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Mark Gorkin, LICSWMark Gorkin, LICSW
A Blog about reducing Stress in our lives.

Designing Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent Phone/Web Conferencing: Part V

Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc") Updated: Sep 20th 2012

"The Dynamic Dozen + 1" Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Mastering the Medium, the Message, and the Meeting

3D figure on conference callThe 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":

9. Define and Defuse Sensitive "Hot Buttons" along with the Assumption, Aggression and Anonymity Axis. A hot button is a psychic issue or complex of emotions that gets triggered in reaction to another's communication or behavior. And by definition, since a "hot button" is like a bubbling if not steaming psychic cauldron, it doesn't take much for an overly sensitive or immature ego/button to boil over, to be pushed beyond its pain or shame limit. And a "hot button" is often hard to contain or restrain once turned on; now an "injured" or "insulted" party is primed to self-righteously blow and/or push back. Consider these two hot button scenarios:

A. Personal Stress Doc Hot Button

Personally, one of my "hot buttons" relates to sensitivity to other's emotional pain or, at least, the perception of their pain. (To my chagrin, there's also the possibility of projecting my own pain onto the other party). However, my sensitivity to "another's pain" may also facilitate reactivity to an individual perceived as being a "pain." Consider this smoking trigger: I'm talking with someone making a point or, more likely, trying to explain or justify his or her behavior. I then acknowledge their message, which occurs reflexively through a variety of facial cues, with or without verbal accompaniment. (And, of course, if we are on the phone I may forget that my nonverbal or facial expression is mostly "muted.")

Not picking up on my feedback signals and verbals, perhaps needing to further rationalize their intentions, the other party, from my vantage point, reiterates or unnecessarily elaborates the same point. (This incessant or agitated talking is likely a mask for insecurity, perhaps a guilt barometer, or reveals an anxious need for approval, etc.) Now I'm getting exasperated, running low on empathy...and getting edgy, in all senses of the word. I may cut the person off with a somewhat hastily reassuring "I get it" or "No need to keep repeating" (hopefully, I leave off "yourself"). If necessary, I quickly and perhaps curtly paraphrase the gist of their message.

I don't know if this pattern merely reflects momentary frustration or a composite of Type A tendencies and impatience, attention deficit, and/or a defensive belief that my esteem is being skewered: "Hey, don't you think I'm smart enough to get it the first time." (A still lingering judgmental mother's voice and my own internalized self-doubt may be operating here.) And, of course, potential "hot button" pitfalls are only exacerbated during a visually "cue-less" phone or web conference.

B. Universal Group Dynamic Hot Button. Hot buttons come in a variety of individual and interpersonal shapes, sizes, and settings; they can be quickly triggered especially when a person feels "triangulated." Triangulation often occurs when: 1) Person C. believes an authority figure is unfairly showing favoritism to C.'s colleague, 2) an individual feels an argument is taking on a "two against one" quality, and/or 3) when Person C. feels she's being brought into an argument against her volition, that is, she believes the conflict involves two other colleagues and she wishes to keep her distance. For example, engaged in a heated exchange with Person B., Person A. suddenly says, "Isn't that right, C.?" (Not surprisingly, this dynamic readily evokes echoes of dysfunctional family-parent-sibling-junior high school clique relating.) And when played out during an electronic conference the lack of visual, in-person cues only heightens tension around being unexpectedly placed on the spot and put in the middle. Of course, there is also the pressure of choosing sides or misguided loyalty stress. Clearly, this is a formula for seeing and reacting to ghosts of dysfunction past.

Here are two quick "ghost-busting," boundary setting, and stress-reducing aphorisms for rapid "triangulation prevention or extraction": 1) "A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away…and the hostilities, too" and 2) "Do know your limits and don't limit your 'No's." (More limit setting strategies below.)

