of unconcern for or lack of awareness of the reaction produced in others." And while a good questioner usually has some purposeful motives and goals and is sensitive to other's emotions and needs, there still is openness, even innocence, in one's approach to people, problems, and possibilities. You momentarily let go of everyday assumptions or expectations, as if you are on vacation traveling in a foreign land; you have a tabula rasa or "blank slate" and mentally meander with fresh, childlike-eyes and ears open to whatever is encountered along the exploratory path. And an unexpected benefit: people focus on your energy and elan vitale; they frequently want to be plugged into you and your pure power source.
Stay tuned for two more of "The Dynamic Dozen + 1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing."