You may have seen in the news that after the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, election officials have decided to mute mics to allow candidates to talk uninterrupted. It is an excellent reminder of how communication barriers have increased during pandemic times, and how these challenges can be mediated through the use of virtual tools. One of the main reasons this occurs is how power dynamics show up in discussions.
Power dynamics are always at play during meetings, whether in person or virtual. There have been extensive accounts and research on the phenomenon of men interrupting women and dominating conversations during meetings, and similar accounts from people of color. Introverts and neurodiverse individuals may also struggle in meetings to contribute fully if too much emphasis is placed on speaking up to contribute.
It’s vital to understand that due to biases in education and business environments, women, people of color, those who are lgbtqia+, and neurodivergent populations may all have experienced being silenced or being ignored in discussions. In order to change the paradigm and gain their valuable insights, we have to make sure they know they are being heard and provide multiple outlets to speak through. We must consider why certain people seem quiet and unresponsive during meetings and challenge our assumptions and narratives.
In the virtual space, it can be even harder to see and address these dynamics, particularly when we are struggling to facilitate the meeting, stay on time, and negotiate new and ever-changing tech. This is where having a virtual producer can help.
A producer is someone on virtual meetings calls who is tasked with ensuring the flow of a meeting. Though some might think the position is strictly technical support, there are actually many additional benefits to having a virtual producer on the call. They make sure the environment is inclusive, that important information is understood by attendees, and that there is engagement from members of the team. For our work at Integrative Inquiry, we usually have a producer on every call – this way, the facilitator can focus on facilitating, while the producer focuses on making sure everything is understood. Let’s look at how having a producer can avoid some of the pitfalls we see in video meetings.
Interruptions online can happen even more than in the workplace together, because we miss many of the real-time body cues we receive in person. When some people are on video and others are calling in it becomes even more challenging to know when someone wishes to speak, finishes their thought, and who should go next. This can be incredibly frustrating to attendees, particularly because so many meetings, workshops, and presentations go over time. When someone dominates a virtual meeting or cuts into someone’s argument, they actively shorten the rest of the time that can be put to other perspectives. To curtail this, we have to make sure to use our authority as meeting arbiters to moderate the situation so that the burden is not placed on those being interrupted.
How a producer can help: It is essential that you clarify the role and purpose of a producer at the beginning of a meeting. The producer keeps time, so if someone’s responses are starting to eat into the schedule, they can leverage their role as timekeeper in handling it.
· Frameworks or group “norms” are very useful if implemented in the beginning of the meetings that let everyone know that talking too much will be curtailed by the producer for sake of including everyone in conversations – this can be ELMO (Enough, Let’s Move On) or Step up, Step Back.
· Producers can interject to announce to the meeting that they have to move on (sadly) due to time constraints.
· A Producer may also implement a “round robin” where everyone is timed to offer their thoughts for a set number of minutes (without interruption). If it requires a more targeted and subtle approach, producers can send a private message to attendees who are interrupting frequently.
· Producers can encourage others to move their thoughts to the chat to avoid interrupting and to private message insights as needed during the session.
· Finally, encouraging people to reach out to the producer with their feedback can help them to feel heard and will help the producer to change things around for future meetings.
Missing Important Contributions
In our rush to get through a task or topic, someone may either be overlooked for what they want to say, or not feel comfortable to speak up at all. Think of any time you’ve seen an attendee unmute themselves, only to have the presenter never stop talking and change topics, just for the attendee to mute themselves again. We want to make sure that people feel heard and are given the chance to speak if they haven’t spoken much, especially if they have a viewpoint or area of expertise that is either relevant to the topic or unique in the room. It’s important to distinguish that we are talking about attendees who have chosen to speak– don’t volunteer someone to speak up on a meeting just because they are the only representative of a certain experience or background.
How a producer can help: Producers are also there to help make sure all voices are heard.
· If your attendees know how to use a “raise hand function” on the platform you hold your meetings on, the producer can see who is waiting to talk and cut in during the presentation once it looks to be changing to another topic.
· The producer can observe the video channels and participant lists to notice when someone has unmuted their mic and is about to talk or has given another indication they want to contribute.
· Finally, they can encourage voices to contribute in the chat when short on time and add important points into collaborative workspaces if your group is using them (perhaps a blackboard or google doc or miro board) and draw attention to these if the facilitator
· has overlooked them.
Messages Getting Lost
A lot of information is shared in each meeting. Couple that with having phones on hand, tabs to explore on the browser, and whatever chaos may exist in the household, and it becomes all too common that attention wanders and important pieces are missed. This is why it is incredibly important to reinforce vital pieces of the presentation. This includes highlighting main points from a presentation or someone’s great comment and documenting it in the chat so that there is a quick record for others to look back on. It’s like being a scribe or note taker.
The problem may not be that the message was missed, but that it wasn’t understood, which can happen for a few reasons. First, some people learn better by visual cues than auditory ones and vice versa, so if you are sharing information from one way but not another, it may not be picked up well. Second, the language used may be too technical or complicated for everyone to understand – differences in reading level can affect this, as well as fluency in the language. Sometimes conversations reference a common cultural norm for the region, a certain idiom, pop-culture reference, or metaphor to be understood. It can be helpful for those from different cultural backgrounds if those points are repeated in a more direct way.
How a producer can help:
· The simplest thing they can do is to repeat what was said by typing it in the chat box or shared collaboration space. However, a better approach is to restate the message but in a way that ties in a personal experience or example – this not only humanizes and personalizes the message, but can also be better understood by people who may have had trouble with the language or jargon given the first time.
· The producer can also make sure that the attendees take part in a preplanned interactive segment, such as a poll or prompt that asks the participants to share their own personal experience related to the message. This has the added benefit of having the attendees speak to each other in their own words, which might be more easily understood amongst them. Finally, if they are up for it, the producer could create (or at least distribute) a handout towards the end of the meeting that summarizes the important messages.
In case you are wondering, we have dedicated employees who serve as producers alongside our consultants when conducting meetings with clients. However, you can also appoint (an enthusiastic) attendee, or a member of the speaking panel or fellow presenter, to serve as the producer, too. Just make sure that you either confer with them beforehand about your needs, expectations, and how to use the technology.
As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.