Hot Buttons: Morphing Fiction into Friction and Flame Throwing Tongues and Fingers

Let's examine three powerful and pivotal realms where "hot buttons" help generate problematic if not toxic environments and interactions: 1) Information Processing-Interpersonal Interaction Effects, 2) Electronic Wiring and Counterstriking, and 3) Anonymity and Assumptions Interaction Impact on Aggression & Empathy

1) Information Processing-Interpersonal Interaction Effects. Actually, the absence or reduction of clearly discernible facial gestures, emotional and bodily expression, and an inability to look into people's eyes is more than just a data issue. This dynamic is critical for five basic information processing-interpersonal communication reasons:

a) Sensory Process. Often when sensory input is reduced the brain makes inferences and fills in the gaps; our sense organs operate on the basis of "simplified physics," not always providing us with complete or representational information. (It's why we can be readily tricked, for example, by visual, tactile, or auditory illusions, e.g., think of the "phantom limb" syndrome, hearing voices, or the world of painting, video games, or the movies (i.e., the IMAX experience), whereby your brain enables an intense three-dimensional experience to be projected onto a two dimensional canvas or screen.) And when the setting or medium (or message and messenger) in some fashion is data-reception or transmission compromised or challenged, misperceptions and or questionable judgments are likely to happen.

b) Biasing Factors. In addition to the "simplicity" and acuity of the sensory organs, the accuracy or objectivity of perception depends on such factors as an individual's preconceived beliefs, experience, work-life stress state, time pressure, role and responsibility, involvement in life cycle changes or trauma, degree of ego-integrity and sense of control, cognitive and affective openness, flexibility, or constriction, self-confidence, and/or comparative-competitive tendencies or traits, along with biochemical predilections and functioning. And, of course, there are the operational demands of the interpersonal-media context. (As Marshall McLuhan, the "Conceptual Godfather" of our multimedia-communication age, posited over a half century ago, The medium is the message!)

c) Hardening of the Assumptions. Along with the above biasing motivational variables, a lack of cues and clues may well facilitate transforming initial assumptions into premature or rigid evaluations or questionable judgments.

d) The Perceptual PMS & IMS Syndromes. Under conditions of sensory and cognitive deficit, a smoking yet unacknowledged "hot button" can morph into two forms of self-other perceptual distortion - Projected Mirage and Introjected Mirror Symbiosis.

Projected Mirage Symbiosis - an individual's or group's own disturbed, denied, and/or dissociated aspects of self/group identity are unknowingly projected out and are identified in another party with accompanying bias and prejudgments against the other; e.g., when people say a mass murderer is crazy and possessed of the devil while denying the social-cultural madness and destructive potential of allowing individuals to purchase automatic weapons - AK47s - and unlimited ammo on the Internet; alas, for some folks, packing a weapon (or carrying around a good deal of suspicious, angry baggage), consciously or not predisposes these individuals to quickly see/seek situations and justifications for its use

Introjected Mirror Symbiosis - the individual or group unknowingly internalizes and reflects another's overtly or covertly disturbed, denied, and/or dissociated aspects into their sense of self/group identity with accompanying bias and prejudgments against their own self/group image; e.g., when a child or young adult internalizes a parent's denied and unspoken yet verbally and nonverbally viral sense of shame or self-loathing, often with dysfunctional and self-defeating consequences

e) Reduction of Compassion. Conversely, expressive body language and facial gestures heighten a sense of empathy and concern for fellow human beings. Without these cues it is harder to detect and identify with another person's "pain and passion, purpose and power" (or lack thereof). Lacking sufficient sensory data, reading and traversing another's overall mental map, let alone catching sight of their soul, will likely prove quixotic. Too often the other party at the end of the virtual line is less a person and more an anonymous, nameless, recipient or "message target."

2) Electronic Wiring and Counterstriking. Alas, I warned about the effects of Internet anonymity and acting out "hot button" aggression through electronic counterstrikes with the mid-'90s essay, "Is It an Email or E-missile?" The piece was inspired by a DC "think tank" consultant who wasn't thinking. In a heightened emotional state, our hero had mistakenly hit the "Send All" button; now a scathingly "hot" email reply was launched, but not to the intended antagonist across the country. The missile…I mean missive exploded in about a thousand inboxes across the globe. The Chief Executive had the consultant in my office the next day for "Anger Management" sessions!

3) Anonymity and Assumptions Interaction - the Impact on Aggression & Empathy. When dealing with a BM2 - Biased Mind X Blazing Mouth - scenario

Under conditions of anonymity and possibly in reduced sensory environments, there's an inverse relationship between anonymity and aggression (perceiver aggression goes up) and anonymity and empathy (perceiver empathy goes down).

Remember, not just a flashing and fiery mouth is wired to that primitive brain…so too are flame throwing thumbs and fingers. Hmm…maybe some using the "mute" button not just for distraction but for detachment - to short-circuit morphing into a mutant monster - is not such a bad idea. So consider these "Tools and Techniques for Encouraging Civility in an "Anonymity is the Father of (an Impersonal or Passive) Aggression" World:

a) Try Participant Photos. In a relatively small group webinar/meeting with computer capability, though not a video, especially with members who are basic strangers, how about a power point slideshow with photos of attendees? Why not go beyond a professional head shot and use a more casual, natural image. The latter might personalize the setting, help relax participants and, time permitting, could be an "ice breaker" with people talking about the photos. And even head shots might have their use. Many research studies indicate subjects are more civil, self-conscious, or law-abiding when believing human eyes are upon them, even when the eyes simply are on a poster. (Of course, you're not trying to create a "Big Brother" effect.)

b) Grease the Empathy-Inclusion Wheel. Here are two tips for facilitating understanding and inclusion: 1) the left hemispheric, analytical or critical brain typically discerns differences in people, positions, or points of view, and it tends to be more judgmental and exclusionary; the empathic right hemisphere initially embraces and explores commonalities and connections among seemingly discrete elements and parts, that is, it perceives holism, thereby leaning toward inclusion. Strive for yin/yang "unity in diversity/diversity in unity" integration. For example, while multicultural sensitivity is vital in its own right, also recognize that cultural diversity is embedded in and springs from our universal human nature. To build "high tech and high touch," virtual and veridical bridges, lead with your right, then link with the left, and

2) for developing more mutual interaction, as noted in #7 above, ask "good questions" and replace blaming "You" messages" or "acc-you-sations" with humble, open, and inviting communications, e.g., on a responsibility and civility scale, compare the "responsibility-taking" request for feedback, "Am I being clear?" with the subtly demeaning, responsibility shifting, "Do you understand?"

Or consider this modest and persuasive "I" message: "I really don't have all the answers; I'd like to listen to (and learn from) your experience, perspective, etc." And sometimes even that blaming "You" message when presented as a humble or overt question may have affirming and inclusive effect: "Is there any way I can be of help (to you)?" or "What needs to be done to better support your goals or allay your concerns?; "What might it take for you and me to build a partnership?"

c) Recognize the Limits of the Traditional Countdown. The standard advice when you've "had it up to here" with someone and want to verbally explode or simply lash out is, of course, "Count to ten." And while I see some merit, for me the cautionary counsel falls a bit short. In the heat of battle, if thrown off guard, with "hot buttons" starting to steam, I can just imagine myself methodically counting, "1-2-3-4," then suddenly shifting gears, flying through 5 through 9, and at "10" blurting out, "You bozo!" (Although the words of French novelist Andre Gide from his book, The Immoralist, often helps me silently, if not serenely, place "self-righteous" antagonists in more "down to earth" perspective: One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else! (Ouch. See #9 below for other countdown strategies.)

d) Learn to Paraphrase. Paraphrasing involves repeating the other's message in the person's words or in your own distillation, to affirm, "Message Sent is Message Received." Paraphrasing gives both parties a chance to begin to cool or tone down any "hot buttons" reactivity. Also, especially if a sender has conveyed a significant amount of information or complex instructions, it's wise to say, "I know I just said a lot. Would you mind paraphrasing back (or summarizing) what you heard?" Again, the motive is not to catch the other but to have both parties on the same page.

Of course, as a therapist, with couples I've seen how "checking in" can be a tricky proposition. For example, a wife accuses her spouse of frequently jumping to conclusions or erroneously "reading my mind." However, when her hubby finally catches himself and attempts to ask specifically what she expects, her confounding reply: "I shouldn't have to say what I want; after all these years he should know." Communicational Catch-22 anyone?

10. Listen to Feedback; Strategically Assess, Don't Simply Launch or Counterattack. It's hard to listen above your own psychic noise. The problem is that subterranean static interferes with an ability to objectively assess whether the sender's message was a reasonable or acceptable missive or intended as a dismissive aside or demeaning dart. Clearly, message heard may not have been message delivered. And even if the intent was self-centered or hostile, do we have to respond in kind?

Perhaps some variation on the "traditional countdown" might preempt an explosive or dart-like counterstrike. Here are Three Steps for Disarming with a Self-Message Mantra Massage:

a) Count to Ten… Actually, to be less reactive, all you need is some of those well-developed multi-tasking skills - being personally reflective and psychosocially attentive - to transform the old saw into a new aphorism. My poetic mantra: Count to ten and check within. That is, while you are counting (and centering yourself or trying to calm) down, ask one or more of these questions, which may also slow an aggressive launch: "What am I feeling right now?" Am I attributing all my hurt or anger to "the other"; am I about to vent with a blaming "You" message, e.g., "It's (all) your fault"? Is it possible that some of my outrage reveals that my own "hot button" or emotional baggage issues have been pushed, triggered, or excited? Am I confronting my "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure?"

b) When in Doubt… Having the courage to face your shame, anger, angst, and remorse helps defuse the hurt, hostility, and rage that otherwise turns inward and/or gets acted out onto others. And this deeper awareness should help your interaction be less defensive and reactive. Finally, after completing this rapid internal audit, if still confused or frustrated while in the heat of battle, then build upon the mantra: Count to ten and check within…when in doubt, check without!

Alas, my poetic addition may be a tad ambiguous. So let's clarify some possible interpretations of check without:

1) check outside yourself; ask the other to clarify his or her message, e.g., "I'm not clear about what I'm hearing" rather than "You're not making any sense";

2) check or set limits on a hostile communicator, e.g., "I don't mind feedback, even critical feedback, but hostility and condescension are not acceptable! Let's try again"; or if you can't resist a little push back, consider, "How about demonstrating that 'constructive criticism' is not an oxymoron?"

3) check in with an open mind, that is, without bias, making every effort to consciously hold in abeyance or to question your own assumptions and prejudgments; e.g., "I must admit I'm not neutral in this matter, but I will attempt to listen with an open and objective mind."

c) Check Out to Check In. If issues remain troubling upon "checking within and without," remember, you may momentarily retreat yet still be palpably real and paradoxically present. You may check out to check in: "I'm frustrated (or angry) right now, and don't want to put my foot in my mouth (or your butt). I'm not running out; I'm taking a time out. I want to think about this, and I will get back to you first thing in the morning. From my perspective, we are not finished. "Any final thoughts before tomorrow?" Clearly, strategic-reflective retreating is not giving up but stepping back in order to cool down, lick wounds, reevaluate, perhaps talk with a "stress buddy," integrate head and heart, gain new perspective and strategy, and then responsibly reengage. Hopefully, by disarming the need or desire for a reactive strike, perhaps now all parties can build bridges not blow them up or slowly burn them.

Stay tuned for two more of "The Dynamic Dozen + 1 Skills, Structures, and Strategies for Successful Phone/Web Conferencing."

 

Mark Gorkin, LCSW (

Mark Gorkin, the Stress Doc ™, acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker, Webinar Presenter, Retreat Leader and Motivational Humorist, is the author of Practice Safe Stress and The Four Faces of Anger. A former Stress & Violence Prevention consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc leads highly interactive, innovative and inspiring programs for corporations and government agencies, including the US Military, on stress resiliency/burnout prevention through humor, change and conflict management, generational communication, and 3 "R" -- Responsible, Resilient & Risk-Taking -- leadership-partnership team building. Email stressdoc@aol.com for his popular free newsletter & info on speaking programs. Check out his popular website -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). Stress Doc Mantra: "Think out of the box, perform outside the curve (the Bell Curve) and be out-rage-ous!"

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